Adapting to his Surroundings

Notre Dame has begun to win, and to recruit, in an unforeseen manner: relying on defense while implementing an offense that bears little resemblance to head coach Brian Kelly's previous stops.

Notre Dame's traveled a long road since a late-October game last mattered, 10 years ago today. The circumstances surrounding October 26, 2002 are striking: No. 6 Notre Dame at No. 11 Florida State, the visiting and higher-ranked Irish a whopping 11-point underdog.

Final Score: Notre Dame 34 Florida State 24 -- the Irish climbed to No. 3 the following week as a result before bottoming out for the better part of the next, oh...119 months.

Since, and with the exception of a starry-eyed 2005 season, late-October matchups have carried little to no national relevance for Notre Dame, with Irish fans left to discuss future prospects, underclassmen of interest, or the inevitable forthcoming coaching search.

Today, most workplaces employing Irish fans will see a dip in productivity as their week comes to a close. Links will be clicked and passed among alumni and subway alums alike. Predictions, boasts, and rationalizations will abound. There might even be a wager or two in place.

Notre Dame is back. It has largely a third-year head coach, his cohesive staff, and a dominant defense built since their arrival to thank for it.

Win or lose Saturday night in Norman, a return to mediocrity that defined the weeks, months, and (most) years that followed Notre Dame's last earth-shaking victory 10 years ago is unlikely.

Not with Kelly's plan, and players, in place.

"The focus will continue," said Kelly of his dramatic change in program philosophy from his days at Cincinnati, "each and every year will be on the defense, first and foremost, and then it will be about players not plays on the offensive side of the ball.

"We'll continue to recruit guys that can play fast tempo and play in a spread. But we're also going to recruit guys that can run the football if we need to 50 times a game. The offense will revolve around the strengths of the personnel that we have, but the defensive philosophy, that won't change."

Notre Dame is the only defense among 124 in the FBS not to allow a rushing score. Its likewise the only of those 124 not to allow a touchdown drive of 75 yards or more (the spot of the football after a kick-off touchback).

The defense leads the nation in lowest percentage of touchdown drives against (7.2), and ranks second in total points allowed (59) overall red zone defense (4 TD, 46 points in 19 drives), and points allowed per game (9.43), defensive or otherwise.

The offense lags behind. How far is up for debate.

"We had the ball with 6:20 and ran the ball (taking) 5 minutes and 50-something seconds off the clock," said Kelly of an example of his team not needing to pass or score more points. "So we're taking time off the clock clearly to close out football games. If you go back and look at each win, there's a lot of yardage (that could be accrued) and a lot of time of possession where we're not throwing the football.

"But having said that, we have to be better on third down throwing the football, and we have to be better in the red zone. And those are areas of emphasis, and if we're better in those two areas, then our efficiency is going to jump up.  I'm interested in being more efficient in terms of our passing game."

Their bread and butter remains stopping teams from scoring touchdowns, with just six allowed this season (five by the defense), and two or fewer vs. 20 of the last 25 foes they've faced.

Kelly's Irish though have likewise proven incapable of winning a shootout, forging a shocking 1-9 record when the opponent scores more than 21 points -- the win against and Air Force team the Irish led 59-19 before allowing two cosmetic scores.

Can Notre Dame hold 44-point-per-game juggernaut Oklahoma to two or even three touchdowns? Can the Irish score more than 21 points vs. a defense ranked among the nation's top 40 for the first time since September 2011?

Can the Irish continue to win the old fashioned way in Norman? And in the way Kelly has become accustomed?

After all, style points, as the head coach pointed out yesterday, mean absolutely nothing...anymore.

"At Cincinnati (2007-09) and Central Michigan (2004-06), I had to put people in the stands. I had to sell season tickets," said Kelly. "It needed to be exciting. Now, you have to win, too, or you'll get fired from those jobs as well. Here, we've sold out since the '70s, so I don't need to sell tickets. I just need to win football games.

"So I think it's a modification of understanding at Notre Dame, the job is if you want to win a national championship, you start with defense and then let your offense revolve around the personnel that you have on hand and, moving forward, that you recruit." Top Stories