It's no surprise that throughout the history of Notre Dame football, some of the mightiest of Irish squads have used defense to serve as the backbone of the team. A great offense can overcome some defensive deficiencies, but a team without an outstanding defense rarely makes a run at a national championship.
Ara Parseghian (1964-74) and Lou Holtz (1986-96) made a living with dominant rushing attacks, which helped keep the defense off the field and usually provided plenty of scoring to offset any defensive shortcomings.
For example, Notre Dame's 1973 defense finished second in the country in total defense, third in rushing defense and third in scoring defense. It also had the benefit of an offensive ground game that averaged a hard-to-fathom 350.2 yards per game! With a ground game like that, the defense spent a good portion of its time on the sideline.
Holtz's 1988 national championship team was third in the country in scoring defense, 10th in rushing defense and 13th in passing defense. But the Irish had a ground game that averaged nearly 260 yards per game with the ability to possess the football with multiple weapons in the rushing attack, led by quarterback Tony Rice.
Thus, the great Notre Dame defenses of 1973 and 1988 rank among the top 10 over the last 50 years, but there are a few others even stingier when you also take into account the offensive complement.
The following is a list of the top 10 Notre Dame defenses over the last 50 years - starting with Parseghian's first season in 1964.
10) 1964: When Parseghian arrived at Notre Dame via Northwestern, he unleashed the passing prowess of John Huarte, who would go on to lead Notre Dame to nine straight victories before a devastating loss at USC. But the defense was just as effective, led by tackle Kevin Hardy, linebacker Jim Carroll (a school-record 140 tackles) and cornerback (then known as a defensive halfback) Tony Carey.
John Ray - who coached the defensive line as well as the linebackers - put together a unit that finished 11th in the country in scoring defense (7.7 ppg.), second in rush defense (68.7 ypg.) and 15th in total defense (206.3). Purdue (15 points), Pittsburgh (15) and USC (20) were the only three teams out of 10 to score in double digits as the Irish registered three shutouts with four other games of seven points or less.
This was the first of four straight top-level defenses under Parseghian/Ray before Ray moved on to become head coach at Kentucky in 1969.
9) 1974: Once Ray left for Kentucky, the Irish did not have a designated defensive coordinator or assistant head coach on the defensive side of the ball for the next eight seasons. But the three constants - defensive line coach Joe Yonto, linebackers coach George Kelly and defensive backs coach Paul Shoults - ran some of the best defenses in Notre Dame history, including this unit that was No. 1 in the country in total defense (195.2 ypg.) and No. 1 in rush defense (102.8).
Defending the athletes at USC became a bit more problematic as the 1970s progressed, and the Trojans' second-half explosion in the Coliseum led to an ugly 55-24 loss. But seven of the 12 opponents were held to seven points or less. Defensive tackles Steve Niehaus and Mike Fanning - who would become the No. 9 overall pick in the NFL draft - and linebacker Greg Collins (144 tackles, breaking Jim Carroll's mark set in '64) were the standouts on this unit.
8) 1970: This team had the great Joe Theismann at the reins of the offense. Theismann shattered John Huarte's school record for passing yardage in a season, throwing for 2,429 yards (to Huarte's 2,062) while tying the mark for touchdown passes (16). But the defense more than held up its end of the bargain, finishing sixth nationally in scoring defense (9.7 ppg.), fifth in total defense (220.7 ypg.) and fifth in rush defense (96.2 ypg.).
Defensive end Walt Patulski and cornerback Clarence Ellis were the standouts on this unit that shut out three opponents (Purdue, Michigan State and LSU), limited three others to just seven points (Missouri, Georgia Tech and Navy), and held all but one of its regular-season opponents to 14 points or less. In the Cotton Bowl against No. 1-ranked Texas, the defense limited the Longhorns to just one touchdown in the 24-11 Irish victory.
7) 1965: Parseghian's second squad finished a disappointing 7-2-1, and by allowing 25 points to the Bob Griese-led Purdue Boilermakers, the Irish had a blemish on their record two weeks into the season. But over the final eight games of the season, Ray's defense allowed just 42 points (5.2 per game), including three shutouts (one of which was a 0-0 tie with Miami).
Junior defensive end Alan Page had emerged as a standout for the Irish while linebacker Jim Lynch (a team-leading 108 tackles) and safety Nick Rassas (six interceptions for 197 yards in returns, the latter of which is still a school record) paced a defense that was fourth in scoring defense (7.3 ppg.), fifth in rush defense (75.4 ypg.) and sixth in total defense (194.4 ypg.).
6) 1988: This was one of the most complete teams in the modern era of Notre Dame football as Lou Holtz led the Irish to a perfect 12-0 mark and its first national championship in 11 seasons. Quarterback Tony Rice orchestrated the offense and defensive coordinator Barry Alvarez pulled together a band of talented and personality-laden players on the other side of the football to form the last Irish team to go unscathed.
