This time, for 60 minutes

Our Player Improvement series wraps up its defensive review with a look at one of the team's best units. Notre Dame's defensive front seven, especially its defensive line, played solid, winning football last season. But its tendency to break down late and in two cases, fail to answer the bell early, contributed to each of the team's five defeats.

For columns on positions previously reviewed in the Player Improvement series, click the links below:

Trio of returning running backs
Wide Receivers
Tight Ends
Offensive Line
Defensive Backs

Ask any Irish fan to name the team's best position group last fall and you'd likely find two consensus answers: Its running back (tandem) of Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood, and its defensive line. Today's Player Improvement series turns its focus to the latter, the suddenly stout defensive front that while vastly improved since the Charlie Weis era, nonetheless suffered breakdowns at significant times last fall, and in each of the team's five frustrating defeats.

Pressure and Control

Just three of 13 Irish opponents last year earned a living rushing the football vs. Bob Diaco's defense: Air Force, USC, and Stanford. Two of those three contests resulted in Notre Dame losses with the West Coast front lines winning the battle in the trenches:

  • USC: Racked up 219 rushing yards and used repeated first half conversions on both third and fourth down to jump to a 17-0 lead. (One of two crucial Notre Dame stops in the first half was negated by an unnecessary (and ridiculous) unsportsmanlike conduct penalty). The Irish D registered no sacks but did hurry QB Matt Barkley seven times. Barkley was nonetheless stellar on the evening with three touchdown tosses, no picks, and an economical 224 passing yards for a balanced offensive effort. The Irish lost the battle for the line of scrimmage in both the first and fourth quarters vs. the Trojans but played well up front in the second and third. Their inability to answer the bell and fourth quarter wilt as USC imposed its will late was sobering in its reality.

  • Stanford: The Irish were bludgeoned up front in the second quarter by two long touchdown drives (plus a 6-play "quick strike" in the first) but the defense rebounded and fared well in the second half ,as Stanford did not convert back-to-back third-down situations in the second stanza until 5:40 remained in the contest (with the game-clinching touchdown pass from Andrew Luck to Coby Fleener landing the death blow).

    Luck faced precious little pressure on the day: no sacks, one pressure that resulted in an interception. That was par for the course for the Stanford offense and the 2012 NFL Draft's top pick.

In both defeats, Irish fans and head coach Brian Kelly were left pointing to moments of quality defensive effort rather than celebrating game-long effort.

Bad times for breakdowns

The season ended the same way it began for a generally solid defensive front seven: wilting under game pressure.

South Florida managed just three yards per carry vs. Diaco's D in the opener, but with the game still in doubt and the Bulls clinging to a 16-7 lead entering the final quarter, USF took six consecutive rushes from the Irish 30-yard line, through the heart of the defense, and to the goal line, setting up the clinching two-yard touchdown toss from B.J. Daniels to tight end Evan Landi (from a power running set). A former wide receiver, Landi was a known mismatch vs. Irish inside ‘backers and the Bulls dialed up his one-on-one matchup at the perfect time.

Three months later, Florida State lost more rushing yards (46) than it gained (41) during their 18-14 Champs Sports Bowl win last December. But nearly half of the Seminoles 41 rushing yards were accrued on five snaps over a crucial 2:35 span that took the game clock from 2:48 to 0:13, effectively ending Notre Dame's chance at a comeback win.

When the offense needed a final chance, the Irish defense yielded a first down, more than two minutes, and nearly 20 yards to the worst rushing offense (104) it faced all season.

The Irish did not register a fourth quarter sack vs. either USF or FSU, with only one hurry (Stephon Tuitt key vs. FSU late) intermixed.

43 Minutes of Excellence; 17 from Hell

In Week Two, Michigan's first half included 22 offensive snaps, just 85 yards, and a jump ball touchdown. Three of seven drives resulted in negative yardage and none included more than four plays. Subsequently, the first 13 minutes of the game's third quarter saw the Irish defense give up just 56 yards, with Michigan producing more combined punts and interceptions (3) than first downs (2).

And then all hell broke loose. The next 17 minutes saw the Irish defense surrender 322 yards on 20 plays with four of five drives ending in Wolverines touchdowns.

While the Irish secondary has received the bulk of the blame since, its relevant to note that Notre Dame did not record an official QB hurry vs. Michigan and neither Aaron Lynch nor Stephon Tuitt, two of the team's best pass rushers, appeared in the contest by decision of the coach staff. (The lone Irish sack came from a blitzing Dan Fox.)

The respect paid to the blinding speed of triggerman Denard Robinson under center could best be defined as "playing scared," not simply erring on the side of caution for fear he could break containment and wreak havoc in the open field.

Notre Dame's defensive line was good most of last season. At times it was great. In 2012, it'll have to be both on a consistent basis.

Next on -- We've examined areas for improvement on both sides of scrimmage. Now we'll look at what the Irish did well -- in some cases, exceptionally so -- last season and if the team can expect the same in 2012. ? Top Stories