Kelly's third season flipped the script, with Notre Dame losing the football just 14 times due to turnover; only 11 teams nationally committing fewer. The Irish defense in turn forced 23, a solid number, tied for 37th nationally.
But turnover differential alone doesn't explain how the Irish escaped the 2012 slate unscathed -- their defense's response to each, does.
Notre Dame's defense took the field 13 times following a turnover this fall (a 14th turnover directly resulted a Stanford touchdown in Game Six). The Irish allowed just three scores. On three other occasions the defense created a turnover of its own to immediately offset the offense's mistake.
13 turnovers, just three scores allowed by the defense. More rare than points allowed were yards gained, as Notre Dame limited its opponent to less than 15 yards on nine of the season's 13 drives following an Irish turnover.
"We can't move too far from our core beliefs (this) I said when we first met three years ago. We're interested in keeping the points down," said Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco.
"It begins with fundamentals. On a play-to-play basis, understanding in pass coverage, the fundamentals of body position and relationships to the routes and the different core concepts we have, and different fits in block destruction, tackling angles, there are things to be coached on a regular basis."
Turning the TablesNotre Dame's defense refused to yield 10 times following the offense's 13 turnovers committed in 2012:
1 -- Interception vs. Navy: The Midshipmen drove 75 yards following a Golson interception at the Navy 9-yard line, but Ishaq Williams and Stephon Tuitt proved too athletic, the former recording a sack and forced fumble, the latter picking up the pigskin and sprinting for a 77-yard score and 27-0 lead, effectively ending the contest late in the second quarter.
2 -- Interception vs. Michigan: Staked with field position at the Irish 10-yard line following an opening snap interception of Golson, the Wolverines offense went backwards, losing two yards on a rush (Farley and Calabrese on the stop), three more on a sack (Prince Shembo) and another 10 on a 3rd and G sack from the 15 by Tuitt. Michigan's ending 42-yard field goal attempt sailed wide and the Irish seized momentum after Golson's opening error.
3 -- Interception vs. Michigan: Golson was picked off in the end zone (and subsequently replaced by Rees) providing Michigan starting field position at its own 20-yard line. The Wolverines managed to hold onto the football for four snaps and 14 yards before Manti Te'o recorded his first of two interceptions to stymie the Wolverines again.
4 -- Fumble vs. Stanford: Quarterback/Center exchange was the culprit, giving the visitors field position at the ND 47-yard line. Five snaps, 27 yards, and one fade route later, Irish cornerback Bennett Jackson tracked a Josh Nunes pass down the far sideline and secured the interception at the Irish one yard line.
5 -- Fumble vs. Stanford: A 20-yard Golson scramble is negated by the redshirt-freshman's fumble near the Cardinal sideline, but Notre Dame's defense responds with swift justice, forcing a three-and-out after just two yards gained to keep the margin manageable, Stanford leading 10-3 late in the first half.
6 -- Interception vs. Pittsburgh: Trailing 20-12 with four minutes remaining, Golson throws his second of three end zone interceptions on the season as Pitt's K'Waun Willillams baits redshirt-freshman into a corner route (under throw) to Troy Niklas. The Panthers begin a drive at the Irish 20-yard line as a result but Notre Dame's defense holds, 3 plays, minus 5 yards, just 0:56 taken off the clock and Golson is afforded the opportunity of a game-tying drive at the end of regulation. Golson's touchdown pass and ensuing conversion run ties the score at 20, keeping an undefeated season alive.
7 -- Overtime Fumble vs. Pittsburgh: Attempting to dive in for the winning score, senior Cierre Wood brushes against Irish left guard Chris Watt. The ball pops loose, lands in the end zone, and is recovered by Panthers safety Jared Holley, giving the Panthers possession in need of a field goal to win. The Irish defense limits Pittsburgh to nine yards on three snaps and Kevin Harper's errant 33-yard field goal gives Notre Dame (and its stunned stadium crowd) new life in an eventual 29-23 triple overtime victory.
8 -- Fumble vs. Boston College: Sophomore running back George Atkinson is stripped standing up at the Eagles 31-yard line. Notre Dame's defense takes the field with a tenuous 7-3 edge midway through the second quarter and subsequently holds, limiting the Eagles to 34 yards on six snaps before forcing a punt in Irish territory.
9 -- Fumble vs. Boston College: With the Irish leading 21-6 early in the fourth quarter, senior Theo Riddick loses his only fumble of the season, giving the hosts possession at the Irish 48-yard line. Notre Dame's defense allows one first down, but ultimately just seven yards are gain on seven snaps, with Kapron Lewis-Moore ending BC's threat at the Irish 35-yard line, sacking quarterback Chase Rettig for a six-yard loss on fourth down.
10 -- Interception vs. Wake Forest: Golson final interception of the regular season is his third in the opponent's end zone, this time forcing a 24-yard pass into double coverage in the far corner -- an obvious attempt to get a touchdown for senior Robby Toma on Senior Day. Wake manages seven yards on three snaps (a sack by Tuitt the key) and the Irish defense forces punt No. 4 following 10 turnover situations.
Final tally: Four punts forced, one turnover on downs, two missed field goals (one quite fortunate in the grand scheme of college football), two interceptions, and one touchdown scored by the Irish defense.