Judging the defense this year is an exercise in cognitive dissonance. When you watch the games in person, you mostly just remember the big plays: Manningham torching an Irish secondary, Lymon breaking tackles on a 88-yard touchdown, Caulcrick busting loose through the middle of the line. You stomp your feet on every converted third down, yell and scream when a defender whiffs on another tackle, and curse the Irish D when the other team scores yet another seemingly easy touchdown. Goddam Minter/Zibby/Nedu/[other defensive scapegoat]!
So you drive home angry (despite the win) and look at the box score, and do a double-take. We only gave up 244 yards to North Carolina? Only 243 yards to UCLA? That can't be. That's impossible!
Yet it's true. Despite the burnt toast, overall, the stats aren't terrible. Total defense is actually improved from last year, statistically speaking, anyway: we're 53rd (321 ypg) in total defense, as opposed to 75th (397 ypg) last year. Scoring defense is slightly better as well (22.1 ppg, versus 24.5 a year ago). Despite getting torched by some long plays (like that 72-yard TD by North Carolina) we are nevertheless, squarely mediocre. Not gawd-awful. Not one of the worst defenses in the country. Just average.
The totals seem innocuous enough, but how we got there is the real story. (I was reminded of an old Spike Jonze short film, How They Get There, where a pair of shoes end up in a gutter by a very circuitous route.) Yep, it's those big, explosive plays. The car crashes. Those are what gall you. They gall the Irish, too.
"You can't sit there and say, 'Hey, we had 41 good plays but we had eight bad ones.' Just like on the kickoff coverage you can't sit there and say, 'Hey, we were great on eight of them but we were terrible on one of them. You can't do that,'' Weis said Sunday. "For you to have to have a good game, those have to be at a minimum. Because if not, you really haven't achieved your goals.''According to cfbstats, we've given up 47 runs of 10+ yards. That seems like a lot. In '05, we gave up 45 10+ runs the whole year. (As a point of comparison, how are other teams in the top 10 doing? Ohio State has given up 37 runs of 10+ yards. Michigan, only 20. Southern Cal: 22.) Passing-wise, we've given up 37 15+ passes, which also seems like a lot until you realize that last year we gave up 77 15+ passes, and thus we're tracking a little better in that department.
The Irish players saw it the same way.
"It's the same old thing each week, or at least a lot lately it seems like, some inconsistent play here and there, which we've got to stop doing,'' defensive tackle Trevor Laws said. "But I felt like, overall we played solid out there.''
Safety Tom Zbikowski agreed.
"We feel that we're a strong defense, but we've just given up some big plays that are unfortunate and at bad times and obviously aren't helping out our stats when you look at yards per pass or yards given up,'' safety Tom Zbikowski said. "But I think when you look at us on film, I think you'll see a strong defense.''
It's the ones that go for scores that really stick in your craw. Here's a list of all the offensive touchdowns scored against ND this year, and how long they were.
That's an average of 26.3 yards per scoring play. Yikes.
GT Johnson pass 4 PSU Butler pass 2 PSU Clark run 5 UM Manningham pass 69 UM Hart run 2 UM Manningham pass 20 UM Manningham pass 22 MSU Reed pass 34 MSU Ringer pass 26 MSU Reed pass 15 MSU Caulcrick run 30 PU Sheets run 7 PU Lymon pass 88 PU Lymon pass 9 SU Lynn pass 57 UCLA Everett pass 54 UCLA Snead pass 36 Navy Kaipo run 1 Navy Kaipo run 1 UNC Holley pass 12 UNC Nicks pass 13 UNC Nicks pass 72
Why are we giving them up? Like a masochist, I went back and looked at every touchdown play over 20 yards that we've given up to date.
Manningham's first TD. We blitz two guys and leave Wooden on an island with Manningham. Mario simply beats him on an out-and-up move, turning Ambrose around and sprinting past him. Easy pitch and catch. (Embarrassingly easy.) 69-yard TD.
Manningham par deux. 2nd & 8 at the ND 20, we blitz two linebackers (picked up well by Michigan) and put Lambert on Manningham straight up, who beats him on the fade to the right corner. Great pass by Henne.
Manningham par trois. 3rd & 10 at the ND 22. Play-action, Lambert on Manningham on the left with safety help from Zibby. No blitz this time. Manningham beats Lambert to the opposite corner on the fade and Henne drops it in. Neither defensive back is close enough to make a play.
Kerry Reed opens the scoring at MSU. 1st & 10 at the ND 35, Stanton in shotgun with an empty backfield. ND rushes four. Reed lines up slot right and finds a soft spot in the zone between three white jerseys. Crum stays with him for a few steps and seems like he's expecting to pass him off, but Zibby and Nedu aren't there.
Caulcrick up the gut. 1st & 10 at the ND 30, driving rain in the 3rd quarter. The Spartans run a counter to Caulcrick who jukes left, then dives up the middle. Zibby & Travis bite on the outside motion and end up out of position for the cutback. Then the massive running back breaks two weak arm tackles from Richardson and Walls.
Lymon breaks loose. 2nd & 10 at Purdue's own 12, about a minute left in the half. Purdue fakes the inside handoff and Selwyn Lymon breaks down the field. He's not exactly open, but Painter chucks it anyway. Walls tries to swat it and falls down, and Zibby simply bounces off of him. Lymon splits them both and races to a 88-yard TD.
Stanford on a trick play. They pitch it to the running back Kimble, who throws a pass to a wide open Lynn. Both Richardson and Ndukwe bite really hard on the run. Keep in mind Michigan State also burned us on a similar trick play for a TD earlier in the year.
UCLA splits the middle. It's 3rd & 10 at the UCLA 46. The Bruins line up two tight ends and two receivers to the right. There seems to be some pre-snap confusion on the part of the defense, and UCLA snaps the ball as we're still milling around. We rush 4 and Abiamiri nearly sacks Cowan, who steps up in the pocket and hits Everett over the middle on a route similar to the one that MSU exploited for their first TD (above). Richardson is a step behind and you can see Nedu, who has deep responsibility, stumble a bit.
Snead stumbles in. Later in the same quarter, it's 3rd & 7 at the ND 36. We run a zone blitz, sending a linebacker but dropping off a DL. Cowan hits the TE Snead on the same damned route down the middle. This time we at least have both safeties in position to make the tackle, but Herring and Ndukwe crunch Snead at the same time and bounce off, leaving him standing and able to stumble into the end zone. So frustrating.
Carolina gets loose. 1st & 10 at the UNC 28, third quarter. The Heels line up with two backs and two wide left. We put six men on the line, including Ndukwe on the edge. We bring the house and nearly get Dailey, who has to scramble out to his left. Lambert, covering Nicks, was trying to bump and run but literally gets knocked over, and recovers too late. Nicks is open down the left sideline, and Dailey just heaves it. There's no one over the top for safety help.
The Culprits, Revealed:
1. Poor zone coverage schemes, especially that seam down the middle. Poor positioning by safeties in general (Manningham, Kerry Reed, both UCLA TDs).
2. Inopportune blitzing which a) doesn't result in a sack or disruption of the pass and b) leaves us short in the backfield (Manningham, UNC).
3. Weak arm tackling (Caulcrick, Lymon).
4. Susceptibility to play-action/misdirection/trick plays (Caulcrick, Stanford).
5. Superior players making good plays (Manningham).