How Quickly We Forget

Notre Dame's defense surrendered a ridiculous number of yards in a blowout victory against an overmatched Academy foe last Saturday. It was just like old times...

It's a good sign when a program's fan base begins to complain about "how" the team wins, rather than if. And to be blunt, it's a bit odd when said program has won just 25 of its last 44 games, but that's outside this particular point.

Notre Dame's 59-33 victory over Air Force Saturday was dominant on one side of scrimmage and somewhere between average and slightly above on the other.

For those unfamiliar with the Falcons, their last 18 games dating back to the season-opener of 2010, have seen the AFA offense produce more than 400 yards 15 times, with only TCU and two fellow option teams, Navy and Georgia Tech, limiting the Falcons attack – Air Force won both of the latter contests.

A healthy sampling of Irish fans expressed outrage at the gaudy yardage totals and 33 points allowed Saturday. They expect more from the nation's most storied program, because history suggests Notre Dame should regularly destroy a team such as Air Force or Navy, or bottom dwellers from other conferences that dare take the field vs. their beloved Irish.

But that's rarely been the case. At least not since Notre Dame's last championship team of 1988, and not during the remainder of the Lou Holtz era, one that included the five best teams (each modern day "BCS" or national title quality) of the last 22 years to take the field in South Bend.

As Holtz said following his team's 58-27 win vs. Navy in 1993 with the Irish, then ranked No. 1 and in the midst of a 17-game winning streak: "If you can't stop the run, you're whistling in the dark."

Probably sage advice – unless of course you can score at will, as did Kelly's Irish Saturday, and Holtz's Irish in the program's halcyon days past.

Nobody's Perfect

A look at the five best teams at Notre Dame over the last 22 football seasons, and their occasional defensive breakdowns en route to a successful, Top 10 regular season finish.

  1. 1989 Irish (12-1): – The top-ranked Irish and a team that won 23 consecutive games had one defensive hiccup against – you guessed it – the Air Force Academy, winning 41-27 in mid-October. Air Force out-gained the Irish 474-455 on the afternoon. The Irish defensive coordinator during the "debacle?" Future Wisconsin program savior Barry Alvarez.

    The 27 points tied eventual champion Miami (later that season) for the second-highest total scored vs. the Irish over a 26-game span, one that included 25 victories (Miami was the only team to break 30 in that run, losing 31-30 in South Bend the season prior.)

  2. 1993 Irish (11-1): The program's last great team won 11 games, lost one, and should have played for a national title. But on October 30, Navy scored 27 points – the most vs. Notre Dame all season in a game won by the Irish – in a 58-27 contest. The Irish led just 38-27 entering the fourth quarter.

    One game later, Notre Dame held #1 Florida State – one of the best offenses of the 90s – to 24 points in an upset win...and seven of those 24 were a gift.

  3. 1992 Irish (10-1-1): Holtz's most underrated group finished #3 in the nation and had no trouble with Navy, winning 38-7. They did, however, allow 31 points in a 52-31 win over a five-win Michigan State team, one that dropped to 0-3 with that September defeat.

    After yielding 33 unanswered points in a 33-16 home loss to Stanford (thirty-three unanswered with 9 future NFL Draft Picks on the contributing defense!), the Irish won 8 straight to finish 10-1-1 with a 28-3 beating of then unbeaten, No. 4 Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl.

    Including the Aggies, the Irish held five Top 20 teams to fewer points than the lowly Spartans managed in late September.

  4. 1990 Irish (9-3): The No. 8 Irish pummeled Air Force by 30 but allowed 27 points in the process, the Falcons gaining 283 rushing yards on the afternoon. Three weeks later, the #2 Irish beat Navy, 52-31, yielding 230 rushing yards. Holtz's #2 Irish led only 31-17 entering the final period.

    Notre Dame went on to play for half of the national title, losing to Colorado – the nation's No. 1 rushing attack, 10-9. The Buffaloes net just 186 rushing yards on the day. Holtz's '90 squad held SIX Top 20 foes to fewer points than either Navy or Air Force managed vs. the Irish during the season.

  5. 1991 Irish (10-3): Holtz's Irish raced to an 8-1 start before finishing 10-3, just outside the Top 10. The regular season finale was a 48-42 win at Hawaii in which the Rainbow Warriors totaled 345 rushing yards in defeat.

    In its next game, Notre Dame held the nation's No. 3 ranked Florida Gators to 28 points in a 39-28 Sugar Bowl upset. Hawaii finished 4-7-1 on the season but managed 42 points on an Irish team that is now revered for beating Steve Spurrier's "Fun ‘N Gun" Gators into submission in its next contest.

Conspicuous in their absence is the 1988 (12-0 National Champion) Irish. That's because they didn't mess around, beating Air Force 41-13, Navy 41-0, and rarely breaking a sweat outside the four-team death march of #3 Michigan, #1 Miami, #2 USC, and #3 West Virginia, en route to an undefeated campaign.

So if you want to compare the present-day Irish to the '88 champs with their 35-plus future NFL draft picks, 43-7 freshmen class W-L record, and three first-team consensus All-America selections, that's within your rights as a proud fan. You're off-base and illogical, but that's fine too.

The '88 team was perfect, both technically, and in my/your eyes. But no team has been since, and for the better part of 15 years, nor was any team previous to the program's latest champions.

Last year's national champion Auburn Tigers yielded 30 points four times (including 43 once). In 2007, the defending champion Florida Gators fans ripped Troy 59-31. That's right, a Sun Belt team scored 31 on Urban Meyer's defending champions.

And more relevant, 12-2 Oklahoma was out-gained by many of these same Air Force Falcons just over 12 months ago, 458-367, in Norman – the Sooners narrowly escaping in a 27-24 victory.

The game has changed. Yardage totals have spiked; points logically followed.

Would an old-school 27-0 win for Notre Dame have been that much more impressive than the actual 59-33 final? Because scoring just 27 on Air Force's porous defense could be considered a "failure" too.

You'll never see the likes of the 1966 Irish defense again, shutting out more foes than they allowed to score (think about that!).

Football games are rarely field position battles in this era – even fewer between quality teams. Its not that the current, high-scoring, high-yardage affairs are better…just different.

Notre Dame 2011 is not a great defensive team, but its a good one. Yardage gained by the bushel by an undervalued offensive machine doesn't change that.

So be upset that the Irish forfeited their season-opener with sloppy, uninspired, ill-prepared football. Be upset they gave away a win in Ann Arbor vs. a hated rival through a series of mental breakdowns.

But winning 59-33 (up 49-19 entering the final period) shouldn't be upsetting.

Notre Dame 2011 isn't a championship team. Its margin for error to become a BCS squad is officially zero. But it's probably the best team at the program in six seasons, and should rank among the Top 15 of the last three decades if the group continues to grow – and win.

Problems admittedly exist entering Game 20 of the Brian Kelly era.

Scoring 59 and winning by 26 isn't one of them.


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