SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Brian Kelly challenged his defense last week. The message got through as clear as any through four games.
Notre Dame trotted out three new defensive starters for Saturday's game against Michigan State. The Irish then bottled up the Spartans better than they had any opponent in 2013.
"It wasn't just at one position," Kelly said Sunday. "It was really at three levels: the defensive line, linebacker and and defensive backs. We saw on Saturday all three of those things show themselves. We'll now need to see that on a consistent basis."
That is the main question moving forward for this unit after holding Michigan State to just 254 yards of total offense. Oklahoma, on-deck this week for a rematch of last year's Irish upset, is not exactly the Spartans, though just how lethal the Sooners' offense is remains unclear through three games.
Oklahoma averages 490.3 yards 33.7 points per game, albeit against opponents with a combined 2-6 record against FCS opponents this season. The Sooners have already made a quarterback change, as Blake Bell replaced Trevor Knight in Week 3 after losing the battle to Knight in camp.
"Who is going to show up now is really going to be what we're asking," Kelly said of his defense. "Are we going to see the group that showed itself against Michigan State consistently or the group that we saw the last couple weeks that played hot and cold? We're going to look for that consistency now from our defense."
Elijah Shumate and Austin Collinsworth started together Saturday at safety. Matthias Farley, who normally starts alongside either of the two, ended up grabbing the game's lone takeaway with his third-quarter interception. Jarrett Grace got the start over fifth-year senior Dan Fox and tied for a team-high with eight tackles. Senior Kona Schwenke, meanwhile, started with Sheldon Day sidelined because of an ankle sprain.
Stephon Tuitt looked like his old self, too, tallying six tackles, one sack and one hurry.
Day is expected back this week. Whether this unit has finally turned a corner after struggling early to live up to the standards of last year's defense remains to be seen, though Saturday was certainly a start.
"I think we responded tremendously our energy was up as a defensive unit," captain Bennett Jackson said. "Guys were flying around to the ball. And we pride ourselves on having high energy, and thats something that Coach was pushing throughout the week of practice, and we came out and executed well."