SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame’s defense allowed 11.5 points per game through the end of September last year, but its success was never sustainable.
That much became apparent when opponents averaged 43 points per game against the Irish in November, a month in which the Irish were without Joe Schmidt for all but about two quarters. But even going back to Notre Dame’s shutout of Michigan, coach Brian Kelly said his defense still made far too many mental errors. The warning signs were there, even if the results masked them.
Kelly and his players, though, are confident Saturday’s primetime defensive dominance against a powerhouse program is a sign of things to come and didn’t set off the kind of alarm bells last year’s early-season performances did.
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“Night and day,” Kelly said. “(It was) definitely a different unit out there relative to mistakes. Now, we had some, there's no question. But in terms of recognition where they needed to be, the communication, all of those things, compared to where we were last year to this year just an entirely different unit.”
Notre Dame’s defensive players are in Year 2 of Brian VanGorder’s defense and plenty of them said they have a far greater understanding of their defensive coordinator’s scheme and line of thinking. They can anticipate what he’ll call better, which defensive tackle Sheldon Day said allows them to play faster — which certainly showed against Texas with four sacks and seven tackles for a loss.
The Irish will face much better opponents than a Texas team breaking in two freshmen offensive linemen and rotating two entirely ineffective quarterbacks. But limiting anyone to 3.1 yards per play, let alone a Texas team that despite its struggles is still full of top athletes, is an impressive achievement.
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So things went about as well as they could’ve for a Notre Dame’s defense that’s been working to this point since last year’s late-season collapse.
“They’re not the Texas when they had Ricky Williams and stuff, of course, not that Texas anymore,” cornerback KeiVarae Russell said. “But they are Texas, they’re going to play a great game. … Our defense is a championship defense when we play to our ability. It’s one of those things, I couldn’t see it (in preseason practice) but then again, since it happened, I’m not surprised. It’s one of things, I thought it would be a little closer because it’s Texas and Notre Dame, but then again, when I look back, I know my team, I think we could probably do this to anybody if we do the right things.”
Both Russell and Schmidt lauded Notre Dame’s defensive line play, which consistently put pressure on quarterbacks Tyrone Swoopes and Jerrod Heard and teed up Irish linebackers and defensive backs to make plays all night.
“You can’t say enough good things about our defensive line right now,” Schmidt said. “They bullied, they were dominant up front.”
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And while Texas only ran 52 plays, Kelly said he was pleased with how Notre Dame’s defense ran with the Longhorns’ hurry-up tempo — which was a major issue last year. It remains to be seen how Notre Dame fares against a team that’s able to run 75-plus plays, but Kelly is confident this group can handle that kind of speed — and everything else — better than it could in Year 1 under VanGorder.
“I think if you look at overall, everybody was fundamentally in real good position,” Kelly said. “It was so much different than last year relative to communication. It was the tempo offense. Really never felt like we were out of position and never really had that sense from last year that we didn't get great communication out there.”