Chicago Sun-Times
with Mark Lazerus

Notre Dame defense 'battling'' -- needs to battle better

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Brian Kelly's defense of his defense was also an indirect indictment: ''They're playing as hard as they can play.''

The Irish defense has been hot-and-cold at best in losses to Michigan and Michigan State the past two weeks. The problem can't be put much more succinctly than this: The Irish are giving up big plays, but making hardly any at all.

Kelly's defenses are going to give up yards, so 477 against Michigan State and even the 532 against Michigan are tolerable figures -- but only if they neutralize some of that damage by taking the ball away.

That hasn't happened so far. Notre Dame's defense has three interceptions -- two of them against Purdue -- with zero return yards. And the Irish have forced only one fumble -- linebacker Manti Te'o stripping Michigan's Denard Robinson -- and did not recover it.

Even last year's team had six takeaways (four interceptions, two fumble recoveries) after three games.

Kelly seems resigned to the defense being a ''work-in-progress'' throughout the season. At Cincinnati, he inherited a pretty solid defense from Mark Dantoni, but still infused it with a hard-hitting mentality that created turnovers.

Even without all-Big East defensive end Trevor Anderson (six sacks, 13 TFLs in 2006), who followed Dantoni to Michigan State, the Bearcats' defense made more big plays under Kelly.
They led the NCAA with 26 interceptions (up from 14); tied for the NCAA lead with 42 takeaways (up from 23); and were eighth with 42 sacks (up from 31).

But, so far anyway, we haven't seen anything close to a similar bump at Notre Dame.

----  The Irish have allowed 491 rushing yards (5.8 per carry) the past two weeks, a statistic bloated by two long touchdown runs -- Denard Robinson's 87-yarder and a 56-yard run by Michigan State's Edwin Baker.
''It's always one play,'' Kelly said. ''They had the one big run where we just gap-released a couple of guys and didn't stay disciplined in our fits. But they had 42 carries for 147 yards (outside of Baker's run) -- we'll take that any day.

''All in all I'm not concerned about our run defense as much as we have to do a better job of not giving up the one big play.''

---- If the Irish defense can't play any harder, it'll have to start playing better, because the degree of difficulty might actually go up this week. No. 16 Stanford (3-0) is averaging 51.7 points a game (No. 3 in the NCAA) and beat Wake Forest 68-24 last week. Quarterback Andrew Luck was 17-of-23 for 207 yards and four touchdowns and also ran 52 yards for a touchdown. He has 10 touchdown passes already this season.

Notre Dame's schedule seems to be getting more difficult. The seven future Irish opponents that played last weekend averaged 38.4 points, including Utah's 56-14 victory at New Mexico and Navys 37-13 victory at Louisiana Tech. In fact, eight of Notre Dame's nine upcoming opponents are averaging 27.7 points or more this season.

---- Safety is one area where the Irish expect to improve in the near future. Notre Dame has played with two scholarship safeties for most of the first three weeks -- senior Harrison Smith and sophomore Zeke Motta. And just like baseball adage that ''ball will find the bad fielder,'' it seems like the safeties are involved in every bad play that has hampered Notre Dame this season.

A block on Motta against Michigan sprung Denard Robinson for his 87-yard touchdown run; Smith was beaten on a key third-and-five conversion against Michigan that set up Robinson's winning touchdown run; and Smith also was one of two Notre Dame players who fell down on Michigan State's game-winning fake field goal.

Juniors Jamoris Slaughter (sprained ankle) and Dan McCarthy (soft-tissue injury) still are not 100 percent.

''We'd like to get McCarthy in,'' Kelly said. ''We just can't seem to get over the hump where we feel he can play fast enough for us on the back end. That's [an injury] that's just taken longer than we hoped.

''But we're not going to put him out there if he can't run the alley and do the things we ask the safety to do. Slaughter [played] in an emergency situation and gave us a couple of snaps, but he's not ready either. Hopefully just time is going to come out on our side so we can get those guys back.''

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This page contains a single entry by Mark Potash published on September 21, 2010 12:39 AM.

Michigan State's Mark Dantonio snookers Notre Dame -- again was the previous entry in this blog.

Brian Kelly: Irish know how to win is the next entry in this blog.

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