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Football: Seeking stability

Mike Monaco | Monday, September 23, 2013

362 to Temple. 460 to Michigan. 294 to Purdue.

The Irish defense was inconsistent through the first three games of the season, surrendering an average of 372 yards of total offense per contest.

But Saturday, Notre Dame looked different defensively, allowing just 254 yards to Michigan State as the Irish took down the Spartans in a 17-13 slugfest at Notre Dame Stadium.

“Who is going to show up now is really going to be what we’re asking,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Sunday during his weekly teleconference. “Are we going to see the group that showed itself against Michigan State consistently or the group that we saw the last couple weeks that played hot and cold? We’re going to look for that consistency now from our defense.”

In searching for consistency, Kelly said he is seeking production and dependability at all three levels of the defense. The Irish were noticeably better in terms of wrapping up and finishing tackles, something that hampered Notre Dame in its first three games. The longest pass play by an opposing offense in each of the first three tilts was 26, 61 and 48 yards against Temple, Michigan and Purdue, respectively. Michigan also broke a long run of 35 yards against the Irish.

Yet on Saturday, Notre Dame kept the Spartan offense under wraps, allowing a long rush of 11 yards and a loss pass of 19. Kelly said there had been no special recipe to improve the defense or the tackling in the practices leading up to Saturday’s victory.

“This week really was about you get what you demand and do your job,” Kelly said. “I know those sound like some pretty standard watch words, but we didn’t reinvent any defense. We didn’t create any new schemes. We just demanded more and expected more from our players, and we got it on Saturday.”

Moving forward, the Irish will match up against an Oklahoma offense averaging 490.3 yards per game, good for 24th in the nation. The following week, Notre Dame squares off with Arizona State. The Sun Devils are 43rd in the country with 469.3 yards of offense per game. Kelly said getting consistency from his defense each week now becomes a product of competition among the players.

“Well, I think you can point and say, ‘This is the player that will play for us,'” Kelly said. “The kind of player we saw on Saturday, that guy will play for us. The other guy will stand on the sideline. You clearly have video evidence of what we expect from you.  This is the way you need to play on a play‑in, play‑out basis.”

Despite the improvements Saturday, Kelly still said the reliability on both sides of the ball is still not where it needs to be.

“Yeah, the team is just evolving,” he said. “What we were struggling with was playing 60 plays really well and a half-dozen plays not so well. I think we’re getting closer to playing every player and every play. That’s how you evolve into November, where everybody, all 11, are fitting the plays correctly each and every time.”

Specifically, Kelly noted that junior inside linebacker Jarrett Grace played a strong game Saturday. Grace got his first start of the season against the Spartans and responded with eight tackles, tied for the most on the team. Graduate student inside linebacker Carlo Calabrese also finished with eight stops, and fellow graduate student inside linebacker Dan Fox – who started the first three games alongside Calabrese – tallied three tackles.

Grace currently leads the Irish with 28 total tackles, one more than Fox and two more than Calabrese.

“He’s just got natural linebacker instincts,” Kelly said of Grace. “It’s a position that he’s familiar with. He just fits it very well in terms of run, ricocheted into his fits. … You can watch three or four plays and you can see that’s a natural position for him.”

The Irish play host to the Sooners on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Notre Dame Stadium.

Contact Mike Monaco at jmonaco@nd.edu