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October 2, 2013
And then there were 10
During the 2012 regular season, the Notre Dame defense allowed just 10 touchdowns. The longest touchdown drive in 12 regular-season games was a six-play, 75-yard by USC in the 12th regular-season game of the year.
None of the other nine touchdown drives were longer than 58 yards. Purdue in week two had a 13-play, 58-yard touchdown drive and Pittsburgh in week nine also went 58 yards on six plays.
It was one of the most remarkable defensive performances in Notre Dame football history.
Expectations for the Notre Dame defense in 2013 were high, even with the loss of veterans Manti Te'o, Kapron Lewis-Moore and Zeke Motta. Danny Spond's career-ending physical ailments as a result of debilitating migraine headaches notched another chink in the armor.
Even with those significant losses, few expected the Irish to drop significantly from their No. 2 national rating in points allowed (12.77), their No. 7 spot in total defense (305.46 ypg.) and their No. 11 rank in rush defense (105.69 ypg.).
The fall has been precipitous.
Through five games, Notre Dame is tied for 53rd in scoring defense, allowing 23.8 points per game, or nearly double last year's mark. The defense allowed as many touchdowns in the first four games of the 2013 as it did over the 12-game regular season in '12.
The Irish also are 47th in total defense (364.0 ypg.) and 48th in rushing defense (133.8 ypg.).
But no statistic is more startling than the number of long scoring drives surrendered by the Irish in five games this year. Temple equaled the number of 75-yard touchdown drives from the previous season in the first half of the first game.
Michigan added four more lengthy touchdown drives of 77, 75, 78 and 75 yards. Purdue had a pair of 75-yarders. Michigan State added another. Oklahoma had two, including an 88-yard drive late in the first half.
In 20 quarters of football so far this season, Notre Dame's defense has allowed 10 - repeat, 10 - touchdown drives of 75 yards or more. Michigan State also had a 15-play, 75-yard field-goal drive and Oklahoma had a nine-play 65-yard field-goal drive.
"It's a different year and it's a different group of guys and different teams that we're playing," said Irish head coach Brian Kelly of his defense's struggle so far in '13.
"I don't think we would settle on one particular area (of blame). It's everything, a combination of all of those things. But we still have a lot more football to play."
The Irish will have to make some strides defensively very quickly with Arizona State up next in this year's Shamrock Series game in Arlington, Texas. The Sun Devils are averaging 44.2 points per game, which ranks 11th nationally, and 505 yards total offense per game, which is 15th across the land.
Junior quarterback Taylor Kelly has thrown for the eighth most yards in the country at 1,370, and that's in four games, not five, as some teams/quarterbacks have played. That's an average of 342.5 yards per game with 11 touchdown passes and four interceptions.
Notre Dame's Kelly remains optimistic about his defensive unit that held Oklahoma to just one touchdown in three trips to the red zone. The Irish also came up with four 3rd- or 4th-and-short stops last Saturday.
"I think our defense is solid," said Kelly at his weekly press conference Tuesday. "I don't think they're spectacular, but I think it's a solid defense that we can win with. We uncharacteristically gave up two big plays that we're not accustomed to giving up."
Kelly believes one of the keys to a better defense is a more balanced offense.
"We're going to play well enough defensively, I believe, to win the rest of our games," Kelly said. "We've got to get ourselves where we have enough balance offensively to run the ball and throw the ball effectively.
"Our margin isn't great. We can't turn the ball over. If we turn it over and give points up, we're going to be fighting against it."
The fight continues in AT&T Stadium Saturday night.
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