Roaring 20s

Gary Gray and the Irish defense will soar in 2011

Our summer prediction series continues with a look at the defense's ability to keep points off the board.

Three points, three points, three field goals and a touchdown, and three points over the first 50 meaningful minutes…

The four descriptions above are the final four game efforts produced by the Notre Dame defense – the vast majority of which returns intact from 2010, including its entire staff, nine of the 12 main front seven competitors, and five of six key members from the 2010 secondary.

During spring practice 2011, the unit's coordinator and play-caller, Bob Diaco, noted that, "You don't pick up where you left off, and you don't mentally pick up where you left off. I'm sure you can cite times in Notre Dame history where they had a great season or a great finish and thought, ‘Okay, we're going to have any even better season next year,' and it turns out to be a flop."

(2003 comes to mind…but I digress).

Diaco's unit finished 50th in total defense last fall – one year after the disastrous #86 swan dive of 2009. But the unit's ultimate measuring stick – scoring defense – ranked at #23, the best mark of the last eight seasons by a whopping 22 slots in the national rankings.

Noting Diaco's concerns, I'm nonetheless confident the unit is poised to take another leap forward in 2011, which leads us to the next installment of our summer prediction series:

Prediction #8 – The Irish will boast a Top 20 scoring defense

Diehard Irish fans likely remember the last Notre Dame defense on which it could hang its weekly autumn hat: the one-deep playmakers of 2002 that ultimately wore down in a mismatch at surging USC to conclude the season.

The 2011 Irish are built differently than that '02 group, but they'll join that squad and a handful of others over the program's previous three decades when they finish the season among the nation's Top 20 scoring defenses.

Top 20 a rarity

Just eight of Notre Dame's last 30 football teams boasted a Top 20 scoring defense at season's end. The aggregate record of those Irish teams: 79-16-1, with only the '83 squad dropping more than three contests.

  • 2002 (#9 ranked scoring defense): Tyrone Willingham's first defense allowed a mere 16.7 points-per-game, boasting the #10 rush defense. The '02 Irish surrendered just 145 points through the season's first 11 games; then a whopping 72 over its final two humbling defeats.

  • 1996 (#14): Lou Holtz's final squad was a statistical outlier, losing three games but outscoring foes by nearly 240 points on the season. The group yielded just 16.5 points-per-game thanks to the nation's eighth-best pass defense, never allowing a foe to top the 30-point mark.

  • 1993 (#20): The 11-1 Irish dominated the line of scrimmage, yielding just 89.6 rushing yards per game to rank fourth nationally. The surprise group (vaulted from #13 in the polls to #1 over the course of the season) actually surrendered nearly a point-and-a-half more per game than did their since underrated '92 predecessors (17.6 to 16.2 per contest). The '93 Irish allowed just 92 points over the first eight weeks but were then hit for 113 over the final four (albeit vs. tougher competition), including a 41-39 loss to #16 Boston College to conclude the season.

  • 1992 (#20): A two-year hiatus from top-level collegiate defense ended with Holtz's powerful junior-laden '92 defense. Two foes topped 30 points (including MSU in a 52-31 victory by the Irish) while eight others managed two touchdowns or fewer. The 10-1-1 squad was paced by the nation's #9 rush defense, allowing just 111 yards per game.

  • 1989 (#12): Yielded 15.3 ppg., thanks to the 14th-best rush defense, one that surrendered a mere 105.6 per contest vs. a slate that included nine bowl teams. The '89 Irish held seven opponents to one touchdown or less, including a 21-6 win over #1 Colorado in the Orange Bowl.

  • 1988 (#3): The national champion Irish yielded just 12.3 points per game, ranking 10th against the rush but a pedestrian 34th vs. the pass, the latter due largely to garbage yards by opponents hoping to make up second-half deficits. All-time powerhouse Miami scored 30 points on the undefeated Irish, but the remaining 11 teams totaled just 126 points.

