Is now the time to buy stock in Notre Dame football, or should you be cautious about a team getting a good footing before the mountain gets more difficult to climb? Right now, it is best to hold off on putting too much faith in Notre Dame’s return to college football glory. After all, this is a program that has fooled us all time and time again with good starts but falling flat in big spots. But is this Notre Dame finally the one that will be different?
Notre Dame’s 20-3 win at Michigan State improved the Fighting Irish to 3-0 for the first time since 2002, when Tyrone Whittingham coached the Golden Domers to an 8-0 start. This year’s Notre Dame team has a lot of work to do to match that start, but if Saturday night was any indication then this year’s team may be best suited to make it happen. The reason is because Notre Dame is finally looking capable of playing respectable defense, worthy of being respected.
Through three games Notre Dame has allowed their opponents to score a combined total of 30 points, an average of ten points per game. The defense is showing signs they are capable of paying the kind of defense Brian Kelly had hoped to bring to the storied program. It took some time, and it is just a small sample size to evaluate, but going in to East Lansing and shutting down the Spartans the way Notre Dame did does not happen by accident.
Senior linebacker Manti Te’o came to Notre Dame to help change the way people think about Notre Dame defense. Playing with the heaviest of hearts at the end of a tragic week for Te’o, losing his grandmother one day and his girlfriend to Leukemia the next, Te’o led all players with 12 tackles and added a fumble recovery and a pair of pass breakups in helping to shutdown Michigan State running back Le’Veon Bell and the Spartans offense. It should be no coincidence that Notre Dame’s rebuilding on defense has happened with Te’o leading the way in the middle of it all.
“There’s nobody [like Manti],”Kelly said after the game. “He’s so strong for everybody that when he was at a time, everybody wanted to help him out, and I’ve never seen that dynamic amongst a team and a group of players.”
That respect is incredibly well deserved for Te’o, but the turning around of Notre Dame’s defense has been a team effort through three weeks. The Irish are tied for fourth in the nation in sacks with 11.0, and they are on the positive side on turnover margin with seven turnovers in their favor to just two lost.
It is fair to question if the Michigan State win was a one game occurrence or if it will be the norm. After all, Notre Dame’s season opener opponent, Navy, had just given up more points in one game than Penn State was able to score in their first two games of the season with a highly questionable and depleted offense. Purdue has scored 48 and 54 points in their games outside of their trip to South Bend but they did so against an FCS school and Eastern Michigan, owners of the 119th ranked defense in the nation. The point is, it is entirely fair to suggest we do not know enough about Notre Dame yet.
But we will soon. The Fighting Irish will host the other Big Ten Legends Division contender, Michigan, this weekend in a prime time game. Notre Dame will also have some revenge on their minds after the way things finished in Ann Arbor a year ago. If Notre Dame can improve to 4-0 they will get a week off before having to play games against Miami (in Chicago), Stanford, BYU and at Oklahoma in October.
Life is good for Notre Dame right now, but can they come through with another solid defensive effort against Denard Robinson and the Wolverines? If they do, Notre Dame will head in to their off week thinking big for January, but this team still has some question marks for the long haul. The quarterback position is far from locked down with Everett Golson not exactly on the level of Brady Quinn or Jimmy Clausen, but he does have some potential to do some positive things for Notre Dame as he becomes more familiar with the system and leading the offense.
Notre Dame is a couple of wins away from making some legitimate noise in the BCS bowl picture again, but there is also some work to do and a number of things to prove before reaching that point. A second straight dominant defensive performance against one of their rivals from the Big Ten would help start to build that platform.
Kevin is a national college football writer for quadrust.com and the host of the No 2-Minute Warning podcast. Submit your mailbag questions via Tumblr. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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