Blackhawks

Notre Dame by the numbers

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Notre Dame by the numbers

A month into its season, Notre Dame couldn't have asked for a better start. A 4-0 record and No. 9 ranking in the AP poll represent the program's best beginning to a season in a decade, and that success is the product of two big-picture keys: Fewer turnovers by the offense, and suffocating play by the defense.

Breaking that down a little further, here are six numbers to know about Notre Dame through four games:

4: Number of big (30 yards) plays allowed

Only three FBS teams have allowed fewer explosive plays than Notre Dame, and only one of those defenses -- Florida -- has done it against an equally difficult schedule. The Irish defense has allowed three plays of 30-39 yards and only one play for over 40, so it's no surprise Notre Dame is allowing just 0.15 points per play, the sixth-best average among FBS programs.

2: Red zone touchdowns allowed

Keeping in mind Notre Dame's ability to limit big plays, the defense's ability to limit red zone touchdowns stands out even more. Irish opponents have reached the red zone 10 times, scoring just a pair of touchdowns and kicking four field goals. This is a defense that plays well between the 20s, but buckles down in the red zone. Only TCU has allowed fewer red zone touchdowns this year (1).

9: Average points allowed

Only Alabama (7) and TCU (7.3) have averaged fewer points allowed, and both those teams haven't faced the kind of schedule Notre Dame has. Regardless, though, Alabama has the best defense in the country, but Notre Dame's firmly in the next tier below the Tide.

13: Turnovers forced

Last year, Notre Dame's defense recovered six fumbles and intercepted eight passes in 12 games. Through four games in 2012, the Irish defense has recovered five fumbles and intercepted eight passes, with five of those interceptions coming against Michigan Sept. 22.

Statistically speaking, Notre Dame has been lucky in terms of generating interceptions. College football stat guru Bill Connelly's research shows about 21.9 percent of passes defended (passes broken up interceptions) are picked off; Notre Dame has defended 21 passes and picked off 8 for a rate of 38 percent.

But it's not all luck that's led to those interceptions -- the strong play of Notre Dame's front seven has led to plenty of hurried or forced throws from opposing quarterbacks, leading to that high interception rate. Instead, it's a combination of Notre Dame getting a little lucky, but also making a lot of their luck through its pass rush.

4: Turnovers committed

And here's the biggest reason why Notre Dame is 4-0: Notre Dame turned the ball over 15 times through four games in 2012 en route to a 2-2 record, but over the same span this year the Irish have a 9 turnover margin.

"My wife even talks to me when I'm plus 9," coach Brian Kelly joked after the Michigan game, "which didn't happen much last year."

28: S&P ranking for Notre Dame's offense

In a nutshell, S&P (via Football Outsiders) measures the success and explosiveness of every play an offense runs or a defense faces. It's a pretty good catch-all that's adjusted for strength of schedule, and Notre Dame's offense actually rates pretty well by it.

Nobody's mistaking Notre Dame's offense for Geno Smith's outrageous West Virginia attack. But thanks to a solid run game headlined by Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood and George Atkinson III, the Irish offense can hold its own, especially given how few turnovers it's committed.

The S&P metric gives a lot of credit to Notre Dame's tough schedule, as their unadjusted numbers rank 76th in the country. Consider, too, that Notre Dame's doing it with a freshman quarterback who hasn't been able to ease into anything.

In short: Notre Dame's offense may not be as bad as it seems. That's the good news. The bad news, though, is Notre Dame's schedule doesn't ease up until early November, so chances are they'll be locked in plenty of close defensive battles as the season progresses.

Eight-defensemen rotation tricky, but players understand juggling act

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USA TODAY

Eight-defensemen rotation tricky, but players understand juggling act

For Jordan Oesterle, the wait really wasn’t a terrible thing.

Sure, he was used to playing more consistently in the past. But he knew with the Blackhawks carrying eight defensemen that several players, including him, would need to practice patience and understanding.

“It hasn’t been too long. It’s only been a week and a half so it’s not terrible,” said Oesterle on Thursday morning, a few hours before he made his Blackhawks debut against his former team, the Edmonton Oilers.

For the second consecutive season the Blackhawks are going with eight defensemen to start the season. In one way, it’s good: if anything goes awry, be it someone’s game or someone’s health, the depth is readily there.

But so are the challenges. It’s a juggling act, a delicate balance between making the right decisions and making sure a player understands that a scratch may be more about the rotation and not his individual game.

Communication, above all, is key.

“It’s not easy being the guys who are in or out, right on that bubble situation where you come in not knowing if you’re going to play. But as a staff we want to keep everyone involved,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “We know the depth of your defense is going to get challenged at some point during the year. We feel the eight guys who are here can play but that’s how we’ve always done it: We’ve always let guys know whether you’re in or out. Sometimes you have to be more patient than you’d like but handling it the right way, whether you’re a good pro or teammate, that can be healthy around the environment of your team.”

