The Notre Dame defense had a spectacular season in 2002. The Irish finished 10th in rush defense (95.2 YPG), 46th in pass defense (204.77 YPG), 13th in total defense (300.00 YPG) and 9th in scoring defense (16.7 PPG).
Statistically, they weren't much better than the Davie-led 2001 defense--the Irish finished 39th in the nation is rush defense (132.3 yards per game), 10th in passing defense (172.69 YPG), 14th in total defense (305 YPG) and 22nd overall in scoring defense (19.5 points per game) in 2001.
While the difference doesn't appear to be much, the attitude certainly changed. The Irish intercepted 21 passes on the year and recovered 12 fumbles in 2002. In 2001, the Irish intercepted just 14 passes and recovered 12 fumbles. It seemed like every time the Irish needed a big play, someone would step up on the defense and make one. The attitude was contagious and the Irish seemed like a totally different team.
Baer says he wasn't satisfied with his defense in 2002. "I don't think you can ever be satisfied," said Baer of his defense in 2002. "We're always looking for things to improve. We're going to do some things different but I obviously can't say what they are. We need to really improve on the little things that we made mistakes on a year ago. There is a tremendous amount of room for improvement."
Baer was even less enthusiastic about his defense after watching film of his defense during the off-season. "After the season we sit down and watch our cutups," said Baer. "It seemed like at times we didn't do anything right. That's the nature of a coach to look and see where you can improve. It's amazing how some of the little things hurt us all throughout the year."
When one looks at this team on paper you see three returning defensive linemen, maybe all three returning starters at linebacker and two returning starters at defensive back. Defensive end Justin Tuck essentially was a starter last year. Linebacker Brandon Hoyte also started two games and played a lot of minutes for the Irish. Cornerback Jason Beckstrom has starting and playing experience at the other corner position. The Irish should have plenty of returning experience.
What needs to improve?
The Irish were exploited by the better passing teams they faced. USC threw for 425 yards against the Irish. Carson Palmer completed 70 percent of his passes and threw four touchdown passes against the undermanned Irish.
North Carolina State only threw for 255 yards but Philip Rivers completed 61 percent of his passes and 2 touchdowns. The Irish had given up just six touchdowns all year through the air before giving up six more in the final two games. The Irish also surrendered 325, 313 and 281 yards to Florida State, Pittsburgh and Michigan State respectively and four touchdowns through the air in these three games.
Some key players were obviously hurt at the end of the year and that had some impact on the numbers but injuries are part of the game and can happen at any time.
The Irish will need to improve on this trend and become more effective against the pass if they hope to get a BCS bid in 2003.
The Irish had just two total sacks in the final two games. They also totaled just 11 tackles for loss in the final two games. They had four games previous with double digits in tackles for loss—Michigan State (12, 6 sacks), Stanford (11, 4 sacks), Pittsburgh (10, 8 sacks) and Rutgers (10, 5 sacks).
The most glaring statistic that needs to change is red-zone defense. USC entered the red-zone 11 times against Notre Dame scoring eight times for a total of 44 points. North Carolina State entered the red-zone only four times but scored all four times and four touchdowns for 28 points. The Irish were surrendering just below 10 points per game and 2.18 red-zone opportunities before the final two games.
The Irish were obviously impressive against the run. An average of 95 yards per game is excellent but there is still room for improvement.
USC also rushed for 185 yards against the Irish defense and two touchdowns. Navy (216 yards), Purdue (147 yards), Boston College (107 yards) and Air Force (104 yards) all cracked the century mark against the Irish defense. Most coaches set a goal of allowing less than 100 yards (most of the time 80) for each game. There were times when the Irish rush defense bent but they clearly were strong against the run.
How can they improve?
Every great defense has one thing in common—an outstanding defensive line. Watching linebackers and corners returning interceptions is certainly entertaining but chances are these interceptions came from the front four disrupting the play. The front four is vital to a great defense.
The good news is the Irish are certainly impressive along the starting front four. Darrell Campbell and Cedric Hilliard are a dominating force inside most of the time. They both had excellent junior seasons and are set for their final swansong. The absence of Hilliard when injured last year was noticeable and the importance of him having a healthy season is probably the most critical out of all the positions on the defense. Hilliard demands a double team and he is not easily movable.
The best news about the defensive line coming out of spring ball came from Kent Baer. Greg Pauly has become a factor for the Irish inside. "I'm not so sure he isn't a starter for us right now," said Baer of Pauly. "That is how much he has improved."
Why is this important? Greg Pauly is going to push both Darrell Campbell and Cedric Hilliard for playing time. Pauly will likely play the nose guard position but his emergence gives the Irish more flexibility with rotation of their defensive linemen.
Kyle Budinscak is a returning starter after having a solid season last year. Justin Tuck is a budding super star but needs to be more consistent. Tuck clearly has the talent but needs to develop more strength to be a consistent player. Hopefully he has over the summer and will become that great pass rusher the Irish have been lacking for a very long time.
Great defensive line play involves penetration into the backfield—on both running and passing plays. The Irish did get into the backfield often against the run but need to get to the quarterback more consistently before they can become a great defense. Each player along the defensive line should improve and hopefully so will the pass rush.
How important is a pass rush? I witnessed the championship Nebraska teams destroy teams with their defense and with some less than average defensive backs. The lack of talent at defensive back for the Huskers didn't matter however because their defensive line was all over the quarterback or running back long before the weakness could be exposed.
The secondary also had a great year but they showed signs of cracks and warts. As a unit, you cannot surrender 425 yards and four touchdowns in one game and consider that a good day. Still, they had some dominating performances and played with heart. They probably improved more than any other area on the team and Trent Walters can take some credit for that.
Man coverage is a buzzword for defensive backs and for some Irish fans. Some Irish fans scream that the Irish need to play more man coverage to attract defensive backs. While that certainly helps in recruiting, I don't know a defensive coordinator that would prefer to play man coverage all day (unless he has two Deion Sander's on his team)—the risk for a big play is too great.
Any defensive coordinator would prefer to get an outstanding pass rush from his front four and play zone all day long. Zone coverage keeps the offense in front of the defense and the risk for a big play is much less.
The secondary will hardest time time replacing lost talent--not just in numbers but in talent and leadership. Jason Beckstrom should be as good as Vontez Duff was last year. The strong safety position will be the key. Will Garron Bible step up? Will Quentin Burrell play so well that returning starter Glenn Earl shifts to strong safety? What about super freshman Freddie Parish who appears to have the talent and size to play early?
The secondary appears to be the unit with the most questions right now. Watching Trent Walters work with the last group—somehow I don't think they will suffer or be the problem. If the Irish can develop a consistent pass rush it likely won't matter much.
The pass rush in 2003 will be the difference between a good and a great defense. If they can develop a consistent pass rush, this defense is going to be awfully good. This defense could be remembered as one of the best in a very long time.