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Sports

Hartnett: ND’s balance could lead team back to success (Sept. 7)

| Sunday, September 7, 2014

#4 20140906, 2014-2015, 09062014, Amy Ackermann, Football, Michigan vs. Notre Dame, W 31-0-4Amy Ackermann | The Observer
It’s not 2012 anymore.

But for Notre Dame, maybe that’s not a bad thing.

I don’t mean to devalue a 12-1 season that resulted in Notre Dame’s first national championship appearance in nearly a quarter century.

Rather, I use it to point out how good teams can come in all different styles, schemes and dynamics.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly said as much in his postgame press conference when he talked about what drives this season’s team.

Kelly referenced Everett Golson as the team’s major driver and referenced the team’s youth, but he ended up going back to the idea of balance.

“When we won 12 games, it was definitely a defensive group that kind of led that,” he said. “This [group], they feed off of each other on both sides of the ball.”

Now, it’s incredibly premature to declare this year’s Notre Dame squad a great team. So far, the Irish have beaten a middle-of-the-pack mid-major team in Rice and a Michigan squad that in spite of its success against Notre Dame in recent years, was still unranked and unproven. Any judgments about this year’s Notre Dame squad should not be made until after the team visits Florida State in mid-October.

But it’s not premature to evaluate the Irish using observations and statistics from their first two games.

And such observations and statistics show that just as Kelly said, the Irish have been feeding off of each other, creating a balanced attack on both sides of the ball.

Make no mistake, Everett Golson is the main driver behind Notre Dame’s offense. Saturday night, the senior signal-caller hardly resembled the timid first-year starter who was pulled in the second quarter against Michigan in 2012. He appeared poised and confident, deftly avoiding the Wolverines pass rush and finding receivers with accuracy.

Those receivers, who entered the season as a collective question mark, have fed off Golson’s energy and stepped up in their own right. Will Fuller has emerged as No. 5’s favorite target thus far, and Amir Carlisle has appeared to put last year’s pass-catching struggles behind him.

And despite their struggles Saturday night, it would be shortsighted not to mention Notre Dame’s three running backs, whose potential for big plays keeps defenses honest.

These position groups have combined to produce an Irish offense averaging nearly 40 points per game, a marked improvement over the unit that averaged approximately 27 points per game last season.

As Kelly said, though, it’s not just about the offense — the defense has created momentum of its own.

And that brings me back to 2012.

That season’s defense was characterized by senior leadership — Manti Te’o, Kapron Lewis-Moore and Zeke Motta, among others. It featured a formidable defensive line, led by two players taken in the first three rounds of this year’s NFL draft. It played with a “bend, don’t break” mentality that prevented big plays, and it stepped up on the biggest of stages — the Stanford and USC games of that season come to mind.

This season’s defense features an underclassmen-heavy lineup, which has already included eight freshmen. Three of these freshmen play on the defensive line. Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s scheme emphasizes aggressiveness and pressure, giving it a high risk, high reward feel. It’s not yet seen how the defense will fare on the biggest stages.

But despite their differences, both defenses got the job done against Michigan. They both held mobile quarterbacks, Denard Robinson in 2012 and Devin Gardner this year, in check and forced turnovers — six in 2012, four Saturday night. And neither unit surrendered a touchdown to the Wolverines.

Which brings me back to my original point. In today’s era of college football, there is no exact blueprint for success. Offenses can be based on a power running game or an open spread aerial attack. Defenses can be highly aggressive or more technical and passive, but either one can succeed.

And that is good news for this year’s Notre Dame team. It won’t be the 2012 squad — its scheme, personnel and, yes, even special teams (in a good way) are different.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t be as successful as that team was.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Brian Hartnett

Brian Hartnett is a senior marketing major and journalism, ethics and democracy minor. The Carroll Hall resident hails from Clark, New Jersey and covers Notre Dame football, as well as other University topics.

Contact Brian