13 Under 30?

IrishEyes continues its summer prediction series with a rare program feat, courtesy Bob Diaco's defense.

Though the following projection won't seem outlandish at first, rest assured, it's a rarity, at least over the last 25 years at Notre Dame.

In 1986, when Lou Holtz first put his stamp on the football program, it was the team's improved, tenacious defense that once again led the way to a national title, just three seasons into his tenure – just as it did previously in 1977, 1973, and, especially, in 1966 under Ara Parseghian (six shut-outs, average final score of 36 to 3).

But since and including Holtz's tenure, one that coincided with an offensive boon in college football, few Notre Dame squads have escaped a season without a defensive hiccup – one in which a single opponent, whether ranking as a national power or merely power-for-a-day, didn't explode for a 30-point-plus Saturday vs. the Irish.

The last team to finish a season without allowing 30 points was, curiously, the 2001 squad, Bob Davie's last at the University but with an underrated defense that allowed just over 19 ppg. The group yielded no more than 28 in a single contest, and 20-plus in just four games.

Previously, the 8-3 squad of 1996 kept each of its 11 foes under 30 as well, as did Notre Dame's second-best team of the last 30 years, the national runner-up squad from 1989. Defensive coordinator Barry Alvarez's unit yielded 27 in its only defeat over the 13-game slate, holding seven other teams to 13 points or fewer.

But as the three disparate seasons highlighted above indicate, holding foes under 30 doesn't guarantee success.

Great defense wins football games, if not championships in the modern era, but the lack of a quality defense will always result in disappointment, as illustrated by Notre Dame's 12 wins and 51 losses over the last 25 years when its opponent scores 30 or more points in a contest (including an 0-3 mark last season and losses in six straight).

Which leads us to the next prediction of the summer series:

Prediction #10 – No opponent with score 30-plus

The key to this prediction coming to fruition lies in the three major strengths of the team's defense:

  1. Veteran, developed depth: 14 of last year's 18 main defenders return for 2011, 11 of which have starting experience. There are seven multiple-season starters on hand: Robert Blanton, Darius Fleming, Gary Gray, Ethan Johnson, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Harrison Smith, and Manti Te'o, with reliable backup experience present at defensive end, nose guard, outside linebacker, and safety – leaving only second-unit inside linebacker and cornerback as cause for concern.

  2. Multiple all-star candidates led by a potentially dominant force: Seven of IrishEyes' Top 10 players from 2010 plied their craft on the defensive side of scrimmage (Te'o, Gray, Smith, Blanton, Lewis-Moore, Johnson, and Fleming), with Te'o ranking as one of the nation's best linebackers entering the season, and potentially its top defender over the next two years. X-factor Aaron Lynch is Notre Dame's most game-ready freshman since, well, Te'o, but in terms of defensive ends, since future second-round pick Victor Abiamiri hit campus in 2003.

  3. Year 2 in a sound scheme: Bob Diaco's early season defense struggled vs. rivals Michigan and Michigan State, then suffered a colossal collapse on October 23 at Navy. 2010 was a learning-on-the-job process for a group of defensive competitors playing in their third scheme in as many seasons, but Diaco never wavered, and the final month product was light years better because of it.

And of course, a little luck: at least two teams will threaten the 30-point mark, as poor outings are inevitable for a defense that isn't wildly athletic throughout the ranks.

Who on the 2011 schedule could score 30 on these Irish? Michigan State is our best bet (I previously listed the Week Three contest with the Spartans as the season's highest scoring contest).

Stanford did so last year, though with five field goals and a defensive touchdown vs. what was then a lost Notre Dame offense.

And Navy could have scored 42 (at least) rather than their final mark of 35, taking mercy on the defeated Irish in the final quarter. But I'll take head coach Brian Kelly at his word: that game was "an aberration"…it also helps that Irish-killer Ricky Dobbs no longer triggers the Midshipmen triple-option. Navy's offense will be good again, but Notre Dame's defense won't resemble the group that took it on the chin in the New Meadowlands last October.

Outside of what could be an improved USC offense, the Irish defense shouldn't encounter too many other top tier offenses along the way. Look for the program's new strength: the defensive side of scrimmage, to keep each foe under 30 for the first time in 10 seasons.

