Oct. 31, 2016

By John Heisler

Notre Dame and Miami faced off in Notre Dame Stadium Saturday-in the fifth of six Irish home games of the 2016 campaign.

Here are some Irish takeaways from their 30-27 comeback win over the Hurricanes:

1.One step at a time for the Irish defense.

The postgame defensive stat sheet Saturday read unlike anything Notre Dame fans have seen for a while. More than simply Drue Tranquill and Nyles Morgan leading the way with nine tackles each, the Irish produced five sacks (after six combined over the first seven games), a dozen tackles for loss (half of those by Jarron Jones, who had two and a half coming in), an interception by Cole Luke and eight pass breakups by six different players (including three by freshman corner Donte Vaughn). The team TFL figure rated as Notre Dame’s best in 11 seasons. Notre Dame made Miami one-dimensional, limiting the Hurricanes to the lowest net rushing figure by an Irish opponent in four years. Miami running back Mark Walton carried 18 times and 11 of those attempts produced two yards or fewer (he was stopped five times for no gain or lost yardage). Over the last four games combined the Irish have allowed 119.2 rushing yards per game (that figure would rank 23rd nationally if played out over all eight Notre Dame games). Irish coach Brian Kelly cited rendering Miami’s run game “ineffective,” creating pass breakups and pressuring the quarterback as three areas where Notre Dame competed impressively Saturday.

2. Special teams need upgraded focus.

It’s not often a team can survive and emerge victorious despite miscues/lost possessions on two punt returns (one turned directly into seven points for Miami), having a punt partially blocked and allowing the opponent to complete a successful onside kick. The Hurricanes pulled off the onside kick just a few moments after a Miami punt bounced off an Irish defender, allowing the ‘Canes to retain possession. That, in effect, meant Miami ran off three drives in a row, keeping the Notre Dame defense on the field for a dozen plays in succession.

3. The Irish made late-game plays.

Twenty straight points by Notre Dame preceded 27 straight by Miami. From there, with 6:49 left in the ballgame, the Irish made most everything go their way. Josh Adams’ 41-yard scoring run, easily the longest ground play of the afternoon by either team, tied the game. Then the Notre Dame defense forced Miami into a three and out (and a net minus-four yards on those three plays) and from there the Irish mostly ran the ball to set themselves up for the winning Justin Yoon field goal. It sounds simple, but that’s how football games that hang in the balance are won.

4. The Irish secondary is growing up.

Notre Dame knew it came into 2016 with some question marks in the defensive backfield. Still, little did Brian Kelly and secondary coach Todd Lyght realize how inexperienced their unit would be. The current three-deep depth chart lists freshmen Julian Love, Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride Jr. at cornerback and rookies Devin Studstill, Jalen Elliott and Spencer Perry at safety-and that’s not likely lost on opposing play-callers. Studstill has made 27 tackles (eighth-best figure on the squad so far in 2016), while Love has added 21 and Vaughn 12. Captain James Onwualu leads the team with five passes broken up and Vaughn is next with four. That group played a key role in keeping Miami from gaining more than 24 yards on any individual play Saturday. Two weeks earlier Stanford managed only one 21-yard pass play and that qualified as the only Cardinal gain longer than 17 yards all night. Those Irish youngsters aren’t as green after two months’ worth of college football games.

5. The looming schedule rates some attention.

Notre Dame’s remaining schedule should ensure that November will be an interesting month for Irish fans. The future Irish schedule rates 12th most difficult nationally-with three of those assignments away from South Bend. The next two outings are essentially neutral site games-Saturday in Jacksonville against a 5-2 Navy team and then a week later in San Antonio versus a 5-3 Army squad. Then Virginia Tech comes to Notre Dame Stadium-and the Hokies currently are ranked 23rd by the Associated Press at 6-2 (their losses to Tennessee and Syracuse) heading into league games against Duke and Georgia Tech. Tech has a solid shot at qualifying for the ACC title game. The Irish finale comes on the road against a USC squad that is 5-3 and has won four in a row.

Notre Dame senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been watching Irish football since he joined the athletics communication staff in 1978.