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SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Notre Dame's defense put up gaudy numbers against Texas in its opener, just like it did in a dominant victory against Michigan a season ago.
Coach Brian Kelly believes this year's unit is better built for the long haul after last year's defense unraveled. He believes the group looked much improved in a 38-3 win over Texas.
"But it is a small sample. It's one game," he said.
The ninth-ranked Fighting Irish forced eight three-and-outs in 11 possessions, were on the field only 52 plays and limited the Longhorns to 163 yards of total offense. That's the fewest yards allowed by the Irish since holding Washington — coached by former Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham — to 124 yards in a 33-7 victory in 2008.
The question now is: Were those impressive numbers the result of a dominant Notre Dame defense or an inept Texas offense? After all, the Longhorns ranked 105th in total offense last season and started two freshmen linemen.
The Irish put up impressive numbers last year through five games, ranking ninth in rushing defense at 95.8 yards per game and 21st in total defense at 316 yards per game. But three of those games were against teams that finished ranked in the bottom 15 in the nation.
Then injuries struck, the schedule got harder and the Irish allowed 28-or-more points in the final seven games of the season — the worst stretch in Notre Dame history.
Kelly pulled hope from how the Irish responded when the Longhorns tried to go up-tempo.
"We actually drove them out at tempo, which is a first for our defense in a sense that, obviously, that was a problem for us last year," he said.
Even after the Irish beat Michigan 31-0 in the second game last season, Kelly talked about the need for the defense to play better, counting 34 mental errors on defense. He said there was a big difference against Texas.
"Night and day, definitely a different unit out there relative to mistakes," Kelly said. "Now, we had some, there's no question. But in terms of recognition where they needed to be, the communication, all of those things, compared to where we were last year to this year, just an entirely different unit."
The Irish might have to wait a bit before its defense is truly tested. This week the Irish (1-0) play at Virginia (0-1), which ranked 98th in total offense last season and were held to 336 yards of total offense last week against UCLA.
The Irish have a lot of work to do to replicate the defense it had in 2012, when they finished seventh in total defense, second in scoring defense and carried Notre Dame to the national championship game.
"I think if we stay injury free and if we can stay away from losing key personnel, I think we can continue to grow as a defense and continue to get better and play the kind of defense necessary to compete nationally," Kelly said.
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