New Area Code

It's early, and most problems appear correctable, but Notre Dame's 2013 defense bears no resemblance to the dominant group that paved the way to a BCS Championship berth last fall.

"A bigger piece falls on the offense this year than it does on the defense.  If the defense can stay within the same area code as it played last year defensively, and we really up our offensive output, then we can have the kind of year that we're all looking forward to." -- Irish head coach Brian Kelly prior to the season's outset

Six touchdowns surrendered including an easy, barely-contested rushing score. Off-balance defenders missing receivers in short space. Head-shaking, flailing tackle attempts vs. opposing quarterbacks. Tackling the football rather than the man. Losing the battle for the ball in the air. Four pass interference penalties in the opponents' red zone. Rare pressure achieved from a base four-man front.

Most important: *five touchdown drives of 75 or more yards vs. just seven punts forced.

That's the 2013 Irish defense through two contests, and Manti Te'o is not walking through that door.

(*The Irish allowed two touchdown drives of 75 yards during the entire 2012 regular season. The defense yielded nine total touchdowns in those 12 games.)

Notre Dame's self-proclaimed D-Boyz -- historically great last regular season and nationally touted again entering 2013 -- rank among the nation's least effective groups with one-sixth of the regular season in the books.

"We've got new players. We've lost some talented players for sure, but I think we've got some guys that are learning some new roles," said head coach Brian Kelly following Saturday's incessant leak masked as Irish defense. "Dan Fox is in the Mike linebacker position. We've got a true freshman playing drop (linebacker). We've got a new safety combination. You've got some new players that are growing."

New or returning, there aren't many Irish defenders playing at the same level after Week Two 2013 compared to their two-game efforts last fall.

In addition to Te'o, gone from last year's heroic group are starting defensive lineman Kapron Lewis-Moore, starting drop linebacker Danny Spond, starting field safety Zeke Motta, and reserve defensive end Tony Springmann. With that group was lost ridiculous production, mental and physical toughness, battled-hardened experience, never-say-die goal line belief, fundamentally sound efforts, and of course, immeasurable leadership.

"I think it's got to come from our players," said Kelly when asked about a defensive voice. "Our coaches are going to continue to lead, but our players have to continue to mature and grow. Our guys that have been there before have got to take hold and continue to grow and mature.

"We're only two weeks into this thing. So our expectation is that these (new) guys that are now the starters…and those guys that have been playing a lot, have got to take hold and (accept) ownership in this defense. I think that's going to happen. It's a gradual process, but if we're better in November than we are right now, I'll be happy. We just have to continue to move forward."

They've been better in November than September during each installment of the Kelly era. The difference last season, of course, is that they were awfully good in September, too, the resulting 4-0 start affording a leap from national afterthought to contender status.

"We've got to coach some things up. We've got to clean some things up fundamentally," Kelly admitted. "I like our players, and we've just got to continue to develop who we are. I think I would feel a lot differently moving forward if I didn't feel like we had the players necessary to have a good defense and the level of the defense that we're going to need with the schedule that we're going to play. We've got to clean some things up, and I'm confident that we will."

Until then, and likely even if the defense reaches its present potential, Kelly knows the 2013 offense will have to do more than its 2012 predecessor. Notre Dame can reach a BCS Bowl bid with nine wins over its final 10 games. It won't happen if the offense waits for the defense to win games for them as happened more often than not last fall.

"I think there are going to be some times when our offense has to win some ballgames. This happened to be one of those nights where, you know, they made some plays. Things happened their way, and the quarterback was on and sometimes you've got to go through some of those games.

"We did that last year on the back of our defense. I just felt like (Saturday) was one of those nights where our offense had to bail out our defense. But in no way of saying our defense can't play championship defense. I think it can. It just wasn't this night."

Not even close, but Notre Dame's defensive front showed it can still control a running game. It should still be able to fire off the ball and apply pressure without the aid of constant blitzing. In the purportedly deeper secondary, it can't tackle worse.

"I'm not happy with the way things went on Saturday, but I look at our future and think that we could be a really good football team," Kelly said. "I'm confident that we can fix the things that need to be fixed and develop the players that need to be developed. I think that is the most important thing from my perspective."

The season's ultimate goal was likely the only thing lost Saturday in Ann Arbor.

Across-the-board improvement awaits, and is necessary.


IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories