During the tumultuous Irish offseason that included the suspension of starting quarterback Everett Golson, the feeling among the Notre Dame faithful went like this: If Tommy Rees doesn’t screw up, the team should contend for another double-digit victory total behind a stout defense.
Senior cornerback and captain Bennett Jackson (right) is one of eight starters that returned from the elite 2012 defense. This year, the Irish defense is looking to find an identity.
After all, the unit returned eight players after allowing the fewest points per game of any team during the 2012 regular season. Although the three graduates all heard their respective names called during the NFL Draft, conventional wisdom held that enough talent returned to follow last year’s success with another top-15 season.
Surely, two games do not make a season. Behind defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s tutelage, the Irish defense could still be ranked among the nation’s elite by the end of Thanksgiving weekend. But the Irish need to quickly right the ship, or risk sinking to a non-BCS bowl after elevating the program’s expectations in 2012.
While former Irish linebacker Manti Te’o — now with the San Diego Chargers — stood as the undisputed leader of the suffocating defense a season ago, a strong voice is not the only attribute to disappear from the unit. Its identity has as well.
“I think we can play a whole lot better than we played [Saturday]; that is for certain,” said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, who harped about the squandered chances on offense more than the lackluster defensive play. “I guess what I'm saying is we had too many opportunities offensively that we didn't turn them into touchdowns again … where last year we had to rely on our defense to win football games. I don't want to have to do that week in and week out.
“We did that last year on the back of our defense. I just felt like this was one of those nights where our offense had to bail out our defense. But in no way of saying our defense can't play championship defense. I think it can. It just wasn't this night.”
After employing a red zone defense of historic proportions through the 12 regular-season games last year, the Irish defense has withered when backed up against its own end zone in two of their last three games, including the national championship blowout loss to Alabama. Although Temple scored one touchdown in three red zone tries, Alabama and Michigan combined to score nine touchdowns in nine red zone appearances against Notre Dame, directly leading to totals of 42 and 41 points, respectively.
“We've got new players,” Kelly said. “We've lost some talented players for sure, but I think we've got some guys that are learning some new roles. Dan Fox is in the Mike linebacker position. We've got a true freshman [Jaylon Smith] playing drop. We've got a new safety combination. You've got some new players that are growing.
“We’ve got to coach some things up. We've got to clean some things up fundamentally. I like our players, and we've just got to continue to develop who we are. I think I would feel a lot differently moving forward if I didn't feel like we had the players necessary to have a good defense and the level of the defense that we're going to need with the schedule that we're going to play.”
As the defense works through some growing pains, the offense has been mostly efficient under Rees for all the preseason concerns. The senior quarterback distributed the ball to seven and eight receivers against Temple and Michigan, respectively, and committed two turnovers, albeit a costly one toward the end of the first half. If the offense continues to put points on the board and if the defensive struggles continue, there’s not likely to be a divide in the locker room after the opposite led to a 12-1 season a year ago.
“Our defense has done a great job for a long time,” Rees said after the loss. “Hats off to Michigan. They had a good gameplan both offensively and defensively. I’m not going to touch on the defense. Offensively, we needed to be better and we needed to execute and we definitely missed some opportunities to put more points on the board.”