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Edmonds: This season’s defense might be even better than 2012’s

| Friday, November 23, 2018

As the stakes rise with each Irish win, the parallels between this season and the last two times Notre Dame was undefeated in the regular season are interesting. The 1988 team opened its season with a nail-biting win over Michigan, but went on to dominate its schedule — beating four of the eventual top-seven teams and holding opponents to just over 11 points a game. Twenty-four years later, the 2012 team was built behind a functioning dual-quarterback dynamic and a lock-down red-zone defense. But it begs the question, is it possible that this team’s defense is even better?

Ann Curtis | The Observer
Irish junior safety Alohi Gilman, 11, follows a convoy of blockers after intercepting a pass during Notre Dame’s 36-3 win over Syracuse on Saturday at Yankee Stadium.

On the surface, the answer is no, although marginally. The 2012 team held opponents to 305.5 yards per game — and that’s including the 529 yards Alabama earned in the national championship — compared to the still respectable 321.4 yards per game this year’s team has allowed. However, this year’s defense has greater cohesion and depth than any team in recent program history.

The 1988 team featured an efficient offense spured by the dynamic leadership of Tony Rice and a lockdown defensive unit built around nose guard Chris Zorich. The 2012 defense was defined by containment in the secondary, followed by an absolute suffocation of opponents in the red zone. It had a tendency to allow teams to move the ball between the 20s but were extremely stubborn in scoring territory.

Sitting in the stands in Norman, Oklahoma, when the Irish took on the 7th-ranked Sooners, I recall feeling like a witness to a turning point within the program. In the highest-profile game of the year, the Notre Dame defense shined under the bright lights, as Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones faced intense pressure up the middle and the Sooners were unable to gain any momentum with the Irish defense holding them to small-yard gains. Four games later, Notre Dame traveled to Los Angeles and put on a show for the USC offense, staging a legendary goal-line stand to punch their ticket to the national championship for the first time in 24 years.

That team was really, really good, but also a little bit lucky. The USC drive alone included three flags before the Irish finally got to impose their will. However, the fourth-down play featured a wide open Trojan receiver who failed to secure the pass. This year’s team poses greater threats to opponents.

In 2012, the motto was “bend, don’t break,” this year’s team just doesn’t bend.

Between Julian Love, Jerry Tillery and Te’von Coney, each level of this defense is led by a potential first or second round NFL Draft pick. Add in the emergence of Julian Okwara, Khalid Kareem and Alohi Gilman and the steady presence of the seemingly indestructible Drue Tranquill and this is a quarterback’s worst nightmare, with neither the run game nor the passing game looking particularly appealing.

Now, for USC.

The 1988 matchup was one for the ages, pitting two undefeated teams against each other for the first time in their 60-year rivalry. The 2012 game rings a little more true for this team. A 7-4 Trojan team mounted an admirable attempt to block the Irish in their march to the national championship, but were unable to overcome the Irish defense, ultimately losing 22-13.

Anytime Notre Dame travels to SoCal the rivalry fuels emotion, but seldom are the stakes this high. Despite the lackluster season the Trojans are currently experiencing, the addition of an undefeated Irish team and the new complexities of the College Football Playoff system bring added intrigue to this matchup. With the faint echoes of “We want Bama” cheers within the minds of still-traumatized Notre Dame fans, this defense is showing that perhaps it is more ready to take on the best of the best. This unit of primarily veterans seems unfazed by the expectations set before it, prepared to take one more step in stomping out those doubts this Saturday in the Coliseum.

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

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