In fact, ironically, the three teams that beat Notre Dame last year, MSU, USC, and Ohio State, threw for well over 300-yards in those games, and Stanford, the team next closest to beating them, also chucked up 347 passing yards. Clearly, moving the ball via the air against the Irish was their achilles heel.
However, also from a numbers perspective, they did improve their numbers from 2004 when they got toasted on the third tier of the defense. In 2004, they allowed 281.3 yards per game in the air with a 58.2 completion percentage. Last year, they gave up 265 yards, but on just a 53.2 completion percentage.
This year will all four starters back, the secondary play had been improved, giving up just 140 yards passing to Georgia Tech, and 225-yards to Penn State. UM only had 220-yards passing, but three of those passes went for touchdowns as they could not cover Mario Manningham.
The secondary is lead by strong safety Tom Zbikowski, perhaps one of the most colorful characters in college football. Zibkowski sports a mohawk haircut, and during the summer, won a junior heavyweight boxing match by knocking out his opponent in 49 seconds.
He also has blazing 4.3 speed, and has a dual role as the teams explosive punt returner. He also set an NCAA record with four returns for touchdown, on two punt returns, and two interception returns. Few Spartans fans will forget Zbikowski wrestling a ball away from Jason Teague and racing 75 yards for a touchdown. He finished 2005 with 71 tackles and five interceptions.
This year, he has picked up where he left off, going 25 yards with a fumble recovery for a touchdown against Penn State. Zbikowski led Notre Dame with eight tackles including one for loss against Georgia Tech, he followed that with seven tackles and the previously mentioned fumble recovery return for six points. Against UM, Zbikowski had 8 tackles.
The other safety is hard-hitting Chinedum Ndukwe, who will absolutely lay wood to the opposing team and is one of the hardest hitters in college football. He finished 2005 with 52-tackles, 2 interceptions, and 4 fumble recoveries. In the opening two games this year he had 11 tackles, an interception, two tackles for loss, a sack, and two pass break-ups. Against UM he was Notre Dame's leading tackler with 11 stops, and had a interception return of 51 yards, and also added a tackle for loss.
At one cornerback is Mike Richardson, who had 66 tackles, 7 pass break-ups, 5 tackles for loss and 3 interceptions in 2005. This year he had five tackles in each of the opening two games and had three versus UM.
The other corner is Ambrose Wooden who has blazing 4.26 speed. He recorded 74 tackles with two interceptions last year. He had six tackles in the opener, two against PSU, and two versus UM. He met with doctors this week as he was knocked silly in the UM game, and he will be examined in terms of discussing concussions and lingering symtoms.
The linebacking took two huge graduation hits in the loss of leading tackler Brandon Hoyte, who had 92 stops six sacks, and 10.5 tackles for loss, and Corey Mays, who had 80-tackles, 12.5 for loss.
The loss of talent here has actually led to running back Travis Thomas actually starting at the weakside linebacker position to get speed on the field. Thomas had four tackles and two tackles for loss in the opener, and followed that up with a two tackle performace against PSU. Thomas had three tackles, a tackle for loss, and a sack against the maize and blue.
The middle linebacker is Maurice Crum, who is an explosive athlete with a 32-inch vertical jump and 4.6 speed. He had 57 -tackles as an outside linebacker in 2005.
Crum has had an impact, registering six tackles, two tackles for loss, and a sack against Georgia Tech, and following that up with a leading tackler performance against PSU with a whopping 14 tackles, three for loss, and a forced fumble. His play has encouraged the Irish faithful after the loss of two oustanding backers to graduation. Crum had six tackles, including one for loss versus the Wolverines.
Mitchell Thomas is the strong-side linebacker and brings 240-pounds and 4.5 speed to the position. He played mostly on special teams a year ago. In the opener he wasn't credited with a tackle, but made his impact felt against Penn State with 5 stops. He added three more against UM including a tackle for loss.
The defensive line returns seven of their top eight players off a team that allowed 3.9 yards per carry but achieved 31 sacks in 2005.
This group has been better so far in 2006. Against Georgia Tech they gave up just 119 yards rushing. Penn State did get 158 yards rushing, but that is a step up in competition for most teams starting a new season, so it is respectable even though the yards per carry is little higher. UM's Mike Hart just pounded them however, with 133 yards and set the tone for UM's physical offensive attack. However, that figure is misleading in that approximately five UM inside runs accounted for the majority of yardage.
The defensive line is led by the disruptive Derek Landri, who has started the last 24 games at noseguard, where he has had 83 tackles in two years, and 11.5 tackles for loss. He also added three sacks in 2005, and is now putting more pressure on the quarterback. He had one tackle in the opener, and three against Penn State. Against UM he added six tackles.
Victor Abiamiri starts at one defensive end after garnering 48-tackles, eight sacks, and seven tackles for loss last season. Against Georgia Tech he had two tackles, against PSU he had two more tackles, a sack, one tackle for loss, and a quarterback hurry. Against UM he had nine tackles and two sacks in an impressive performance.
Junior Trevor Laws is the defensive tackle next to Landri, and he also started 12 games last year and had 33-tackles and three tackles for loss. He has great strength, benching 225-pounds for 24 reps. He had three tackles against Georgia Tech, and against PSU recorded one tackle for loss and deflected a pass. Laws stepped up his game against UM with 10 tackles, a sack, and a tackle for loss.
The last defensive line starter is end Ronald Talley, a former highly-touted prospect from Detroit. Talley started 5 games with 23 tackles and one sack in 2005. This year in the first two games he has had a tackle and a fumble recovery. Against UM he also stepped up his game with seven tackles and had a tackle for loss.