The Eagles eventually punted, and the defense did its job as the Irish were beginning to mount a comeback.
Nothing earth shattering, but that play is a glimpse of Notre Dame's potential the rest of the season and in the future years. Speed and awareness made that play possible, two areas where the Irish are making strides and improvements. That didn't show up on the scoreboard this weekend, a 27-14 loss to No. 4 Boston College, but it will eventually.
"We're taking steps forward, but at the same time, we're just not getting enough done," junior nose tackle Pat Kuntz said.
With a year of eligibility left, Kuntz will be around when defensive coordinator Corwin Brown's 3-4 project brings more successes than sorrows.
There were both of those in the loss to Boston College. The Eagles gained 459 yards of offense, 168 yards coming on the ground including a 52-yard run by L.V. Whitworth that set up the game's first score. Heisman candidate quarterback Matt Ryan made quick decisions against a defense that brought a lot of pressure, connecting on 32-of-49 passes for 291 yards and two touchdowns.
The Irish defense made plays too. Smith's 25-yard interception return for a touchdown brought Notre Dame to within 20-14 and a chance for a major upset. With Boston College leading by the eventual final score, the defense forced two three and outs and made the Eagles punt three times and turn it over on downs once, giving the team a chance to win. Three of the four Boston College touchdown drives came when they got the ball in plus territory. The Eagles had the ball for an amazing 39:03, so under the circumstances, against a stud quarterback and talented team, the defense played quite well.
Head coach Charlie Weis agrees.
"I think that there's definitely some bright spots," Weis said. "You never can be jumping up and down about giving up 450 yards of offense, okay, but I think there was definitely some bright spots."
There's been other bright spots throughout the season, and a lot of those are coming from players that are going to be wearing a Notre Dame jersey for the next couple years. With that, you can see the defense getting better on a weekly basis as Brown makes adjustments and the players continue to develop.
It won't be long until Smith and classmate defensive end/outside linebacker Kerry Neal become every down players. Their speed, athleticism and versatility have been missing from the Irish defense for years now.
There are playmakers in the secondary now, evident by sophomore Darrin Walls interception return for a score against Penn State, or his high-impact hit to break up a pass against Boston College. Then there's junior safety David Bruton's leaping interception in the end zone against Michigan State, or sophomore John Ryan coming off the edge to hurry another Ryan throw.
The pieces are starting to come into place. Eventually, spot player 300-pound Ian Williams will become the regular nose tackle. The Irish will become bigger and more physical along the line of scrimmage. The linebackers and defense in general are getting faster by the recruiting class, and the secondary is really starting to turn the corner. Teams won't be able to run the football on the Irish like they are now (186.71 yards per game, ranking 91st nationally), and they‘re already struggling to throw the football (173.29 yards per game, 14th nationally).
Right now, the Irish are a middle of the road defense, ranking 50th nationally allowing 360 yards per game, playing around a struggling offense that leaves them hanging on the regular. But stay tuned, because plays like the ones Smith made against Ryan will become the norm and not a glimpse.