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Irish defense looks to regain dominant form

Chris Federico | Friday, September 19, 2003

Against Michigan Saturday, the typically-dominant Irish defense was pushed around by the Wolverines for 439 yards of total offense and, most notably, 188 on the ground.

For a team that prides itself on defensive prowess, yielding those types of numbers can be demoralizing and can ignite an avalanche of ineptitude as the season wears on.

That’s why the Irish know it’s important to reverse that trend this week against the Spartans.

“It’s very important – extremely important – that we [be successful],” defensive tackle Darrell Campbell said. “If we don’t come out this week, something’s wrong – something’s wrong in a major way. As a defense we’re supposed to dominate.”

The fifth-year senior Campbell wants to see his veteran defensive line perform better in big games than they did against the Wolverines.

“Coming back as fifth-year seniors, we’re supposed to step in and be leaders for the younger players,” Campbell said. “We just have to go out there and get it done this weekend.”

Luckily for Notre Dame, bouncing back from a disheartening loss early in the season is not exactly virgin territory for the Irish coaching staff. In 1999, Stanford – under then-head coach Tyrone Willingham – was dismantled in its opener against Texas 69-17. The Cardinal went on to win eight of their next 10 games en route to the Rose Bowl.

Parallels have been drawn between that loss and Notre Dame’s 38-0 defeat at the hands of the Wolverines last week.

“What we learned [after the Texas loss] is that we relied on our system and came back and had a good practice that Tuesday,” Irish defensive coordinator Kent Baer said at the beginning of the week. “We had a good practice today. I think you just have to believe in what you do. Because it’s never as bad as it looks, and it’s never as good as it looks.”

The Irish players and coaches maintain that all was not lost in the Big House last weekend. While the Irish were outmanned on both sides of the ball, there are lessons they can take from the game.

“There are lessons from Michigan that we can grow from,” Willingham said. “There are good things and bad things. You have to find those things that can help your team go forward, and sometimes a negative can help you go forward. Sometimes it’s better spent working on the positive.”

But even with all of the negatives Saturday – even on the defensive side of the ball where Irish tacklers were consistently blown off the line of scrimmage by a more powerful Michigan offensive line – Willingham maintains that there were aspects of the game his team performed well and would like to see continue against Michigan State.

“So I would probably agree … that all battles Saturday were probably won by Michigan …” he said. “But we’ve shown great intensity. We’ve shown great tackling at times. We’ve got to get back to those things.

“We like what we are doing. We will stick with what we are doing and we think that we have the young men that can do it. But on occasions, you don’t do it. We try to address those issues and go forward.”

During the week of practice, the Irish focused mainly on returning to the basics that made them one of the nation’s best defenses in 2002 and moving beyond the disappointing loss in Ann Arbor.

“You don’t over-react too much with it, but to me, it’s fundamentals and techniques,” Baer said. “We didn’t tackle very well, and in certain situations, we didn’t respond very well. We just need to go back and run the basics. I like how hard we’ve worked, and we’ll just wait and see what happens Saturday.”