The strength of the defense, on paper, is the pass defense. Notre Dame is 5th in the nation against the pass. The Irish have allowed only two teams to throw for more than 250 yards and picked off nine opponent passes.
A possible reason for the excellent passing ranking has been Notre Dame's inability to stop the run. The Irish are 103rd in the country against the run after facing two straight option attacks. Navy is tops in the nation on the ground while Air Force is fourth.
Notre Dame has held just one team under 100 yards. That was UCLA and the Bruins totaled 89 yards on the ground in their 20-6 loss to the Irish. Six teams have broken the 225-yard barrier on the ground. This all adds up to holding just one team below 27 points in 2007. Adjusting to the new scheme has had its rough moments.
"Being realistic, I look at it like this," Brown said on Wednesday after practice. "Coming in, everybody has expectations. You want everything to be perfect and gel and come together. That's what you expect. When it doesn't happen, you have to look all of those reasons, whether it's the coaches, players or scheme. What we've done and have to do is get to the point where we can go out and play defense, everybody is on the same page, confident and everybody is playing hard and we're productive. We haven't done that as consistently as we would have liked."
The problems could be attributed to youth and inexperience. Eleven players have made their first start on defense this season. On-the-job training is tough for any team. The defense has had their moments. The win over the Bruins, where linebacker Maurice Crum became the first Irish player ever to record a pair of forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and two interceptions in the same contest. The effort for a stretch in the second half versus Boston College also might come to mind. Brown has seen the same thing and wants that type of performance to show itself for an entire game.
"There has been spurts," Brown said about his defense playing well. "In this game, you can't do it in spurts. You have to do it throughout the whole game. You can't do it for three and a half quarters. You can't take the first quarter off and then fight your butt back the last three quarters. We've definitely learned a lot about our players and scheme and the coaches. Now, we're just waiting for that one week where we put it all together."
The teaching will continue in these last two contests. Brown is starting to see more of the players get on the same page about what the defensive coordinator wants to see on the field.
"I'll use Brian Smith as an example," Brown said. "I can start a sentence and he can finish it. He'll tell me exactly what I intend on saying. That means he knows how it should be going. If we can translate that to the field, that's good. I think we have some of that. But I think we need a lot more. We also need to get it more consistently. That's as much on the coaches as the players. You have to make it easy for the kids. That's as much on me as the kids."
***There are just two contests left in the season. A lot of the focus for fans is already starting to point towards next year. That's partially the case for the coaches as well. With a bevy of young talent on the defensive side of the ball, it's time to start evaluating these players in practice and in games in order to find out what will be in store when spring practice begins in March.
"We've been looking at show team as much as we've been looking at our stuff," Brown said. "You want to go into the spring and say, ‘This guy can do this. This guy struggles with that.' We want to see if guys can make calls. It's the end of the year. Guys should be able to make calls. We want them to make adjustments, get into the right stances and have some awareness. That tells you where you are. You definitely peak at the younger guys because their time is about to come."***After two straight option attacks, Notre Dame gets a break this week against Duke. The Blue Devils like to throw the ball, averaging 213 yards per game through the air. Duke quarterback Thaddeus Lewis ranks in the top four in both touchdowns and passing yards in the ACC. Wide receiver Eron Riley is third in the NCAA with a 21.5 YPC average.
Despite these two standouts, the Blue Devils have been far from productive. Duke is 119th in rushing offense, 116th in total offense and 108th in scoring offense. Notre Dame's weakness is stopping the run. The Blue Devils haven't had a 100-yard performance as a team this season. Brown still had nothing but kind words about the Duke attack.
"It's like every week," Brown said. "They've got receivers. They'll throw the ball down the field and those guys have shown they can catch it. They have a quarterback who can put it where they need to put it. When he needs to, he can run the ball. They have good tight ends and a good offensive line. It's line Groundhog's Day."
***Brown on fifth-year senior Trevor Laws: "The main thing he's done is he says to everyone this is how it should be done. That motto is there for coming out on the field at practice, playing hard, doing a real good job in the meeting room and carrying it over to the field. He's played well. I've watched Dewayne Robertson (of the New York Jets) and a lot of the guys from the Patriots. Trevor has been just as productive as those guys."