When Kyle Bernlohr joined the Maryland men's lacrosse team prior to the 2012 season, he and the rest of the freshmen who played defense got an education from then-senior long-stick midfielder Jesse Bernhardt and then-senior short-stick defensive midfielder Landon Carr.
"Those two guys were influential to the younger guys, dictating the aura of Maryland lacrosse and the defense here," said Bernlohr, now a redshirt senior goalkeeper. "Those guys did a great job of leading us, and I think we're just trying to do our best to carry on the torch with that mentality."
Both schools have built their programs on a foundation of playing defense. Since 2006, Maryland has finished the season ranked in the top 10 in Division I in fewest goals allowed per game eight times. Over that same span, the Fighting Irish have been ranked in the top 10 seven times. The next teams with the most appearances in the top 10 are Army and Hofstra with six each.
Defense has been a tradition for the Terps, who since 1946 have had nine defensemen and seven goalies earn national recognition as the country's top players at their respective positions.
"With Maryland, even before [coach John] Tillman, that's where the tough-guy defense always came from," ESPN analyst Paul Carcaterra said. "Back in the day, they had guys like Billy Ralph and Brian Burlace and Dan Radebaugh. They always had that chip on their shoulder, that blue-collar, punch-you-in-the-mouth type of defense."
Tillman said the importance of fielding strong defenses has filtered down from previous generations of coaches and players.
"For us, it's just who we are," he said. "… We've had some great offenses here. It just seems like Maryland's identity — and maybe in a lot of sports — has been just a gritty, hard-nosed approach to things, whether it's ground balls or riding or tough defense, and I think that started a long time ago with the players and coaches that came before us. It's something that I think we take a lot of pride in."
Notre Dame's roots can be traced to coach Kevin Corrigan's arrival in 1988 and has been accentuated by the return of assistant coach/defensive coordinator Gerry Byrne, who has worked with the program from 1989 to 1991 and since 2007.
Corrigan said a defense can be easier to construct than an offense.
"It's easier without traditional talent to be a good defensive team," he said. "If you don't have a lot of talent offensively, it's hard to be a really good offensive team. But if you don't have a lot of talent defensively in terms of guys who are big, strong and fast, you can still be a good defensive team if everybody works really hard and communicates and plays fundamentally sound and sacrifices to play the roles they need to play within the defense."
Notre Dame senior defenseman Matt Landis, who is widely regarded as the best defensive player in the nation, said then-senior defenseman Matt Miller and then-senior long-stick midfielder Tyler Andersen set the example when he was a freshman in 2013.
"You see it on the field when Notre Dame plays defense," Landis said. "It's never one guy being the crux of the team or how if one guy has a good game, the team succeeds. It's all seven guys down there working together, working in unison and being accountable to one another, knowing our language, playing by our rules and not deviating from what we expect them to do. If everyone's playing a certain way and we can count on everyone playing a certain way, then that makes it easier for everyone else."
Carcaterra said the hallmark of the Fighting Irish defense is staying true to its schemes.
"Notre Dame is incredibly consistent in their approach and their schemes," he said. "They don't change whether they're playing Lyle Thompson or Matt Rambo. They have principles, and they don't really do things differently week to week. It's so steady, and that's why I think once defenders understand it, they master it because it doesn't change."
Both defenses emphasize playing fundamental defense that features solid positioning and eschews wild stick-checks that can create opportunities for opponents. Sliding and recovering are central tenets, and players sacrifice individuality for the success of the unit.
There's a mutual respect between the coaches and players.
"They execute what the scheme is extremely well," Tillman said of the Fighting Irish. "They don't give you easy opportunities. So not only do they have the parts but they have a really good system, and they're really schemed well. So I think you have to give them a lot of credit. They're doing some really good things out there."
Said Corrigan: "I see similarities in the fact that they're a well-disciplined team that understands its roles and executes them very well. They're difficult to play against."
But both Bernlohr and Landis agreed that each defense is eager to prove its worth Saturday.
"There's definitely a level of pride that comes into it," Landis said. "Every time we step on the field, we want to be the best."
Said Bernlohr: "As a group, we want to give up fewer goals than them, and we want to give up fewer goals than anybody else in the country. So yeah, there's definitely a competitive edge between defenses."