There is plenty of season to be played, but following their performance against a Miami offense that has been explosive for much of the season, it is clear this Notre Dame group is much improved.
They are so much improved, that they are truly on the verge of being one of the very special units in the nation. Around the nation, defenses all have their hallmarks: for Alabama, it is Nick Saban's genius combined with elite talent; at Michigan State, it is Pat Narduzzi's aggressive attack.
For Notre Dame, what makes this defense special is their talent and the way they work as a unit to cover up their lone weakness: the secondary. That's right, this defense is not perfect; they have a hole in the secondary, but they are a special group.
Up front, this unit is talented. The players fit into the 3-4 system well and Bob Diaco utilizes each of their abilities quite well.
The two-for-one, Dan Fox-Carlo Calabrese pass-run player combo is an acute example of Diaco maximizing his talent. Prince Shembo is growing into a truly dominant force who both makes plays and forces the opposition back inside to his teammates for tackles to be made.
We talk about Notre Dame and their pass rush as a weapon, and rightfully so: they're 20th in the nation in sacks. However, the beauty of the Irish is not in just getting to the quarterback for sacks, but rather in the ability of their defensive line and linebackers to apply pressure and force quarterbacks into uncomfortable situations.
Case in point: Notre Dame no sacks against Miami, but they did have five true quarterback knockdowns and a slew of instances where Stephen Morris was throwing the ball before he wanted to.
Notre Dame did not receive stats on those plays, but, more importantly, the Miami offense was not able to record completions. True, Miami had drops, but Notre Dame was also able to get bad throws out of Morris.
Led by their clear front man, Manti Te'o, this front seven is able to put a little confidence in the back end. Young guys all over the defense are stepping up as the success breeds more success along the defensive side of the ball.
The synergy between the supremely talented front seven and the still developing back four is what makes this Notre Dame defense special. They are not a perfect group, but they have found a way to succeed at a level many people did not expect out of them this season.
This unit is the backbone for this football team, and while we see them aid the secondary through disrupting quarterbacks, they are helping carry the team as the offense still finds its stride.