Based on all outward appearances, everyone has handled it well. Connor Murphy has been a healthy scratch twice – “I mean I just want to see the team win really...if we're winning and guys are playing well that's all that matter,” Murphy said after his first scratch.

Oesterle was a healthy scratch the first seven games. Michal Kempny, who Oesterle replaced, has been scratched the last two games. Cody Franson has also sat seven games. Franson, whose patience has been in place while awaiting contracts in his career, is practicing it again. But he’s appreciated the Blackhawks’ communication on it.

“This situation gets tough when they don’t say anything to you; you don’t know if it’s because of the way you’re playing, you don’t know if it’s something you did or what the situation is. The coaching staff has done a great job of being in our ear, letting us leave our work at the rink and not take it home with us,” Franson said. “That goes a long way in being able to stay positive and in the right mindset through it.”

After starting with eight defensemen last season the Blackhawks eventually went back to seven. Will they do that again this season? Maybe, but whoever gets sent down would most likely have to go through waivers. The Blackhawks reassigned Gustav Forsling last season to get back to seven defensemen and get Forsling more playing time. But this season Forsling and Jan Rutta have been dependable and have pretty much become the Blackhawks’ second pairing.

So for now, eight defensemen it shall be. Being part of the rotation isn’t always easy but so far players seem to get that it’s for the greater good.

“It’s one of those things where we’ve got eight quality guys. I think no matter who’s sitting on any given night, it might not necessary be due to how they’re playing or how they’re doing individually,” Franson said. “I think Q’s done a great job of managing that situation. That’s one of those things where it’s a great problem to have but it’s not an easy one to handle. So we’re all aware of what’s taking place right now and you just try to be as professional about it as you can.”

Return of the Monsters of the Midway: Bears defense has huge day in win over Panthers

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Return of the Monsters of the Midway: Bears defense has huge day in win over Panthers

Are the Monsters of the Midway back?

You wouldn’t be wrong for feeling that way after watching yet another strong performance from the Bears’ defense in Sunday’s 17-3 win over the Carolina Panthers at Soldier Field.

Highlighted by Eddie Jackson’s pair of 75-yard turnover-return touchdowns, the Bears’ defense had a second straight highlight-reel display on Sunday. In addition to Jackson’s takeaways, the defense also added a fourth-quarter interception for a third takeaway, sacked Cam Newton five times and kept the Panthers completely out of the end zone.

For those keeping score at home: That’s two full games without allowing an offensive touchdown.

And they did it all while constantly being on the field. Thanks to Jackson’s touchdowns, the Bears’ offense got to stay on the sideline more than usual, the Bears’ offense possessing the ball for fewer than 7 minutes in the first half and only 21 minutes and 25 seconds on the game overall. And when the offense did take the field, the results were poor, meaning a quick turnaround for the defense.

The overworked defense didn’t always keep the Panthers from marching down the field, but the Panthers never found the end zone, Newton’s inaccuracies assisting the terrific play of the Bears’ defense, which technically forced four turnovers, if you count a third-quarter turnover on downs.

And that’s all before mentioning that the defense supplied almost the entirety of the Bears’ scoring output for the day on Jackson’s first-quarter fumble-return touchdown and his second-quarter interception-return touchdown. Both went 75 yards as Jackson, playing a year to the day from the end of his collegiate career with a broken leg at Alabama, became the first defensive player ever to have two 75-yard-plus return touchdowns in an NFL game.

If you’re having flashbacks to the last decade, when Lovie Smith’s defenses had a habit of being bigger scoring threats than the offense, you’re not alone. Twitter lit up with Mike Brown comparisons for Jackson.

Great day for the rookie, great day for the defense.

No offense to be found

Meanwhile, the Bears’ offense did next to nothing on a day when the defense was excellent.

Mitch Trubisky was mostly silent in his third career game, the obvious exception being his 70-yard heave to Tarik Cohen. Trubisky’s deep ball landed in his fellow rookie’s hands, and Cohen did the rest scampering all the way down to the 5-yard line.

Of course, the Bears’ offense failed there, unable to cover five yards in three plays for a touchdown. Trubisky attempted to rush in on third down, racing to the pylon and diving for the score. It was initially ruled a touchdown, but a replay review determined he was down short of the goal line. The Bears settled for a field goal on that drive, and it was the only scoring drive the offense engineered all day.

In the end, the numbers were disgusting. The Bears accumulated just 153 yards, picked up just five first downs, went 2-for-11 on third downs and scored just three points. Trubisky barely even threw the ball, completing just four of his seven passes for 107 yards.

Good thing the defense was so good — and scored 14 points — because the offense was practically non-existent.