We've talked plenty about Notre Dame football up to this point. The defensive front seven is among the nation's best. Everett Golson, if he can make things work, gives the offense a higher ceiling than either Tommy Rees or Andrew Hendrix. Brian Kelly has the aura of the third-year Notre Dame head coach.
Yes, a lot's been said. All couched with the fact that it is still early and there is plenty of season left to play.
Well, now, as the Irish head into the halfway point—Game 6 against Stanford—it is safe to say that the Fighting Irish are emerging as a threat to play in a BCS Championship. "Emerging" is the key word here; it is not the same as "legitimate" or "probable." Emerging is exactly that—rising, nascent, budding.
The emergence is tied to defense, but in all it is a beautiful exercise in molding sound schematic play with elite talent to get both intangible and tangible results.
Playing a 3-4 is something many teams do. Playing a 3-4 well and succeeding in the scheme is a threshold that the bulk of collegiate football teams never reach. Of all the teams working with a 3-4 defense, very few play it well. Notre Dame is one of these teams.
By and large, the main reason for the success is the personnel. The 3-4 is not an easy scheme. It takes big men up front, led by the likes of Louis Nix III. Nix is growing into a bona fide nose tackle prospect for the NFL, and that's a heck of a way to start your defense.
To either side of Nix, you'll find guys like Kapron Lewis-Moore, Stephon Tuitt and Sheldon Day getting snaps. Lewis-Moore is a steady player who has experience on his side. He'll likely find a home in the NFL for a while.
Tuitt and Day are more than looking to find an NFL home. They are pushing to be elite ballplayers both at the collegiate level and as professionals. The pair, playing at a position that doesn't lend itself to big stats, are putting up quality numbers in tackles for loss and sacks. Watching them operate is truly a treat, a blend of size, power and fluidity that is quite rare.
Here we see Tuitt against Michigan, lined up as the left defensive end.
Tuitt gets upfield as the play-action running back tries to cut-block him. You can also see Prince Shembo go up and under Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan.
Here, Tuitt and Shembo are closing on Denard Robinson.
As we've seen more than once, Robinson is able to slip the first man in pursuit.
But he cannot get away from Shembo.
And then the big boy, Louis Nix III, with his push up the middle, joins the party to close down the deal.
It seems simple, but having the athleticism and the ability to make plays like this happen regularly is a large part of why the Irish are seeing this defensive resurgence.
In watching the tape, we can see just how athletic and talented this front seven is. Those skills have also translated into numbers. Numbers like the Fighting Irish being in the top 22 in every major defensive category. Bob Diaco's unit is 17th in rushing defense, 22nd in pass defense, 13th in total defense, second in scoring defense and 10th in passing efficiency.
Whether you're a film guy like myself or a stat guy, the proof of Notre Dame's success is in your preferred evaluation method.
However, there is an element to "emerging" that must be mentioned—the part about not quite being there yet. Notre Dame still has plenty to prove with respect to its offense. Against Miami, the Irish looked to be in sync for the first time all season, but they face much stiffer defensive tests going forward.
If Notre Dame's offense can get through the next two weeks (Stanford and BYU) while maintaining consistency on offense, perhaps we can start to debate removing "emerging" as a caveat.
Seven games left, and there is stiff competition to be played this season. Step one is beating Stanford, a team that wants to match the Irish's physicality with a toughness of its own. Being an emerging threat is one thing, as there is room for error, but teams that are legitimate threats take care of business.
We'll see how the Fighting Irish handle themselves.