Not new, but promising nonetheless...Lost in the morass of 2009 mediocrity was a Notre Dame red zone defense that routinely held opposing offenses to three points or fewer after their routine marches downfield. The '09 Irish defense ranked No. 15 nationally in red zone defense, surrendering 25 touchdowns in 44 opportunities while turning opponents' back without a score on 11 occasions.
This season, Brian Kelly's squad has picked up where Charlie Weis' give-it-all-you-got group left off, yielding just seven touchdowns in 19 red zone opportunities (along with 8 field goals).
Kelly offered three reasons for the team's defensive success when its back is pinned against the proverbial wall.
"We build that mentality in the way we train. We do that in off-season conditioning in the way we train; we do that in the summer," Kelly offered. "You just build that belief that when you go out there you don't have a breaking point. Those are the things we try to instill in the entire program.
"Bob (Diaco) has done a very good job schematically in terms of different looks down there in making (the opponent) earn it. But I think anytime you can do a good job vs. the rush in the short field and force the ball into tight zone coverages you have a chance."
(Kelly included increased confidence as a third key element through six games.)
While the '10 team's red zone resistance has been impressive, it's relevant to note that "belief" had already been instilled in the returning seniors, juniors and freshmen such as Manti Te'o, as the group played tough at the doorstep of their own end zone in last year's .500 season as well.
The 2010 Irish defense is on the come…but the same group of student-athletes had their moments last season as well.
Mid-season report cardMost Irish fans predicted a 4-2 start through the seasons challenging six-game start. Kelly's group is one loss behind that ledger and the head coach offered one group that rates better than expected through the season's first half.
"I'm pleased with the way we're developing against the rush playing some really good teams that run the football," he said. "Looking at the entire (six games to date), I don't know if there's a team there that doesn't run the ball. I'm pleased with our rush defense."
Kelly added that the team's overall offense is relatively where he had forecasted heading into the season - a mild surprise to this beat writer.
"What we've been able to do offensively, it's just the development of the quarterback; he's making progress each week," Kelly reiterated of junior Dayne Crist. "I thought we'd be where we are, probably, with our offense."
Zack AttackOne play was particularly ugly, but aside from that game-opening gaffe, redshirt-freshman left tackle Zack Martin fared well in his emergent start on the right side.
Regular right tackle Taylor Dever was deemed unready following pre-game warm-ups. Kelly's backup plan worked well despite the rough start.
"He doesn't get flustered; he gave up the first (sack) but he shut down Jabaal (Sheard) the rest of the game," Kelly noted. "He's a very confident kid; he has the athletic ability and he's fearless. He'll go out there against anybody."
Martin allowed one more sack – a forced fumble recovered by Dayne Crist – inside the Panthers 10-yard line. The Irish kicked a field goal to take a 17-3 lead following the 3rd down play.
Kelly was asked if he's previously coached a young offensive tackle with such a combination of skill and confidence at this stage of his career.
"Joe Staley who was a No. 1 draft pick at Central Michigan rivals his athletic ability," Kelly answered. "The thing that Zack has that separates him is, he's fearless. It doesn't matter if its right or left (tackle) you could have told him ‘guard' and he'd have been ready to play that."
Senior Matt Romine started at left tackle in Martin's stead and officially yielded a sack to RDE Brandon Lindsey, but the play was more the fault of the Irish quarterback than Romine's protection. Saturday was Romine's first career start.
Personnel pointsKelly offered a few post-game thoughts on his running back tandem and tight end trio before offering a brief glimpse at his coach's ballot for Week Seven:
Armando Allen: "His vision through the hole is outstanding. He's been a consistent piece of our offense all year. Probably our most consistent player and his vision is as good as any ‘back I've coached."
Allen leads the Irish with 562 yards from scrimmage.
Cierre Wood:"He responded the way we wanted him to, he ran hard, his pads were down," Kelly said. "We told him he's thinking too much. I think he got back to taking it and hitting it and relying on instincts and he has to continue to do that."
Wood's seven carries tied his career high.
Junior Kyle Rudolph: "I think we all know that he's struggling out there. He's trying to play and help his football team but he's not 100 percent," Kelly said. "He wants to help in any way he can. Want to see him get better, if that means we have to shut him down we have to shut him down. We haven't made that decision yet – that's something we'll decide during the week.
Rudolph injured his hamstring (near) August 7 and has looked far less than 100 percent since his 95-yard touchdown catch-and-run vs. the Wolverines in Game Two.
Redshirt-freshman Tyler Eifert: "He's been struggling with his shoulder," Kelly admitted of the first-year contributor. "We have to get him ready this week; it's one of those things that he just has to manage it a little better. Going into (Week 7) nobody is 100 percent so we have to get him out there."
Eifert started vs. Stanford but has played sparingly since that contest's first quarter.
Senior Mike Ragone: "He hasn't played a lot and it showed." Ragone's point-blank drop of a 2nd and 4 pass on Notre Dame's last possession led to an Irish punt two plays later and one last chance for the visitors.
BK's BallotCollege football coaches suddenly had a change atop their personal ballots in the wake of defending national champion Alabama's road loss Saturday in South Carolina. Kelly offered the top of his ballot with the following comment (asked specifically about the Broncos from Boise):
- Ohio State
- Boise State – "I think if Boise continues to win and Ohio State and Oregon win out than Boise State could be in trouble because of the schedule," Kelly said. "But if someone slips up and they're undefeated, Boise State should play for the national championship in my estimation."
Kelly added that he would be unlikely to jump a team unless a team (such as Nebraska) has upcoming wins that change his mind.