The '88 defense allowed just 12.3 points per game, ranked 10th in rush defense (112.4 ypg.) and 13th in total defense (280.3 ypg.). Defensive end Frank Stams and linebacker Michael Stonebreaker emerged as first-team All-Americans with sophomore nose guard Chris Zorich establishing a pattern of dominance in the first of three standout seasons with the Irish. Scoring throughout college football was up since the days of Parseghian, yet the Irish held eight of its 11 regular-season foes to 14 points or less.
5) 2002: The Irish were coming off a tough stretch from the Bob Davie era in which they had allowed 27.6 points per game three years earlier, which was the most since the 2-8 squad in 1956 allowed 28.9 points per game. Progress was made under Davie/defensive coordinator Greg Mattison prior to Tyrone Willingham's arrival with defensive coordinator Kent Baer.
Were it not for Baer's outstanding defense, the Irish never would have won 10 regular-season games since the offense was brutal. Notre Dame ranked 108th in total offense, 91st in scoring and passing offense, and 68th in rushing offense.
No Irish opponent scored more than 24 points in the first 11 games of the year and Baer's unit ranked ninth in scoring defense (16.7 ppg.) - the second best mark over the last 17 seasons - while finishing 10th in rush defense (95.2 ypg.) and 13th in total defense (300.0). Cornerback Shane Walton turned in one of the great single-season performances in Irish history with seven interceptions and first-team All-America notice.
4) 1973: Only two Notre Dame defenses in the last 50 years have held its opponents to less than a touchdown/extra point per game, and this was one of them. The '73 unit - led by linebacker Greg Collins (133) and defensive back Luther Bradley (six interceptions) - surrendered just 6.6 points per game. Ten regular-season opponents scored just 66 points with Air Force's 15 the most.
As mentioned above, the '73 defense had the luxury of being part of a team that averaged a remarkable 350.2 yards rushing per game, which ranked just sixth in the country! But the defense shut out three opponents, held three others to single digits and limited the Crimson Tide to just 317 yards total offense in the 24-23 victory over Alabama for the national championship.
3) 2012: Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's first two defenses at Notre Dame in 2010-11 represented one of just three programs nationally (Alabama and Michigan State the other two) to hold opponents to less than 21 points per game in the two-year span. Diaco took it up several notches in 2012 and helped lead the Irish on a national-championship run, which compensated for Notre Dame's No. 78 scoring offense and woeful red-zone attack.
The 12.7 points per game allowed by Diaco's unit (second nationally) was the best at Notre Dame since the 1988 national championship season. The Irish also were seventh in total defense (305.4 ypg.) and 11th in rush defense (105.7 ypg.). Defensive end Stephon Tuitt recorded a dozen sacks and linebacker Manti Te'o (seven interceptions, 133 tackles) became the most decorated defensive player in college football history on a unit that held all 12 of its regular-season opponents to 20 points or less in regulation, including five foes with single-digit scoring.
2) 1980: Perhaps because the Irish lost to Georgia in the Sugar Bowl as the Bulldogs claimed the national title, this defense doesn't get the credit it deserves in Notre Dame annals. Coordinated by Joe Yonto, this was a monster defense, finishing among the nation's top 10 in all four major categories - fourth in total defense (213.2 ypg.), fifth in scoring defense (10.1 ppg.), and eighth in rush defense (109.8 ypg.) and pass defense (103.0 ypg.).
Linebacker Bob Crable (154 tackles, one year after his 187) was the most well known of the Irish defenders, but the unit was dotted with standouts, including defensive end Scott Zettek, linebacker Mark Zavagnin and a secondary of Stacey Toran, John Krimm, Dave Duerson and Tom Gibbons.
Over the final seven games of the regular season, the Irish allowed just 39 points (5.5 per game), including the memorable 7-0 shutout of Alabama in Birmingham and a legendary goal-line stand with the game on the line. In the national championship game against Georgia, Bulldogs quarterback Buck Belue completed just one pass. Georgia's two "touchdown drives" in the 17-10 Bulldogs victory were one and 22 yards, both capped by Herschel Walker touchdowns.
1) 1966: While Parseghian's national championship squad in his third season at Notre Dame had as much offense as it did defense - the Irish led the nation in scoring at 36.2 points per game - the most dominant defense of the last half-century at Notre Dame was John's Ray's suffocating '66 unit.
Notre Dame allowed 3.8 points per game over the entire 1966 season. All-American defensive linemen Alan Page, Pete Duranko and Kevin Hardy established control up front. Opponents averaged just 187.6 yards total offense per game and 79.3 yards rushing.
Over an incredible seven-week span, the Irish allowed 14 points - total! - with shutouts of Army, North Carolina and No. 10 Oklahoma in consecutive weeks, seven points by Navy, and then two more shutouts of Pittsburgh and Duke. All told, the Irish shut out six opponents and held all 10 foes to 14 points or less.