Why Notre Dame’s Defensive Mastery Matters More Than Ever

PHOTO BY JOHN STROHSACKER

Short-stick defensive midfielder Drew Schantz is part of what should be another strong rope unit for the Irish.


US Lacrosse Magazine released the Nike/US Lacrosse Division I Men’s Preseason Top 20 on Jan. 2. Team-by-team previews will be unveiled on uslaxmagazine.com through the end of the month and will also appear as part of the magazine’s NCAA preview edition in February.

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No. 8 Notre Dame

2018 Record: 9-6 (1-3 ACC)
Coach: Kevin Corrigan (31st year)
All-Time Record: 349-175
NCAA Appearances: 23
Final Fours: 5
Championships: 0

Everyone with an informed opinion on the matter agrees that, once the NCAA lacrosse rules committee finally agreed to add an on-possession shot clock to the men’s game, for better or worse the sport would be fundamentally changed.

One common school of thought is how much the value of good defense will be amplified, while the value of a dominant faceoff man/unit will be tempered. With each change of possession, offenses will have 80 seconds (the first 20 seconds to clear the ball out of its defensive end of the field) to put a shot on goal.

With the shot clock, the advantage would seem to be with defenses, which should be able to force more changes of possession by holding up during that minute or so while defending the goal.

The advantage would appear to be with a team built like Notre Dame.

The Fighting Irish long have been defined by one of the more consistently stingy defenses in Division I. Notre Dame just graduated long-stick midfielder John Sexton, who finished a brilliant career by being named the USILA’s Defensive Player of the Year.

Sexton is the fourth Irish player to earn one of the game’s top awards. The others are two-time Defensive Player of the Year Matt Landis and Goalies of the Year Joey Kemp and John Kemp.

“I don’t argue with that premise [regarding the Irish defensive advantage], but there are a lot of ways to look at the effects of the rules changes,” Corrigan said. “It’s been a fun fall having to think about things differently and wonder what those effects will be.

“We have to figure out what our strengths are defensively,” he added. “Do we play more two-way middies to help us play faster in transition? Or do we go with more one-way middies, because we have a lot of good short-sticks [defensive midfielders]? I’m looking for less platooning and more aggressive play with two-way guys in the middle of the field.

“One way or the other, we’ve always wanted to make ourselves hard to play against [defensively].”

The Irish return starters across their close defense in senior Hugh Crance, junior Jack Kielty and sophomore Arden Cohen. They will be supported by a deep bench, including senior Charlie Trense and junior Matt Blommer. Junior long-stick midfielder Eric Restic and freshman long pole Jose Boyer and senior short-stick defensive midfielder Drew Schantz lead what should be another solid rope unit.

Sophomore Matt Schmidt (8.35 GAA) played all but 58 minutes in the goal a year ago.






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The Case For Notre Dame

The Irish have not been to the NCAA tournament championship weekend since 2015, but they have been to the past 13 postseasons under Corrigan, and have reached the semifinals four times dating to 2010 – their first of two losses to Duke in the title game, with the other Memorial Day stumble coming in 2014.

Notre Dame is coming off back-to-back 9-6 seasons, and last year’s young squad lacked consistency at both ends, until the Irish scored 31 goals to win the ACC tournament with impressive victories over Duke and Virginia and dropped 17 more on Army, before bowing out in the NCAA first round to Denver, 9-7.

It’s about time for Notre Dame to put together another great run.

The Case Against Notre Dame

Corrigan has winced at the perception that the Irish “play too slow.” He blames opponents who have forced the Notre Dame defense to play long stretches – a tactic Corrigan said has compelled Notre Dame to be very judicious with their shot selection. The shot clock, he said, will cure that problem.

“We’ve almost had to hold the ball to have a semblance of offensive rhythm,” he said. “To not have to coach against that situation makes me very happy.”

Now it’s up to the Irish to use their extra possessions to add much to their 33-shot average in 2018, to take full advantage of playmakers and finishers such as Bryan Costabile and Brendan Gleason, to surpass 10 goals regularly, to be less predictable. Losing Ryder Garnsey, ruled academically ineligible in December, did not help in this regard.

Path to the Playoffs

Ever since they joined the Atlantic Coast Conference, Notre Dame has played one of the toughest schedules in Division I. Its annual nonconference tilts with Denver and Ohio State will build its Selection Sunday resume and just being in the ACC adds the RPI weight the whole five-team league enjoys, as long as everyone maintains a non-losing record by early May. That is rarely a problem in South Bend. With Virginia creeping toward the middle of the pack and North Carolina looking to rebound after its first NCAA tournament miss in a decade, it looks like Duke, Notre Dame and Syracuse will battle for league supremacy and a couple of top four seeds in the NCAAs.

Players To Watch

Matt Schmidt, G, So.
8.35 GAA, 47.5 SV%

Schmidt stepped in to replace stalwart Shane Doss in the cage in 2018 and came out of his freshman baptism in good shape with a 9-5 record and seven saves per game. He won a spirited competition in the fall with junior John Zullo and senior Michael Marchese, and all three keepers are profiting from the return of goalie coach Kevin Anderson.

Charles Leonard, FO, Jr.
15-for-38, 39.5%

The new shot clock rules should lessen the impact of the FOGO, but they won’t eliminate its importance. Leonard takes over for former workhorse John Travisano. “Charlie was our only healthy faceoff guy for the entire fall,” Corrigan said. “He did a tremendous job preparing, without having someone to compete with. We need healthy bodies back at that spot.”

National Rankings

Category

Rank

Value

Offense 40th 10.07 GPG
Defense 9th 8.60 GAA
Faceoffs 25th 52.6 FO%
Ground Balls 36th 27.27/game
Caused TO 52nd 5.73/game
Shooting 28th 30.8%
Man-Up 38th 31.5%
Man-Down 51st 61.1%
Assists 53rd 4.73/game
Turnovers 46th 13.67/game
Clearing 4th 91.9%

Power Ratings (Scale of 1-5)

Offense
⭐⭐

Defense
⭐⭐⭐⭐

Goalkeeping
⭐⭐⭐⭐

Faceoff
⭐⭐⭐

9

Number of games in which Notre Dame failed to score more than 10 goals. The Irish went 4-5 in those contests, including a 10-6 defeat by Syracuse and an 8-2 drubbing by Duke – losses clearly affected by injuries to Garnsey and midfielder Brendan Gleason.

5-Year Trend
Man-Up Offense

Year

Rank

Pct

2014 4th 52.5
2015 4th 52.4
2016 14th 44.7
2017 59th 28.3
2018 38th 31.5

Coach Confidential
Kevin Corrigan

“We have to find the most effective ways for our athleticism to impact the game. The game is going to lend itself to more athletic plays in the middle of the field, and we’ve got to figure out the pieces to that puzzle. How do you think you can steal some goals? Riding? Clearing and playing 5-on-5 aggressively? There are a lot of ways to skin this cat.”

Enemy Lines

“What a great job they do defensively. They’re tough and they’re hard to figure out and the kids believe in their system. Offensively, they let it fly at the end of the year. If they continue to do that, and they get a combination of really good defense and letting it fly on offense, they’re going to be a handful. They have a lot of great players back.”

“Notre Dame is Notre Dame. The rules help them because they’re a great defensive team and they always have been. The question with them is how they play. I think they felt they had a little bit of success late last year and they’ll probably go in the direction they played in the ACC tournament.”

“Why not? They never seem to have enough talent on offense, but always find themselves in this position. Their staff works so well together and they get the most out of their teams. Not sure they are elite, but close.”

“They have a great defensive unit with all their starters returning.”

“Shot clock makes their defense even better.”

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