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Irish safeties heal up in time for Luck, Stanford

NANCY ARMOUR
AP National Writer

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) – When Jamoris Slaughter saw fellow Notre Dame safety Zeke Motta having a problem with his helmet during the Michigan State game, he ran onto the field without even bothering to check with the coaching staff.

It might have been the best move all night by any of the defensive backs.

Injuries to Slaughter and backup Dan McCarthy left the Irish with essentially two safeties the last two games, both of which happened to be losses. Slaughter and McCarthy are expected to play this weekend – perfect timing with No. 16 Stanford and Andrew Luck coming to town.

“I feel like if we had all four safeties all healthy throughout these games, I definitely think that would have helped in certain situations,” Slaughter said. “I think for the most part we’re doing what we need to do. There are just certain key plays that we couldn’t make that could change the outcome of the game to where we’d come out on top.”

Notre Dame’s porous defense took much of the blame for last year’s dismal season, giving up almost 400 yards per game. Despite a new coaching staff and a new scheme, there hasn’t been a vast improvement this year. Michigan’s Denard Robinson torched the Irish (1-2) for 502 yards of total offense, including an 87-yard touchdown run that was the longest in Notre Dame Stadium history. Opponents are averaging almost 10 yards per catch.

It’s not a question of effort or desire, coach Brian Kelly said. The Irish simply need to get better.

“They need to play cleaner,” Kelly said. “They’ve got to do some things during the game that puts them in a position to close out games.”

Take Motta, a sophomore who got his first start when Slaughter got hurt. Motta works so hard he’d “give you his arm” if the coaches asked, Kelly said. Yet he got burned for big gains a few times against Michigan State.

“It’s all about attention to detail with Zeke,” Kelly said. “That’s not good enough just to run around and be tough, you’ve got to be in the right position.”

Particularly when facing Luck, probably the best quarterback the Irish will see all year.

Luck has already thrown for 10 touchdowns this year – one more than Notre Dame’s entire team has managed – and his pass efficiency rating of 192.31 is third-best in the country. Despite losing Heisman Trophy runner-up Toby Gerhart, Luck has Stanford (3-0) off to its best start in nine years after piling up 155 points against Sacramento State, UCLA and Wake Forest.

“He is a big, fast, physical player,” Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. “He can run, and he’s got a strong arm and a quick release. He’s one of the most dynamic offensive players in the country, all positions.”

And defending him will take every body the Irish have.

The entire defense remains a work in progress – the Irish rank 102nd in total defense – but it’s hard to gauge its true potential when there’s virtually no depth at safety. Slaughter made only one start last year, but Notre Dame coaches have praised him for both his skills and his leadership ability.

He broke up a pass and had three tackles in the season opener against Purdue, but he also sprained his right ankle.

“When I first hurt it, I didn’t think it was that bad. I thought I had just rolled my ankle,” Slaughter said. “But then they told me I sprained a ligament.”

The sprain was in an area where Slaughter put pressure on it whenever he walked, making it slower to heal. He spent a few days in a walking boot, and is still wearing a brace. He missed the Michigan game, and might not have played at Michigan State had he not taken matters into his own hands when Motta had those troubles with his helmet.

“They were looking for somebody to run out there and I just ran out,” Slaughter said. “They said I didn’t look too bad, but they didn’t want me to irritate (my ankle) so they pulled me out after that one play.”

Slaughter said he’s feeling better each day, and will be ready to go Saturday. Same for McCarthy.

Lucky them.

“(Stanford) can do it all. They’ve got a great quarterback, a lot of capable receivers, running backs, the offensive line is very good,” said Harrison Smith, Notre Dame’s other starting safety. “It’ll be a good challenge for us.”