  • 1983 (#13): A 7-5 squad was built on a solid defense, one that allowed 14.5 points-per-contest and also boasted the best offense of the Gerry Faust era (more than 27 per), but close losses (four by an aggregate 15 points) turned what could have been a New Year's Day bowl into a disappointing date in the Liberty Bowl, a 19-18 victory over Doug Flutie's Boston College squad.

  • 1980 (#5): The program's second-best statistical effort of the past 30 seasons featured the eighth-ranked rushing and the eighth-ranked passing defense en route to a 9-2-1 season and title game loss (the Irish could have shared the crown at 10-1-1) to national champion, Georgia, in the Sugar Bowl. The Irish surrendered just 10.1 points-per-game over the 11-game regular season before yielding 17 in the Sugar Bowl loss.

Holtz's 1987 Irish ranked #21, surrendering just 16.6 points-per-game. The ranking/points correlation illustrates how much the college game has changed in 25 seasons, as a defense that allowed just 16.6 per would have ranked #7 in 2010.

Seven of Ara Parseghian's 11 Irish squads finished among the nation's top 20 scoring defenses, with five finishing among the nation's top six overall. Dan Devine enjoyed three top 20 scoring defenses over his six-year tenure, including the '80 group highlighted above.

The 2011 group boasts two-deep depth at both defensive end spots, with a possible shot-in-the-arm fifth competitor ready to join the fray in August. It appears solid with five capable outside linebackers, a pair of quality inside starters including an All-America candidate, and a trio of players fighting to back up two spots inside.

It contains five experienced defensive backs, three of whom ranked among Irish Eyes 10 best players from 2010 (the defensive unit as a whole placed seven members among our top 10).

The 2011 season will be the best overall defense at the program since 2002, and if it finishes strong, has a chance to better the efforts of that playmaking group (one hamstrung by an awful offense).

Diaco, along with a top-tier defensive staff under head coach Brian Kelly, will allow the Irish to take the next step in 2011 – finishing among the nation's top 20 teams in scoring defense for the first time since 2002, for the fifth time over the last two decades, and for the 18th time in the program's modern-era (1964-present).

Look for the Irish to allow fewer than 19 points per game over the 12-game regular season slate.

Roadblocks to the top 20

Why might this prediction be off-base?

  1. An injury to one of the following three players would greatly impact the unit's performance: Manti Te'o – not only is he among the nation's best, but the drop-off from Te'o to his potential backup is staggering, and Gary Gray or Robert Blanton – a great defense needs three good cornerbacks; at present, Notre Dame has just two, with an unproven pair behind them…it can ill-afford to lose either starter.

  2. The Irish face 11 returning starters at quarterback. And the only non-starter is an experienced senior with three career starts under his belt (Navy's Kriss Proctor). At least a handful of the offenses Notre Dame will face next fall will be solid-to-top tier units.

  3. The Miami factor: Notre Dame's defense allowed three points over the first 50 minutes in the Sun Bowl victory vs. Miami last December. It then yielded 14 over the ‘Canes next two possessions, due largely to the presence of backups and an element of natural letdown that occurs when a team leads by 30 in a middle-tier bowl game as the seconds tick down. But garbage points count, too. If the Irish carry 20-plus-point advantages into more than three games in 2011, it could serve as a detriment to their final defensive ranking. Conversely…

  4. Maybe the defense isn't as strong as I've forecast, and November 2010 – not the debacle at Navy – was the "aberration" last fall. Can a month's worth of work be labeled an "aberration"? I suppose we'll find out in September.

Prediction #7 – September Slip

Prediction #6 – 17-season streak ends

Prediction #5 – Better, Worse, Why? (2010-11 statistical comparison)

Better, Worse, Why? Part II

Prediction #4 – Blanton to lead team in picks

Prediction #3 – The Irish will lose a home game

Prediction #2 – Fleming and Johnson join the Top 5

Prediction #1 – Wood will score 10 TD

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