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Friday, September 13, 2013
Irish defense looks to get back on track

By Matt Fortuna

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Bennett Jackson entered the football building's auditorium Wednesday wearing a yellow t-shirt. On the front, above his heart, the shirt read: "Irish D-Boys," with the Fighting Irish leprechaun logo right below the words. On the back, in big, bold letters, the shirt read: "Addicted to Our Culture."

Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco had asked his players how addicted they were to that culture before a camp practice early last month, and Notre Dame has tried to live by that motto after a 2012 season that surpassed everyone's expectations.

Bennett Jackson
Senior Bennett Jackson believes this year's Notre Dame defense can be as good as last year's.
"Just really dominance, that's what we expect from one another, that's our standard," Jackson, the lone defensive captain, said, describing his defense's culture. "We do everything throughout the day in every facet of our life at a first-class level basically, and we don't expect anything less than that. So our culture is dominance -- that's what we push ourselves toward."

But that culture of dominance was fractured last week by a Michigan team that put up 41 points in delivering the Irish their first regular-season loss since 2011. A unit that returned seven starters from last year showed holes that few saw coming.

The Irish finished last year's regular season atop the nation in scoring defense, at 10.33 points per game. They then gave up 42 points in the BCS title game loss to Alabama. The Crimson Tide converted all five red-zone trips that night into touchdowns. Likewise, the Wolverines reached the end zone on all four of their red-zone trips this past weekend.

This against a defense whose hallmark last season was two game-winning, season-defining, goal-line stands.

"We didn't play very well," linebacker Dan Fox said of the red-zone defense in each contest.

Notre Dame has allowed 47 points and six touchdowns through two games this season. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Irish did not allow 47 points last season until their sixth game, and they did not allow six touchdowns until their ninth game.

Their next two opponents, Purdue and Michigan State, could provide opportunities for those numbers to climb back to the standard, as the Boilermakers and Spartans rank 108th and 100th nationally, respectively, in total offense.

"I feel like we're definitely trying to push one another in practice," Jackson said. "We have a high standard as a defense, and we feel like we haven't played to that level or the level that we expect of ourselves, so of course we're (trying) to push our level up, pushing everybody through practice and just stay focused on our keys."

Head coach Brian Kelly has not lost faith in the unit that his team rode to last year's heights, saying that "what you see is what you got" when it comes to personnel this weekend, and that this year's defense remains capable of playing at a championship level, despite last week's rough outing.

Notre Dame's defense might very well live up to last year's high mark, but it received a not-so-friendly reminder that adjusting for personnel losses and bigger targets on their backs is still a process that takes time.

"We've got to coach some things up," Kelly said. "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. We've got to clean some things up, and I'm confident that we will."