While Notre Dame's secondary had its issues against Rice, the Irish front seven was solid — and senior linebacker Joe Schmidt had a lot to do with that success.
Notre Dame accomplished its goal of stopping Rice's ground game, limiting the Owls to an average of 3.5 yards per carry. With loads of underclassmen and first-time starters rotating in and out — Isaac Rochell, Romeo Okwara, Andrew Trumbetti, Grant Blankenship, Jacob Matuska, Daniel Cage, James Onwualu, Greer Martini and Drue Tranquill all played — Schmidt's ability to get his teammates into the right position was vital.
"He's an extension of coach (Brian) VanGorder on the field," coach Brian Kelly said. "He did a great job there."
But it wasn't just Schmidt's defensive quarterbacking ability that was a positive against Rice. The former walk-on led Notre Dame with eight total tackles, getting himself in the right position and delivering rock-solid tackles.
After watching the film of Saturday's game, Kelly came away even more impressed with Schmidt's work.
"He probably was our best player defensively," Kelly said. "He's got some things that he's got to get better at. But I thought as a true first‑time starter, he was the best player for us."
"He made a lot of tackles, got us in the right fronts, was a great communicator for us. I think Joe did a lot of great things out there for us."
Granted, Rice's offense didn't provide the kind of challenge Devin Gardner and Michigan likely will this coming weekend. And it's not Schmidt's job to prevent the handful of coverages blown by Notre Dame's secondary in the absence of Austin Collinsworth, a burden that falls squarely on safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate.
The front seven made mistakes, too — it can't let Gardner break contain as easily as Rice quarterback Driphus Jackson did on a few plays — but given the all inexperienced players, Notre Dame was pleased with its defensive debut under VanGorder.
"We were tenacious today," Schmidt said Saturday. "Obviously there were some mistakes, it wasn't as clean as I'd like it to be, especially from me. But I think that on the whole, we learned we were going to fight as a defense, we learned we were going to handle adversity and we're never going to stop throwing punches. We're going to get in there and have a lot of guys that bow up. We want to win so badly. I think that's something you learned about us today and that's something we want to do."