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Irish defense best in red zone

Matt Puglisi | Monday, October 3, 2005

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – There must have been a lot of eye-rubbing, head-shaking and antenna-adjusting – déjà vu, to say the least – with about five minutes of play left in the first quarter of Saturday night’s 49-28 Notre Dame romp over host Purdue.

With the Irish holding an early 7-0 advantage, Purdue running back Kory Sheets took an option toss from quarterback Brandon Kirsch and sprinted 38 yards down the right sideline, fully expecting – along with the 62,500 in attendance – to put the Boilermakers on the board with the game-tying score.

But Sheets forget about Ambrose Wooden.

After setting up a game-changing fumble against Michigan Sept. 17 by catching and knocking Wolverine receiver Jason Avant out of bounds at the 1-yard line, for the second time this season, the Irish cornerback raced down what appeared to be a sure-touchdown gallop, pushing Sheets out inches from the goal line. And once again, the Irish turned the effort-laden play into a red zone turnover.

Oftentimes, plays like Wooden’s serve as prime examples for the kind of intensity players should bring on each and every play – ideal film room footage for coaches stressing the importance of unwavering exertion – but the end results seem to diminish the effort.

Nine times out of 10, Purdue running back Jerod Void punches the ball into paydirt on the next play. But this wasn’t those first nine times. It was that one-out-of-10 that can change the complexity of the game, plant seeds of doubt in the opponent and most importantly, give the defense that confidence and little bit of swagger to do it again the next time.

“Seems like every time [the opponent] gets down in the red zone in a critical situation, [the defense] comes up and makes a play,” Irish coach Charlie Weis said.

While the Notre Dame defense has been vulnerable to the air attack all season – the Irish surrendered 327, 408 and 350 passing yards against Michigan State, Washington and Purdue, respectively, in their last three contests – they continue to make the big plays when they need them, most notably in the red zone, where the Irish have created five turnovers this season.

The unit was up to old tricks Saturday night, forcing a trio of turnovers inside its own 30-yard line.

With an offense clicking on all cylinders, the Irish may not have needed those three turnovers.

“We scored 49,” Weis said. “I don’t know how much different the game would have been.”

But while the red zone defense may not have been the single key to victory Saturday, it certainly was against Michigan, and will undoubtedly play a major role in Notre Dame’s success – or lack thereof – when powerhouses including No. 1 USC and No. 8 Tennessee come to town in the next month.

Not only do those goal line stands keep the opposition out of the end zone, but they can also give an already-potent Notre Dame offense that extra confidence that a three-and-out isn’t cause for panic – a recipe for an offensive explosion.

Cornerback Mike Richardson’s goal line fumble recovery set the tone for the contest early in the first quarter and his leaping interception in the right corner of the end zone midway through the third quarter – immediately following a Purdue interception of its own – returned the momentum to the Irish.

“The interception was big,” Richardson said. “I knew they were going to come back with a big play after they got their play on defense, and I just knew our defense had to make a big play first. They actually ran that play in a previous game and got a big gain on it, so I knew that it was coming.”

With Purdue driving late in the third quarter, a crucial Boilermaker turnover on downs just inside the Notre Dame 30-yard line ended any hopes of a dramatic comeback.

The true “bend but not break” defense hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“Were starting to make a little trademark on it,” Irish safety Tom Zbikowski said. “As long as we know we have a yard or two or stand with, were going to make something happen.”

Yet, as effective as the Irish have been with their backs against the end zone, there isn’t a single, overriding reason for their success in do-or-die red zone situations.

“It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly it is,” Zbikowski said. “I guess we’re taking over a characteristic of our defensive coordinator [Rick Minter] teaching us and making sure we keep people out of the end zone.”

Richardson pointed to an intangible as the root of the gritty, backs-to-the-wall defense.

“It’s just instinct,” Richardson said.

Whatever the force behind the inspired defensive play, the Irish certainly expect to carry it the rest of the season.

“We try to be tough every time we come out,” Richardson said. “You can never be happy when you give up a lot of passing yards like that, but our main goal is to win the game, and that’s what we focus on.”

And in the red zone, that’s exactly what Notre Dame did.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Please contact Matt Puglisi at mpuglisi@nd.edu