Two immediate conclusions can be derived from such a statement:
- Notre Dame must have won a string of contests over those 31 quarters and eight football games
- For one quarter to be removed from, rather than included in the overall equation, that quarter must have been epically bad for the Irish.
Notre Dame should probably be 7-1 over its last eight games and thereby 3-1 this season. 6-2 and 2-2 in the same span will have to do, but in the aftermath of Saturday's less-than-dazzling road victory, the good: defense, a running game, and a clutch fourth quarter effort, outweighed the bad: sporadic passing, too many penalties, and hurtful special teams.
Key to entire operation, at present, is the aforementioned defense.
"We felt our recruiting efforts and everything we have done since we have been here is to put together a championship defense, and then we'll catch up on offense," Kelly said. "But I think you have to start with building your defense first and the line of scrimmage.
"We have a good influx of veterans with young players that's given us very good depth. We have got some guys that are going to be able to help us down the road," he continued. "To me, the most important thing is to get our defense to championship level and we are not there yet but we are on the right road."
Last year's totals have been well-documented: three touchdowns allowed in the final four games (two in garbage time at the end of the Sun Bowl) and just four offensive scores surrendered in the final five contests.
The opening effort of 2011, while superior to that of 2010's first month, is not quite on par with November's shut-down crew, but the defense is the only reason the Irish aren't 1-3 (or arguably, win-less) this year.
Few turnovers; fewer touchdownsNotre Dame's defense famously surrendered four touchdowns in the fourth quarter at Michigan, losing 35-31. Below is a look at the four remaining touchdowns scored vs. the Irish over the season's remaining 15 quarters.
- Game One: South Florida's lone touchdown drive was aided by two penalties on Gary Gray – a personal foul for a late-hit on the sidelines (tough call, but legitimate), and third down pass interference on an end zone fade. The fresh set of downs resulted in a one-yard touchdown pass that gave the Bulls a comfortable 23-7 lead early in the fourth quarter.
In total, South Florida marched 80 yards in 14 plays and while benefiting from two costly penalties, its also true that the Bulls at one point moved from the Irish 30-yard line to a 1st and goal situation at the 2-yard line on five consecutive power running plays – perhaps the best effort by a rush offense vs. defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's unit this season.
- Game Two (minus the 4th Quarter meltdown): Michigan's lone touchdown over the game's first three quarters occurred on a poorly thrown go-route down the sidelines: Gray interfered again, but not enough to deny the reception or subsequent dive into the end zone on a two-play, 45-yard drive.
- Game Three: The Spartans only touchdown was the result of a second quarter drive and another 80-yard march, this time keyed by a 3rd and 7 gain of 25 yards on a fade route down the right sideline. The 11-play drive concluded with a 6-yard touchdown pass and included four runs for 13 yards – the Spartans remaining 19 carries totaled just 16 yards on the afternoon.
- Game Four: Pittsburgh's touchdown featured the season's best drive by an opponent: 19-plays and 80-yard – a drive given new life by a rouging the punter penalty on the Irish at the Pitt goal line following a three-and-out from the defense to begin the second half. The penalty and subsequent conversions allowed the Panthers to burn 8:24 from the third quarter clock before Notre Dame's offense touched the ball – easily the longest an opponent possessed the pigskin vs. Diaco's group this season.
Regardless of its generally solid performance, defensive improvement is mandatory if Irish are to challenge for a bowl outside of El Paso. The offense simply isn't good enough to win six of its remaining eight games if the defense suffers a pair of untimely lapses.
"We had to use another timeout on defense because we have some young kids who get confused as to what the signals are," Kelly noted of specific improvements needed. "So, yeah, there's a lot of room for improvement as they continue to play and it keeps our younger guys obviously involved and engaged and it gives our veterans a chance obviously to take a blow.
"The plan is to develop our defense and let our offense kind of work its way into who our players are, he added. "In terms of not trying to fit the offense but to fit the players to the offense right now."
Forcing a turnover wouldn't hurt either. The Irish have intercepted four passes this season (three vs. Michigan) and recovered a lone fumble (Michigan State), while forcing just a pair.
"I think there's a balance there in terms of big plays," Kelly said when asked about the dearth of turnovers. "We really have not let up any big play runs, and if you are going to gamble a little bit and look to get that take away, there's a chance that you give up some more big plays.
"We are philosophically more in line with wanting to be gap-sound and disciplined against the run game," he continued. "We're doing pretty good this year relative to (defending the run). I'm more interested in that right now than gambling on defense to get some more turnovers."
Stout up frontRay Graham's 42-yard run Saturday marked the longest allowed by the Irish defense through four games. Michigan's Denard Robinson also ripped off two long runs – 39 yards and 18 yards. In 129 rushing attempts this season, opponents have exceeded 15 yards on just four occasions (South Florida produced a 17-yard rush as well), managing just 2.9 yards per carry.
More important, the defense has yielded just one rushing score – Robinson's fumble recovery at the Irish 3-yard line in Week Two.
The 10 BCS Bowl qualifiers for 2010 finished, respectively: #2, #9, #10, #11, #14, #15, #36, #49, and #59 in turnovers forced. Notre Dame tied for #36 as well, finishing with 25 in 13 games. It's relevant, however, that the team finishing 59th was TCU – the nation's No. 1 overall defensive unit last fall (the Horned Frogs forced 22 turnovers).
If Notre Dame plays defense as it has for 31 of its last 32 football quarters, the Irish will win between 8-10 of their 13 games this season, despite a 2-2 start. But with an offense that has struggled intermittently in each of the first four contests, and one that often fails to capitalize following long-distance marches, its incumbent upon the defense to provide Tommy Rees, Cierre Wood, Michael Floyd, et al with a few short field opportunities.
The bottom line: Four turnovers created on the season; zero in two of four contests; just three fumbles forced (vs. the opponents obscene 12…twelve?. (The Irish D forced just 9 fumbles last season compared to 17 by their 13 opponents.)
If defensive communication, as Kelly indicated, is one step toward an even better defensive performance over the next two months, turnovers gained on the perimeter – while maintaining gap control up front – might be the missing element to take a good defense to greater heights.