Sudden-change defense providing boost

September, 26, 2011
9/26/11
4:33
PM ET
Notre Dame committed two more turnovers Saturday at Pitt, which was actually an improvement after giving the ball away five, five and three times in its first three games, respectively.

[+] EnlargeStephon Tuitt and Prince Shembo
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicNotre Dame's Stephon Tuitt, 7, celebrates with Prince Shembo, 55, after sacking Pittsburgh's Tino Sunseri. The Irish defense has been at its best following a turnover by the offense.
Nonetheless, the Fighting Irish are tied with Tulsa for the nation lead with 15 turnovers, and they are all alone at the bottom in turnover margin, at -2.50.

The latter figure is of less importance to the Irish because of just how effective their defense has been. And, more specifically, because of how effective their defense has been once the offense turns the ball over.

Following Notre Dame's past four turnovers, Irish opponents have totaled just 12 yards on 14 plays, an average of just less than .86 yards per play. Two field goals are all the Irish have allowed during that stretch.

The sudden-change defense was at its absolute best in the first quarter Saturday, after Pitt's Andrew Taglianetti forced a Tommy Rees fumble on a third-and-12 at the Irish 26 yard line.

Pitt took over at the 23, committed a false start penalty and, two plays later, lost five more yards when Manti Te'o sacked Tino Sunseri. The drive, which ended with a 45-yard Kevin Harper field goal to put Pitt ahead 3-0, totaled -5 yards on four plays.

A week earlier, following a John Goodman fumbled punt deep in his own territory in the fourth quarter, Notre Dame's defense responded three plays later by picking off Michigan State's Kirk Cousins in the end zone to seal the game.

"I think Coach [Bob] Diaco and the defensive staff do a great job of talking about it," Brian Kelly said of his defensive coordinator during his Sunday teleconference. "I think it's something that we coach every day and talk to our players about, and they then -- I think right now, any time you have some early success in that, it starts to build a confidence level where they are talking about it themselves, and I think we have got that going for us."

That's no lie. Just a week earlier, following the Irish's win against the Spartans, Te'o said being ready for such situations is part of the defense's DNA.

Fifth-year safety and captain Harrison Smith said the unit has come to enjoy being ready to get back out there, acknowledging the unusualness of the statement by adding, "as sick as it sounds."

Notre Dame's defense has just five takeaways on the season, but Kelly doesn't see that as a problem.

Given the circumstances the unit has been put in, it is doing just fine.

"Well, I think there's a balance there in terms of big plays," Kelly said. "We really have not let up any big-play runs, and if you are going to gamble a little bit and look to get that takeaway, there's a chance that you give up some more big plays.

"We are philosophically more in line with wanting to be gap sound and disciplined against the run game. I mean, we are doing pretty good this year relative to teams in running the football. I'm more interested in that right now than gambling on defense to get some more turnovers."

Matt Fortuna | email

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