Well, that was not the defense we expected to see dominate on the opening Saturday of college football. Don’t get me wrong, plenty of people expected Notre Dame’s defense to be good this season, but to thoroughly outplay Michigan, who boasted a unit with almost all future NFL Draft picks?
And not only did Notre Dame outplay Michigan, they posted one of the more suffocating performances of the entire college football weekend, and they did it without much second half help from their offense. Outside of one 41-yard field goal drive in the third quarter, Notre Dame managed just 23 yards on 20 second half plays, getting very little done against a Wolverines defense that found it’s way after the midway point.
But the Irish defense was not deterred, allowing just one touchdown drive and forcing two turnovers, including one that sealed the game for the home team. Michigan’s other scores came on a kickoff return and an 11-play, 31-yard drive that resulted in just a field goal despite beginning in Notre Dame territory.
When you spend all summer getting a site ready to launch and watching all of the gazillion draftable prospects in the SEC while your colleagues focus mainly on the other Power 5 conferences, Notre Dame can slip through the cracks a bit. I had studied and written scouting reports on Te’von Coney and Julian Love, and had watched a couple Jerry Tillery games, but I didn’t expect the other pieces of the Irish defense to shine just as bright on Saturday.
Linebacker Drue Tranquill was outstanding, racking up seven tackles including a huge third down stop with Michigan threatening to mount a scoring drive. His level of effort and physicality are really something else to watch, and he’s not a bad athlete either. Tranquill can rush the passer and cover as well, which could make him a valuable chess piece to NFL teams.
Coney is the biggest name of the Notre Dame linebackers, but he might have been the third best of the group on Saturday. Asmar Bilal was awesome, blowing up one running play that resulted in a short gain for the Wolverines when the back re-routed, and making the tackle-for-loss himself on another play. He also blitzed off the edge at one point, turning the corner with a strong shoulder dip for an almost-sack (he missed the tackle).
Bilal is listed 6-foot-2, 230, and certainly looks the part of a modern NFL linebacker with an explosive trigger and range. I’m excited to watch more of he and Tranquill this week.
The most surprising standout to me was safety Alohi Gilman, who broke up two passes and finished with a tackle-for-loss and seven stops. I was really impressed with how Gilman found and played the ball in the air with his eyes up, rather than just blowing receivers up with big hits. Given the way the NFL game is changing, that will get teams’ attention.
That isn’t to say Gilman won’t hit, as he was a missile coming downhill all game long. A transfer from Navy, Saturday was Gilman’s first start with the Irish, and the 5-foot-10, 200-pound safety put himself squarely on my radar of players to watch moving forward this season.
Defensive end Daelin Hayes only had one tackle, but the box score doesn’t do his performance against the run justice. I’m not sure he’ll be highly coveted due to his lack of athleticism and explosiveness off the edge, but he’s a load to handle when he steps down to take on pullers. He reminds me a little bit of Giants defensive end Avery Moss (who admittedly was just cut after being injured, but is also a terrible fit for James Bettcher’s system).
Irish defensive tackle Jerry Tillery will probably be the team’s highest-drafted player, if he can put together more performances like the one he had Saturday night. The 6-foot-5, 306-pound defender has had a long list of issues since arriving at Notre Dame, but they seem to believe he’s figured things out this year.
Tillery was outstanding in spurts against Michigan, showing improved hand usage and awareness vs the run. His strip-sack to end the game was a little bit of a gift, as junior Khalid Kareem forced Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson to step up in the pocket, giving Tillery a good angle to the signal caller. But Tillery still got off the block and closed the distance in a hurry, two things he struggled with last season. He looks in shape and ready to make an impact this season.
Kareem was a nightmare all game long, registering two sacks, the game-deciding pressure and nine tackles. Just a part-time player a year ago, Kareem managed only three sacks in 2017. He’s on pace to eclipse that total by the end of Notre Dame’s next game.
Kareem didn’t look like the bendiest edge rusher, but hand usage, power and a plan of attack can be one heck of a combination in college. He overwhelmed Michigan’s offensive line all game long. I can’t wait to get eyes on what tape of his is already out there from last season.
Notre Dame’s got some tough tests left this season, including Stanford and Florida State at home, and on the road at Virginia Tech and USC, but Saturday night was a huge step in the right direction. The Fighting Irish might have some issues on offense, but that defense can flat out play. I wasn’t paying attention before the other night, but I am now.