For all the talk about Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly and his spread offense, it is the Fighting Irish defense that has allowed the team to remain undefeated after five games. The suffocating Irish defense has not allowed a rushing touchdown all season, and is one of the major surprises of the year in college football.
"When I came to Notre Dame, having lived in that world of trying to out-score opponents, I felt the best blueprint we could put together for a national championship here was through our defense," Kelly says. "We're starting to see the building of that, and it's only our third year. We've got a ways to go. But the blueprint here is to not try to out-score people and turn it into a track meet. It's control the line of scrimmage, play great defense, and be solid in the special teams. It's just the choice in the way I want our program to evolve."
Irish fans, and alumni like me, are starting to think that this team might be on its way to unexpected success in Kelly's third season.
Against the run
Notre Dame is the only team in major college football that has still not allowed a rushing touchdown this season. The defensive line has been dominant, and the linebackers - led by Manti Te'o, who is increasingly being discussed as a historic Heisman Trophy candidate - have been just as tough.
Notably, the Irish defense has been effective against a range of offensive schemes, from Navy's triple option to Michigan State's pounding run style to Michigan's versatile attack led by quarterback Denard Robinson.
"Our main thing is getting to the ball," says Te'o. "Our coaches do a good job of trying to instill that mindset of dominate each play."
Against the pass
The defensive secondary was thought to be Notre Dame's biggest weakness coming into the season. Then, veteran safety Jamoris Slaughter was lost for the season with an Achilles injury. That left the defense reliant on a slew of freshman and other inexperienced starters.
Given ND's effectiveness stopping the run game, you would expect teams to test the young Irish backfield more often. But senior safety Zeke Motta has stepped into a leadership role, and converted wide receiver Bennett Jackson has played well. Two freshmen, redshirt Matthias Farley and true freshman KeiVarae Russell, were also converted to cornerbacks and have come up big.
If the defensive dominance continues, the Irish will put themselves in position for a BCS bowl game, and perhaps more. It is early, but Notre Dame fans are beginning to understand the possibilities. So are the players.
"Four years ago when I decided to come here, I didn't know why," Te'o says. "It's starting to unveil itself why. We know how good we can be. The sky is the limit for not only this defense, but this whole team."
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Rick Blaine, an award-winning broadcaster and columnist, holds two degrees from Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @RickBlaineCT.