Observant Irish fans likely noted the familiar fashion in which Notre Dame marched downfield on Saturday night's opening drive only to come away empty deep inside enemy territory.
This time the Irish defense bent but did not break, holding Army to a field goal on its first drive. It proceeded to lay down the hammer on the Cadets remaining first half possessions en route to a 17-3 advantage at the break.
It was the fourth consecutive half and ninth straight quarter in which the improving Irish defense did not yield a touchdown. Those streaks would reach five and 11 by contest's end.
"We're playing fast; we're playing physical; we don't look like a team in November that is not physically stronger, not in better condition," Kelly said of the team's defensive turnabout. "I want to be better in November and we're getting better in November. And there are a lot of things that go to that, not just our guys tackling better."
The Irish offense breeched the scoreboard on the second play of the 2nd Quarter when David Ruffer – aka, Mr. Perfect – extended his program record to 19 consecutive made field goals with a 47-yard boot over the area normally referred to as "home plate" in the House that Steinbrenner built.
Following the first of three successive punts by the Black Knights, Notre Dame took its first lead with a one-yard dive by Robert Hughes, the senior's first score of the 2010 campaign. Hughes' plunge to pay dirt was set up by a beautiful 35-yard seam route from Tommy Rees to redshirt-freshman tight end Tyler Eifert, whose juggling grab appeared to result in a highlight reel touchdown before the replay booth deemed him just short of the goal.
Four game minutes, another Army punt and 71 Irish yards later, Eifert was rewarded for his assist on the previous drive, catching another pretty toss from Rees, this time 31 yards to the front pylon for a corner route score and two touchdown lead, 17-3 midway through the 2nd Quarter.
Meanwhile, Army's 8th ranked rush offense managed just 26 rushing yards on four 2nd Quarter possessions, gaining just its second set of new downs in the opening half on a harmless 3-yard run by fullback Jared Hassin to conclude the first half inside their own 15-yard line.
On back-to-back-to-back possessions following its successful first drive – a 17-play clock killer that milked 8:45 off the opening quarter – Army netted just 14 rushing yards on eight carries.
"We didn't play very well and we got clobbered," lamented Army head coach Rich Ellerson post-game. "Just a week ago I thought against Utah they handled both lines of scrimmage and that was the case again tonight."
Army gained 27 yards on a play-action pass to open their offensive evening. Only two of their next 29 plays exceeded double-digit yardage.
Conversely, tailback Cierre Wood shined early as the focal point of the Notre Dame attack. The redshirt-freshman produced first half carries of 16, 8, 25, and 12 yards to finish the first stanza with 68 net rushing yards on just nine carries. Wood finished with a game-high 88 yards on 14 rushes to lead Notre Dame's best rushing output of the season.
The 155 yards by the Irish exceeded Army's 135, marking just the third time this season the Black Knights of the Hudson were out-gained on the ground. (In the previous two, losses to Temple and Air Force, the Cadets far exceeded the 200-yard plateau).
The rushing output was Army's lowest of the 11 games played to date by a whopping 98 yards (233 vs. Kent State).
"They came out and played a defense frankly that looked a little bit like what Rutgers played," Ellerson noted. "That was not on our short list of things to work against."
Leaving no doubtNotre Dame's 262 yards of first half offense was the most Kelly's Irish gained in an opening half this season. That total wasn't necessary in the second stanza thanks to a season-first by Bob Diaco's defensive unit; a decisive second half blow that arrived just one minute into the proceedings when senior cornerback Darrin Walls – just one play after recording a diving pass breakup near scrimmage – picked off a poorly thrown Trent Steelman pass and returned the offering 42 yards for a score and 24-3 advantage.
The interception touchdown was the second of Walls' career but the first for the program since then-freshman Robert Blanton brought back a Purdue pass 47 yards to pay dirt in September 2008.
A Brian Smith interception midway through the 3rd period set up the home team at the Army 38-yard line but the Irish were again forced to call on Ruffer, whose 20th straight field goal – 15 of which occurred this season – broke the previous program record sat last season by current sophomore backup Nick Tausch.
Rees finished another economical evening at the controls, completing 13 of 20 passes for 214 yards with a touchdown and interception. His aforementioned scoring strike to Eifert marked the eighth in the last ten quarters for the freshman triggerman.
But it was the defense that again ruled the day and the effort was keyed by the insertion of two defensive backs into roles normally occupied by outside linebackers Kerry Neal and Darius Fleming: Cornerback Robert Blanton started at one outside slot (noted by Kelly post-game as the Drop linebacker role) and was joined one series later safety Jamoris Slaughter. The pair gave the Irish not only a quicker perimeter, but one able to turn and cover the occasional short pass as Blanton did in helping to prevent a potential 3rd Down touchdown on the Cadets opening drive.
"I just think the scheme for us was about being more physical," Kelly noted.
To become more physical at the point of attack the Irish relied on more four-man fronts than in their first encounter with the triple-option.
"Going to the four-down (alignment) where we could cover up the guards and essentially put four guys on the fullback and make certain that the ball got out (on the perimeter)," he said. "It would then come down to, after the game slowed down a little bit, which it did after the first drive, that we could then chase the football down…our back end did a good job.
11 Quarters, no offensive touchdowns. It seems impossible for any Irish fan to imagine following Navy's work vs. (relatively) the same group of defenders prior to this run of excellence. No opponent has managed an offensive touchdown since Tulsa scored on the opening drive of Game Nine.
Notre Dame finished that contest 4-5 with zero momentum, even less goodwill for the new head coach, and plenty of doubt heading into a Bye week.
They're now bowl eligible at 6-5 with a win over a ranked foe and a storied former rival.
If the defense's touchdown shutout streak continues, another less flattering run of succession will end next Saturday in the Los Angeles Coliseum.
That didn't seem possible three weeks ago, either.