While the halfway point in Notre Dame’s current 5-2 campaign has passed, this week presents a natural transition into the second phase of their schedule—particularly because they find themselves leaving the state of Indiana for the first time since their bus ride to Ann Arbor to play the Wolverines on Sept. 12.
Despite the Irish’s accommodating style of defense and lack of victories one could categorize as “convincing,” Notre Dame has many reasons to be optimistic that their best football lies ahead.
Through seven games, the Irish are playing a wildly entertaining and consistently gut-wrenching brand of football. Outside of the obvious story line of Jimmy Clausen’s heroics and emergence as a legitimate Heisman candidate (if not the front-runner), there are other, in fact more improbable, symbols of this team that lie beneath the ink of the headline print.
How is Notre Dame 5-2, yet have the nation’s 117th-ranked (out of 120) pass defense?
Easy answer: They completely dominate against the run! Okay, that’s fiction—but they are respectable, by comparison, at No. 50. Oh—well then, they must score 40 points a game with that stud QB they have, right? Not exactly—the Irish are putting up 30 points per game, which is a modest 36th ranking overall.
The Irish have played in a school-record six consecutive games where the outcome has been decided by seven points or fewer.
It didn’t just seem like every contest has been a heart-pounding thriller—it really happened. Conclusion: If your team appears on Notre Dame’s schedule AND represents a BCS conference, the Irish will take you to the wire, and most likely beat you—notable exceptions being Washington State (theoretically) and Navy, an independent and ND’s opponent on Nov. 7.
So if you’re willing to accept the simple premise that ND has established a certain “clutch” mentality which propels them during tense fourth quarter moments, OR if you’re satisfied with the notion that Clausen is the second coming of Joe Montana and has carried this team to four victories on his own, then you’ll need not read much further.
But the likely scenario is that Notre Dame learned valuable lessons from more agonizing losses in 2008, (namely North Carolina, Syracuse, and Pitt), and what was once a very young team is now a discerning, more experienced group—yes, even on the defensive side of the ball.
Has there ever been a Notre Dame team with fewer defensive “playmakers?”
Considering they currently have a lone “difference maker,” that being Sr. safety Kyle McCarthy, I’m fairly confident the answer is NO—(remember Tom Zbikowski played on the lowly 3-9 2007 team, so they get a pass).
Despite “Mr. Everything’s” (McCarthy) strong play in the secondary, the Irish remain extremely vulnerable at the corner positions and show no signs of improving on the 282 yards allowed per game. First-year D-line coach Bryant Young has done a nice job with his front four and turned in a stellar performance against BC’s Montel Harris, who was held to 38 yards a week after blitzing NC St. for 264.
At linebacker, freshman Manti T’eo is becoming a dependable complement to Jr. Brian Smith, who recorded the fate-sealing interception Sat vs. BC. Still, the Irish many times look overmatched even though they’ve only faced two opponents in the top 35 in total offense (USC and Nevada).
It’s the hallmark of a well-coached, cohesive defensive unit—one that bends but doesn’t always break. In fact, when opponents reach the red zone, the Irish defense suddenly becomes very stingy—so much that they rank 10th (yes, TENTH!) in the opponent red zone conversion department, at a 70 percent rate.
Perhaps more revealing is ND’s under-appreciated knack of forcing turnovers, where they currently rank fourth in turnover ratio, 15:5.
“I think the defense is on the rise,” Charlie Weis assessed. “I think that that's the most important thing. I think that we are getting better at certain things every week. A lot of these guys are getting more experienced. Coaches are tweaking some personnel, and I think that our best football is yet to be played.”
Jon Tenuta’s unit may be an oft-disparaged group, but it’s apparent the players and coaches have taken notice of their true merit. Why else would Weis opt to go for it on fourth and goal when trailing by three points in the fourth quarter, at home?
Sure, it suits his hard-headed nature to regard his offense as unstoppable when needing to pick up a single yard, but one would argue he’s softened his stance in recent years.
Instead, he took a calculated gamble that his defense would force a punt and was swiftly rewarded after a futile three-and-out by BC. Three plays later, ND, with the benefit of a short field, would take the lead and not relinquish it.
"This game defined our season," said ND linebacker Brian Smith, whose interception sealed the victory. "After a big loss (to Southern Cal), we were able to come out strong."
Good teams create their own breaks and become opportunistic by habit, eventually defining the personality of the team. Whether or not this is a popular personality among fans and alum alike, it’s time to accept it: The Irish have forged an identity, and they’re not ashamed of where it’s taken them.