“Our defense is solid. I don’t think they’re spectacular, but it’s a solid defense that we can win with…We’re going to play, I believe, well enough defensively to win the rest of our games.”
-- Brian Kelly following Notre Dame’s 35-21 loss to Oklahoma to fall to 3-2
Nothing seemed to mesh. The offense was sputtering, particularly in the red zone, and the defense had yet to play stout against a capable offense. An identity on both side of the football was lacking.
With weapons on offense and seven returning starters on defense, it didn’t seem to make sense. Something would have to change, quickly, with Arizona State and USC on tap. If Notre Dame didn’t get it together right now, a five-loss season seemed inevitable.
Three games and three victories later, the Irish - now 6-2 on the season and winners of 26 of their last 32 games - are talking about winning all of their games in the second half of the campaign after limiting the potent Sun Devils attack, and pitching back-to-back second-half shutouts against the Trojans and Air Force.
The Irish have gone from 53rd nationally in scoring defense (23.8 ppg.) to 28th (21.6), despite allowing 34 points to Arizona State (27 by the offense, which was two touchdowns under what the Sun Devils had been averaging).
What prompted Brian Kelly make such a bold statement about his defense at a time when the season seemed to be on the verge of spiraling back to the mediocrity of 2010-11?
“Fundamentals more than anything else,” said Kelly Tuesday as the Irish began preparation for their second straight option-based attack. “We weren’t giving up big plays, except for the two against Oklahoma, which I felt were very correctable mistakes. I thought the fundamentals were in place.
“We were beginning to play the kind of run defense necessary to keep us in every ball game, and we were starting to get some really good play on the edge of our defense, which is so important to everything that we do in the 3-4 defense.”
Statistics are relative when you’re playing an offense as prolific at Arizona State’s, followed by two option-oriented offenses like Air Force and Navy, which throw your rush defense stats out of whack. But by holding its last three opponents to zero points in the third quarter, the defense has, once again, become the backbone of Notre Dame’s recent success.
During Arizona State week, the Irish conducted some physical practices to rectify the tackling issues at key spots along the defense.
“We were talking specifically on the edge of our defense - our corners and our safeties -- we needed to tackle better there,” Kelly said. “We didn’t tackle at the level we thought we should have (early in the season).
“We stayed with our fundamentals, our tackling circuit, Coach (Diaco) calls it our ‘musts’. We were working on some of those things we must be good at and stayed the course with it. There’s probably a little more of an emphasis, if you will, by verbal demand. ‘Hey, we have to do this if we want to continue to be successful.’”
Although the Irish surrendered 21 points in the fourth quarter against Arizona State, one was a defensive touchdown, and through the first three quarters, Notre Dame’s defense allowed just one touchdown.
USC’s only touchdown came late in the first quarter. The Trojans did not score a touchdown over the final 49:03 of the game. Likewise, Air Force’s only touchdown came with 5:05 remaining in the first quarter. The Falcons failed to dent the end zone over the final 50:05.
“There were signs that were pointing in that direction,” said Kelly, referring back to his bold statement about the defense after the loss to Oklahoma. “You’ve got to put it all together, but I was very confident that the markers were there and they were pointing in the right direction.
“Now, they’re putting it together. We’ve had to replace some players along the way, but I think those young guys that have stepped in have continued to progress.”
Even without Sheldon Day, Louis Nix and Jarrett Grace in the lineup, the Irish have continued to progress defensively. The defensive revival coincides with the arrival of freshman outside linebacker Jaylon Smith, who really took off in the Arizona State game and hasn’t slowed down since.
“Coach Diaco does such a great job of working on those fundamental areas,” Kelly said. “Our tackling was good. If you just take those basic tenets of defense, they were in play. We just needed to be more consistent.”