Not since Notre Dame's national championship season in 1988 has the Fighting Irish defense hammered out such dominating performances in back-to-back weeks. The latest, a 27-3 drubbing of Army on Saturday at Yankee Stadium, pushed Notre Dame (6-5) into the postseason, no matter what happens this weekend at Southern California.
Including a 28-3 win over Utah, Notre Dame is 2-0 in November and hasn't allowed an offensive touchdown since Tulsa's opening drive late last month. The Irish gave up just 174 yards of total offense versus the Black Knights, pulling the plug on a triple-option attack that was similar to the one that gave them fits in a loss to Navy.
And just like the offense has soldiered on with a host of replacements due to injuries, the Irish defense, suddenly stunning under coordinator Bob Diaco, is getting a lift from a rotating cast. Against Army, a standout day by utility man Robert Blanton and stalwart cornerback Darrin Walls made all the difference in the Big Apple.
"I think [Blanton is] a great guy to talk about," Irish coach Brian Kelly said during his Sunday teleconference. "Versatility, first of all. He played the outside linebacker position. He's played nickel for us. He's played corner for us. He's played safety for us. He's blocked kicks. He sweeps out the stadium after the game. He's one of those versatile football players that just loves the game, has a great deal of confidence, and anytime we can put him in a position to help our football team we're going to do that."
Linebacker Manti Te'o registered a team-high nine tackles, breaking his nose in the process. Te’o has been cleared to play Saturday against USC, Kelly said. Walls made seven tackles. including one for a loss, and returned an interception 42 yards for a touchdown to open the third quarter.
Here's more from Kelly on Notre Dame's victory in New York City:
On running back Cierre Wood's 88-yard night: "I think he's getting closer to the back that we want. I think the one thing, and we've talked about this all year, [is] his ability to pick up the blitz and the pressure. He did an incredible job on two big plays that we had of over 30 yards -- two of our big-chunk plays -- he was in there on protection. He gave up sacks earlier in the year not being able to protect. There was a couple times there I thought he's gotta fight through some runs, but he's getting better and better each week.”
On tight end Tyler Eifert's performance: "Obviously, two terrific catches. He's got that vertical threat -- his ability to get downfield. He's starting to feel comfortable with the day-to-day grind of getting banged on. Remember now, here's a young man who had a serious back injury and we really have to get him back from really not playing at all last year. So, he's just made progress and he's a touch matchup. If you want a linebacker or safety to cover him, you know, we're going to be able to utilize that matchup."
On his team fighting through distractions: "You could look at a lot of things. I inherited a lot of things when I came to Notre Dame. What I didn't inherit were kids that weren't great kids. I got great kids and they show that every day to me in the way they come to work, the way they go to class, the way they do things and they've been able to handle adversity very, very well. There've been teaching moments for all of us. I've learned a lot during the year, I know our players have. I really believe at the end of the day our kids have gotten stronger in dealing with some tough times, really."
On the eight-game losing streak to USC: "Obviously the rivalry is very, very important to many that follow this. There's no question about that. I think we all understand the USC-Notre Dame rivalry. For us it's consistency. The development of your program over a long period of time is how you can come back in back-to-back weeks and consistently perform with the same kind of mental and physical toughness necessary to be successful. But as a singular game, there hasn't and will not be one singular game that defines. We'll feel better about a win, obviously. ... The bottom line for us is to continue to move in the right direction and that is to play with that physical and mental toughness that I've kind of been talking about all year."