NOTRE DAME — Ethan Johnson has no problem admitting he still gets butterflies when he takes the field.
The 6-foot-4, 300-pound senior defensive end said a rookie-like enthusiasm is crucial in shutting down opposing offenses.
“Have this excitement about you like it’s your first time playing,” he said. “I still play like that, I still get butterflies. I love to play. I’m never going to lose that.”
He would know a thing or two about what works on defense. Since giving up a jaw-dropping 28 points in the fourth quarter against Michigan, the Irish defense has allowed only two touchdowns in two games. It ranks in the top 25 among 120 FCS teams in sacks and rushing defense.
But while the defense is forcing its share of punts, it’s not forcing many turnovers.
Notre Dame has four interceptions and one recovered fumble on the year, which, with its 15 turnovers on the other side of the ball, places the Irish dead-last in turnover margin.
It’s a defensive statistic that doesn’t seem to bother head coach Brian Kelly as long as the tradeoff is continuing to stop big plays.
“We really have not let up any big play runs and if you are going to gamble a little bit and look to get that take away, there’s a chance that you give up some more big plays,” he said. “We are philosophically more in line with wanting to be gap sound and disciplined against the run game. I mean, we are doing pretty good this year relative to teams in running the football. I’m more interested in that right now than gambling on defense to get some more turnovers.”
Kelly’s players agree, saying turnovers are always welcome, but solid defense is more important.
“The satisfaction for me comes from them not scoring,” linebacker Manti Te’o said. “That’s what satisfies me.”
It’s hard to argue against a working formula, but Te’o and five-year veteran safety Harrison Smith said forcing turnovers doesn’t have to be a gamble, and it’s something they’ve been working on in practice.
“When the opportunities arise, we have to capitalize on them instead of letting the ball fall incomplete not getting our head around for the ball,” Smith said.
“It’s just fundamentally breaking on the ball, using your eyes, using your angles,” Te’o added.
The Irish have a chance to elevate their defensive performance Saturday night against Purdue, a team that has only turned the ball over three times this season.
Johnson maintains that there’s no one way to take the ball away, something the coaching staff has emphasized since it’s been there.
“I think there’s a lot of ways to force turnovers,” he said. “As far as tackling, you got to get the guy on the ground first. Interceptions, you attack the ball like you would a wide receiver. On the defensive line, get your hands up and it’s a three-step drop.”
Sounds simple when you say it.
“At the end of the day,” he said. “You just attack the ball.”