Irish emulated SEC in building defense

Irish emulated SEC in building defense

December 11th, 2012 by David Paschall in Sports - College

Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o (5)celebrates with teammate Stephon Tuitt (7) after an interception against Oklahoma in the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football game in Norman, Okla., Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

STINGY, STINGY, STINGY

The top five scoring defenses in the Bowl Subdivision, and their points per game allowed:

  1. Notre Dame 10.33

  2. Alabama 10.69

  3. Florida 12.92

  4. Rutgers 14.25

  5. BYU 14.67

Source: NCAA

While Alabama was winning college football's 2009 national championship, Notre Dame was starting over.

The Irish were an embarrassing 16-21 in the final three seasons under Charlie Weis, so Weis was dismissed and replaced by Brian Kelly, who had led the Cincinnati Bearcats to an undefeated regular season. Kelly knew that to be successful in South Bend, he had to mold a program that looked like it belonged in the Southeastern Conference.

"It's clear that the formation of any great program is going to be on its defense," Kelly said. "Whether it's high school, college or NFL, if you play great defense you've got a chance. For us to move Notre Dame back into a national prominence, we had to begin with our defense, so our focus in recruiting and developing our talent and getting the right staff was on the defensive side of the ball.

"A lot of that was by natural models, but you look at the SEC and the teams that were playing for national championships -- obviously Alabama has been leading that charge -- and they have been built on defense."

Among the many intriguing angles to the BCS title game between No. 1 Notre Dame (12-0) and No. 2 Alabama (12-1) on Jan. 7 is whether the Irish have indeed developed a defense that matches the best the SEC has to offer. Senior linebacker Manti Te'o won a plethora of national awards last week, but Notre Dame's defense that leads the nation in fewest points allowed (10.33 per game) is anything but a one-man show.

Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix III and Kapron Lewis-Moore comprise a front that has helped limit foes to 92.42 rushing yards a game. The Irish went to Southern Cal and allowed 95 rushing yards, and they gave up 50 at Michigan State and just 15 at Oklahoma.

"They probably have the best front seven in the country, and statistically they're in the top 10 in just about every defensive category," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "USC gets the ball on the 1-yard line and in four plays can't make an inch. [The Irish] have some pretty physical guys with some great toughness, and they play great as a team."

Notre Dame has allowed only two rushing touchdowns all season, the fewest of any team nationally. It will be facing a team that has scored 35 rushing touchdowns and would have produced many more had the Crimson Tide not emptied the benches in nine of their victories.

Alabama's ground dominance was on display in the SEC championship win over Georgia, as the Tide amassed 350 rushing yards against a defense that could have eight or nine players drafted in April.

"Everybody talks about their great offensive line, but I think their backs are very physical," Kelly said. "It's just going to be a tremendous challenge for our football team. They're constructed the right way when you look at the way they play the game. There is no panic, because this is a team and a coaching staff that has been there before.

"They ran the ball in the third quarter and exerted their will on Georgia, and that's why it's going to be a great challenge for us."

Alabama's offensive line was projected before the season to be the nation's best, and the Walter Camp Foundation recently tabbed center Barrett Jones and left guard Chance Warmack as first-team All-Americans. Right tackle D.J. Fluker was a second-team pick, and while sophomore left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio did not make either team, he is a top-10 certainty for the 2014 NFL draft should he elect to skip his final season.

"Great defenses pride themselves on stopping the run and keeping the ball out of the end zone.'' Lewis-Moore said. "It is going to be a tough matchup, and we are excited for it.''

Said Kouandjio: "It will be a great challenge, but I really have faith in our guys."

Tide tidbits

Alabama fielded 42,000 ticket requests for its allotment of 17,000 to the BCS championship game. ... The Crimson Tide will begin their on-campus preparation for Notre Dame next Tuesday. ... Alabama opened last week as a 9.5-point favorite over the Irish, and the spread was the same as of Monday.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.