Lost in the “Is Notre Dame this good or is Texas that bad?” debate was the performance of the Irish defense. After finishing the 2014 season with historical bad results, Brian VanGorder’s crew looked like a transformed unit.
The Irish run defense was fierce. They bullied Texas quarterbacks Tyrone Swoops and Jerrod Heard with countless hits and four sacks. And in limiting the Longhorns to just under 21 minutes with the football and 52 plays, the Irish played the type of swarming, attacking defense that Brian Kelly had hoped to see after a long offseason working with 10 returning starters.
But Kelly knows the mark of a good defense isn’t September success. It’s sustaining it.
“I think that we did some really good things. Certainly, the measurement of a great defense will be in its longevity,” Kelly said. “I think we saw some good things last year and then some injuries, obviously, derailed us. I think that will certainly be the case again this year. We’re going to need to keep some key players on the field.
“I would err on the fact, moving towards saying that our defense is much improved from last year. But it is a small sample. It’s one game.”
Kelly acknowledged the need to stay healthy, with a significant gap between certain standout players and the developmental talent that’s backing them up. But he also noted a few fixes that should have Irish fans optimistic, especially in Notre Dame’s ability to counter Texas’ attempt at running up-tempo offense.
From the moment Larry Fedora surprised the Irish with an up-tempo attack and North Carolina turned their mid-October game against Notre Dame into a track meet, the game tape was out there. So Kelly was happy that when Texas tried to do the same thing, his defense was ready.
“Our defense is so much more comfortable with the communication. We didn’t have any issues with tempo,” Kelly said. “We actually drove them out of tempo, which is a first for our defense in a sense that, obviously, that was a problem for us last year.”
Of course, Texas head coach Charlie Strong’s first order of business upon returning to Austin was to strip playcaller Shawn Watson of his responsibilities and shake-up his offensive staff, so slowing down that group might not be the most significant datapoint. And Virginia’s 336 total yards against UCLA, even while clearly winning the time of possession battle with over 34 minutes, doesn’t necessarily strike fear into the hearts of Irish fans.
But Notre Dame’s defense can only go to battle with the guys who line up across from them. And until the focus shifts to Georgia Tech’s vaunted triple-option, the objective is obvious.
Beat Virginia. And continue to look like the defense that dominated last weekend.