Notre Dame fans aren't likely to forget No. 98 any time soon. Usually strapped on the back of a defensive lineman, this time No. 98—now being worn by Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner—shredded the thought-to-be-mighty Irish defense, throwing for four touchdowns and 294 yards, while also leading the Wolverines in rushing yards as Michigan piled 41 points on Notre Dame.
Gardner did to the Irish what no offense other than Alabama's was able to do last year, and the resulting hangover lasted the month of September. Sure, the Irish had some nice performances (holding Michigan State to 13 points, for one), but a season after Notre Dame finished as one of the top two scoring defense's in the country, Bob Diaco's defense was giving up points in bulk.
But back-to-back 10-point outings and second-half shutouts have the Irish defensive feeling like their mojo has returned. Fueled by a healthy Stephon Tuitt and outside linebacker Prince Shembo coming out of early season hibernation, the Irish defense has climbed from a middle of the pack group statistically to a unit that's now in the top 30, not bad considering the Irish's slow start.
But a skeptic would question this defensive revival.
Is it a matter of the Irish getting better or the competition getting worse? A young Air Force team was down to its fourth quarterback. Shutting down USC's offense isn't all that impressive (just ask Washington State), especially without Marqise Lee. Texas showed us that Oklahoma's offense isn't elite, while Mark Dantonio's Spartans made offensive scoring look like an impossibility for much of the season's first month.
That same skeptic can argue that Notre Dame's best defensive performance of the year was in a 37-34 shootout victory over Arizona State, where the Sun Devils threw for 362 yards, scored 27 offensive points and a final 75-yard touchdown drive in less than a minute.
With the Irish defense looking for a litmus test, they'll face one of their true benchmark games when Navy comes to town this weekend. After a 43-year run where Notre Dame made the Midshipmen look more like the Washington Generals, Navy struck back, winning three of four from 2007-11. Perhaps just as painful as the losses were the veritable pantsings that Navy's triple-option attack gave Notre Dame's defensive brain trust.
For those needing a trip down Memory Lane, let's pick some scabs:
The 1-7 Irish traded touchdowns for much of the afternoon with Paul Johnson's squad, needing a Travis Thomas touchdown with just over three minutes to go to force overtime tied at 28. But Evan Sharpley and the Irish offense weren't able to match Navy's two perfect drives in overtime, and Travis Thomas was stopped short on a two-point conversion run as the Midshipmen won for the first time since 1963.
(If the overtime stop doesn't jog your memory from this game, watching linebacker Ram Vela go airborne to stop an Irish 4th down attempt late in the game will. Charlie Weis passed up a game-winning field-goal attempt from 42 yards to run this play.)
A season after nearly blowing a 20-point lead with 100 seconds to go, Jimmy Clausen and the haunted red zone turned a game where Clausen threw for 452 yards and the Irish never punting into a shocking 23-21 loss. The Irish quarterback fumbled inside the 1-yard line, threw an interception off of Michael Floyd's back inside the 5-yard line and took two killer sacks late in the game that resulted in a safety that was the difference.
But after the game, it was co-defensive coordinator Corwin Brown's reaction to some postgame comments by Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo that stole the headlines, as well as made public some gripes about illegal cut blocks that had the Irish seething.
New coaching staff, same ugly results against the Navy triple-option. Before Bob Diaco was a Broyles Award winner for best assistant coach in college football, he was a coordinator who many Irish fans thought was out-classed when it came to coaching against the option.
Dayne Crist threw two ugly interceptions and fullback Alexander Teich ran for 210 yards as Notre Dame failed to properly diagnose a variation to the Midshipmen attack, and Diaco and the Irish had no answer for Navy's .
That isn’t something new that the Navy coaches saved for Notre Dame. That is Navy Offense 101. It’s the absolute basics; the bread and butter play run in every game out of every formation. If Diaco and Kelly hadn’t seen it before, then I have no idea what film they’ve been watching, or if they even watched any at all.
But fast-forward three seasons, and Notre Dame now is back in control of a rivalry that had looked to be slipping from its hands. In 2011, the Irish held Navy to 2.5 yards per carry while running for seven touchdowns of their own in a 56-14 victory. Last season, the Irish opened the season in Ireland by hanging 50 points on the Midshipmen, again shutting down the Navy offense and coasting to an easy 50-10 victory.
Still, Brian Kelly hasn't forgotten the struggles of the past. And with Keenan Reynolds running the offense for the second straight season, he knows that Navy's bedrock will challenge an Irish defense that's likely without Louis Nix for a second straight week and also adds outside linebacker Ishaq Williams to its growing MASH unit.
"Navy runs the triple option better than anybody in the country," Kelly said Tuesday during his weekly press conference. "I mean, it's what they do. And they have so many variations off of it, just little variations that make a huge difference."
Those little variations have been the biggest difference this season for the Irish, as the box scores have shown too often. But another dominant performance against Navy would keep the momentum going, with the defense peaking at the perfect time.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.