30-plus the norm

The vast majority of Irish teams, even those that finished with double-digit victories or a mere two defeats, yielded 30-plus points to at least one opponent during their respective seasons. Such occurrences became the norm at the program over the last eight seasons:

  • 1986 – Defeated USC 38-37 in a wild comeback to conclude the regular season at the Coliseum.
  • 1987 – 30-point performances resulted in two of the team's four losses: it's first, 30-22 at Pittsburgh, and its last, 35-10 in the Cotton Bowl vs. Texas A&M
  • 1988 – A 31-30 win over defending national champion Miami in mid-October keyed the program's last national title run.
  • 1990 – A 36-31 shocking home loss to Stanford dropped the Irish from the nation's top spot; a 52-31 victory over Navy in early November…
  • 1991 – November pained the Irish in a reloading (10-3) season, losing at home to Tennessee, 35-34, the following week at Penn State, 35-13, and then avoiding calamity in Hawaii, 42-41. Notre Dame somehow held the high-scoring Florida Gators to 28 in a Sugar Bowl upset one month later.
  • 1992 – Stanford struck again, though this time the Cardinal squad had punch, beating the Irish with 33 unanswered points, 33-16 in South Bend. The '92 Irish were a top tier defensive group save for this one humbling defeat.
  • 1993 – After holding the nation's top offense to 24 points one week previous, Notre Dame lost its most recent No. 1 ranking in a 41-39 classic vs. Boston College.
  • 1994 – Scoring outbursts by Boston College (30-10 loss), Air Force (a 42-30 victory), and Colorado (a 41-24 Fiesta Bowl defeat) were the lowlights in a disappointing 6-5-1 season.
  • 1995 – Ohio State handled Notre Dame in wild affair in Columbus, 45-27 (thought the Irish amassed nearly 450 yards in defeat), while Florida State roared back in the fourth quarter to take the Orange Bowl from the Irish, 31-26.

    Lou Holtz's Irish finished 5-11 when yielding 30 or more points. Only his #2 ranked 1989 squad, and a relatively disappointing 8-3 team of 1996, his final at the program, avoided 30-point Saturdays.

  • 1997 – Bob Davie's first team generally played solid defense, except to conclude the season in Stanford where Tyrone Willingham's Cardinal scored 33 on the Irish in an 18-point October victory.
  • 1998 – A bounce-back 9-3 squad was gashed for 30-plus on four occasions: A debacle in Michigan State (45-23), a comeback win vs. Drew Brees and Purdue (31-30), one of the craziest games in South Bend history, (a 39-34 win over Kevin Faulk and LSU), and a letdown with a hobbled Jarious Jackson at quarterback in the Gator Bowl vs. Georgia Tech (35-28).
  • 1999 – In Davie's third season, offensive coordinator Kevin Rogers revamped the offense, but the defense was miserable, yielding 30 or more vs. Oklahoma (34-30 victory), Tennessee (a 38-21 mismatch loss in Knoxville), Pittsburgh (37-27 defeat to close Pittsburgh Stadium), Boston College (a 31-29 Senior Day defeat), and Stanford (40-37) – the latter four contests concluded the season.
  • 2000 – The Irish produced a BCS quality team that played solid defense for 11 games, then ran into an athletic, brash buzz saw: the Oregon State Beavers, a 41-9 defeat.

    Bob Davie's Irish finished 3-8 when yielding 30 or more points. Davie's last team was the last at the program to keep each of its foes under 30 for the season.

  • 2002 – Only the surging USC Trojans and Heisman Winner Carson Palmer solved Kent Baer's playmaking defense, winning 44-13 to conclude the regular season.
  • 2003 – Black marks aplenty: Michigan (38-0), USC (45-14), Florida State (37-0), and Syracuse (38-12) as the wheels fell off the wagon.
  • 2004 – The offense was defense, the pass defense was hideous: Purdue (41-16), Pittsburgh (41-38 on Senior Day), USC (41-10 to end the regular season), and bowl loss to Oregon State (38-21) mercilessly ended an era.

    Tyrone Willingham's Irish finished 0-9 when yielding 30 or more points. (At least he was consistent...)

  • 2005 – Charlie Weis first squad lost three games and yielded 30-plus in each: Michigan State (44-41 in OT), USC (34-31 on the Bush Push), and the Fiesta Bowl vs. Ohio State (34-20). Notre Dame clinched a BCS berth with a 38-31 win at Stanford.
  • 2006 – Great offense, but poor vs. the pass and simply too slow along the back seven: Michigan (47-21), Michigan State (a 40-37 Irish win), USC (44-27), and LSU (44-14) each took advantage. (Note: the Irish had a solid front four in '06 led by three future pros in Derek Landri, Trevor Laws, and Victor Abiamiri)
  • 2007 – Georgia Tech, Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, USC, Navy, Air Force…all Irish losses with only #3 Boston College (27-14 Eagles win) failing to top 30 among the season's conquerors.
  • 2008 – Pittsburgh needed four overtimes to prevail, 36-33, while USC needed about three quarters, killing Notre Dame 38-3.
  • 2009 – The Irish lost heartbreakers to Michigan (38-34), USC (34-27), Connecticut (33-30 in OT), and Stanford (45-38) while defeating Michigan State (33-30) and Washington (37-30 in OT).

    Charlie Weis' Irish finished 4-20 when yielding 30 or more points. Weis coached 62 games in five seasons with 24 of those opponents topping the 30-point plateau.

  • 2010 – Brian Kelly's first squad allowed 34 to Michigan State in a three-point overtime loss; 37 the following week to Stanford, and one month later, surrendered 35 at Navy.

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