Better?

IrishEyes ponders that one-word question regarding the 2010 Irish defense at the season's quarter point.

You remember 2009: its promising beginning, despite several defensive breakdowns; its allowable middle and a 6-2 mark heading into the season's final month.

You remember the 2009 defense, too, technically the worst in the history of the program in terms of yards allowed. And you remember that, to a man, the fan base rejoiced at the end of the despotic rule of the defensive play-caller known as "Tenuta" as the team limped to an 0-4 end.

No more Tenuta meant no more rash, largely ineffective blitzes, regardless of the opponent's mode of offensive attack. No more tacklers disguised as suburban speed bumps. No more pre-snap confusion leading to blown assignments, leading to touchdowns.

The new defense promised a fundamental approach. Gaps would be filled, zones would be covered. It was easier to understand, cleaner, and most important, different than the head-shaking approach of the recent past.

Simple was better. Simple was in. After all, former Irish defensive coordinator Barry Alvarez didn't feature a heavy does of blitzes when he led Notre Dame's 3-4 championship front to 23 wins in 24 chances under Lou Holtz.

Has the fundamental defensive change this season offered acceptable results?

"I would say it's the one or two plays," Irish head coach Brian Kelly offered of the defense's perceived struggles. "It's the Michigan two big plays that we didn't fit the right way; Michigan State's 56 yard run. And then a coverage that we run all the time, not getting our backer to the back of the end zone on a touchdown throw, just those things where we have some guys that are first year starters that are in there."

It wasn't offered as an excuse. Kelly admitted the Irish simply need to make those plays in order to win. And in a necessary glass-half-full moment, Kelly noted that the deficiencies are eminently correctable, not fatal flaws.

"You ask me why you see there's light at the end of the tunnel; it's those things we know that we can correct. If I was standing here before (saying) ‘We've got no chance to stop the run,' that's a different feeling."

Numbers of Note

Reasonable minds can disagree, and do so without being disagreeable. With that in mind...

Yes the scheme endured a necessary changed, and it appears sound, or at least benefits from logical direction. The personnel has been tweaked to fit, and the vast majority of the main competitors matured from newcomer status to veteran. But the inability to play fast and execute the critical tackle, coverage, play on the ball, or assignment remains.

Against a now-complete September slate vs. a trio of Big 10 foes, the 2010 Irish defense was gashed in a manner reminiscent of the heavily panned 2009 unit.

  • In 2009, Notre Dame's defense allowed Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue an aggregate 24 plays in excess of 15 yards. Seven of those were touchdowns; nine others (sometimes in tandem) led to touchdowns, four to field goal (attempts); and on only four occasions did the Irish defense force a punt or turnover following the long gains. A 94-yard touchdown on a kick return also burned the Irish in a four-point loss.

  • This season, vs. the same trio of teams, but without the benefit of a walk-in-the-park vs. Nevada to open the campaign, the Irish defense yielded 21 plays of more than 15 yards. Eight of them touchdowns; seven others contributed to a touchdown, one a missed field goal; and on six occasions the ND defense stopped the opponent by forcing a punt or turnover.

    (You probably don't need a reminder about the special teams Play of the Year that exacerbates the 2010 total.)

Considering that Kelly's 2010 roster endured the loss of the most accurate quarterback and most dynamic wide receiver in recent program history, marginal defensive improvement hasn't been, and won't be enough.

Kelly has acknowledged the team (and though not specific, likely the defense) needs to be, for lack of a better word, "Nasty" (tread easy with that one); that they need to focus, finish and find a way.

Toughness, nastiness, focus under pressure…each will be put to the season's toughest test to date Saturday in South Bend.

The Eye Test

Kelly acknowledged he's not married to statistics, but rather monitors those he believes provide an accurate indicator. I agree with that approach, as do most readers, I assume.

Which begs the questions: Do the Irish seem better? On the surface, I think so. Gary Gray, Ian Williams and Manti Te'o are unquestionably better than in 2009. Kapron Lewis-Moore and Ethan Johnson are too, though with less flash or fan fare. Backup defensive linemen Sean Cwynar and Hafis Williams both lend support that wasn't part of the equation last fall.

Darrin Walls and Harrison Smith? Vexing still, but both struggled mightily vs. the Big 10 last year – not the case in '10 as Walls excelled vs. Purdue and Smith is appreciably better, though not without signature moments that stick in the Irish fans' collective craw. Carlo Calabrese is an upgrade at inside linebacker.

That leaves only the puzzling play of the outside ‘backers and the unfair comparison of Zeke Motta to 5th-year senior and early-season hero Kyle McCarthy as drop-offs to date.

Yet the ongoing results show 1,331 yards and 9 offensive touchdowns surrendered (a slight increase and decrease from 2009, respectively), not to mention a glaring, publicized, pants-down moment that ultimately decided the previous contest at the expense of a good number of regular defenders.

(Of course, the offense has contributed to the inauspicious start as well.

Saturday, the Irish defense will face – far and away – its most balanced offensive opponent of the season. Stanford possesses a top tier quarterback and offensive line; a trio of hard-charging runners and a collection of veteran receivers – one with true breakaway speed. The Cardinal feature two capable tight ends (including Notre Dame transfer Konrad Reuland) and one of the nation's two best lead-blocking fullbacks to round out the group.

Notre Dame has allowed more than 200 rushing yards in five of its last six contests. Stanford beat 11 of the same 14-15 defenders it will face Saturday into submission last November en route to a public embarrassment and Heisman showcase for the departed Toby Gerhart.

I can assure you the team's defensive assistants and coordinator are prepared and focused. The bulk of Notre Dame's defenders pass my (relative) eye test...they're not a BCS Title level group, but I've seen BCS Bowl teams take the field with a much worse collection.

But my word, their confidence and your faith don't matter. On-the-field is all that really counts (you won't find 80,000-strong filing in to watch these programs' renowned student-athletes discuss the Socratic Method.)

The Irish need a win in Game Four, both to level the slate and for their own mental health with two more difficult matchups over the following 14 days. And the defense will have to play at a level they've yet to collectively approach to reach .500 entering the season's second month.


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