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Defense rebounds in November

Sam Werner | Monday, November 22, 2010

Before Saturday, the last time the Irish went two straight games without allowing a touchdown was in November of 1988 against Rice and Penn State. Not coincidentally, that was also the same year of Notre Dame’s last national championship.

After this weekend’s 27-3 win over Army, the Notre Dame defense has not allowed an offensive touchdown in the last 11 quarters of action. Few would have thought the Irish would be here just a month ago.

On Oct. 23, the Irish gave up 438 yards to Navy’s triple-option attack. The Midshipmen moved the ball with ease in their 35-17 win, and Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco was widely criticized after the game for his lack of an effective defensive gameplan.

After Saturday’s win, Irish head coach Brian Kelly defended Diaco.

“I think [this win] just allows us to say [the Navy game] was an anomaly,” Kelly said. “Listen, we haven’t given up a touchdown in the month of November. You don’t do that by accident. We’ve had answers all year. I really feel great for Bob and the defense.”

The Black Knights had success on their first drive Saturday night. After intercepting Irish quarterback Tommy Rees in the end zone, Army ate up 8:45 of clock with a 17-play, 78-yard drive that ended in a field goal and a 3-0 lead. Notre Dame defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore said despite the Black Knights’ success, the Irish didn’t change their strategy.

“We weren’t going to stray from the defensive gameplan,” Lewis-Moore said. “We just had to communicate and talk to the coaches.”

Kelly attributed the defensive success to Notre Dame’s focus on stopping Army quarterback Trent Steelman and fullback Jared Hassin from running the ball. Steelman finished with just 37 yards on 14 carries, while Hassin had 23 yards on 8 rushes. As a team, the Black Knights rushed for 154 yards on 43 attempts, just 3.1 yards per carry.

“They want to run the fullbacks, they want to run the quarterbacks,” Kelly said. “Those guys were not going to run the ball today. The ball was going out on the perimeter, and we were going to run it down.”

The defense also contributed to the Irish scoring effort for the first time more than two years. Senior cornerback Darrin Walls’ interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter was Notre Dame’s first defensive score since Robert Blanton returned a pick all the way against Purdue in 2008. The defensive scoring drought lasted 31 games.

Lewis-Moore said the defense used last week’s win over Utah as a rallying point upon which to build.

“I feel like the Utah game gave us a lot of momentum coming into this game, knowing how good our defense can be,” he said.

Lewis-Moore said the biggest difference wasn’t in gameplans or schematics, but just in an overall improvement on the defensive side of the ball.

“I feel like we’re getting better every game, and that’s our whole mentality,” he said. “We’ve got to get better every game. As long as you’re improving from week to week, I think we’re accomplishing our goal.”

Lewis-Moore said that even though the defense is proud of its accomplishments so far, there is still work to be done.

“We’ve just got to keep the momentum going and everything,” he said. “We’ve played good the past two games, but we can’t dwell too much. We’ve got a tough opponent in USC coming up next week.”