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November 28, 2010

Irish D pushes for elite status

LOS ANGELES - Brian Smith had the battle scars to prove it Saturday night.

Standing underneath the emptied and soaked Los Angeles Coliseum, the suddenly star linebacker tried to make sense of Notre Dame's 20-16 upset of USC, fueled by a defense that's playing out-of-nowhere football.

Smith did that with his right eye swollen shut, victim of the same helmet slippage that broke the nose of Manti Te'o last week. All the better to gain a fresh perspective on what's triggered a defensive rejuvenation within a unit that's prompted historical comparisons to Notre Dame's last great teams of 1988 and 1993.

"Coach (Brian) Kelly, the first thing he said when he came in, we want to play good football in November," Smith said. "We preached that all the way down the line. Now it's November and it was time to step up."

Notre Dame's defense not only stepped up, it kicked in USC's front door under the coordination of Bob Diaco.

The Trojans trotted out three former five-star running backs with another stuck on the bench. They produced nothing more than three yards and a cloud of smog, former luminaries Marc Tyler, C.J. Gable and Dillon Baxter combining for 25 carries for 71 yards.

Darius Fleming and Kapron Lewis-Moore led Notre Dame with seven tackles each. Harrison Smith, Gary Gray and Manti Te'o each posted a half-dozen. And Brian Smith chipped in five stops, including that tackle of fullback Stanley Havili behind the line of scrimmage on third down that set up Notre Dame's touchdown drive just before halftime. Smith added a couple pass break-ups too.

"Our defense, we stick together," Te'o said. "We only care about the guys in our locker room. It doesn't matter what anybody says. All that matters is the guys."

By the numbers, Notre Dame's three-game defensive stand is tough to figure out considering it's been made without starting nose guard Ian Williams.

The Irish are allowing 7.3 points per game this month and 233.3 yards to go with a 31.2 third down conversion rate. To put those stats in perspective, if Notre Dame's defense played like this all year it would rank No. 1 in the nation in scoring defense, No. 2 in total defense and No. 5 in third down conversion defense.

Holding Utah and Army without touchdowns back-to-back was a first for Notre Dame since the '88 title team did it. The 22 points allowed in the last three games is a low since the '93 championship contender.

Maybe more surprising is how well Notre Dame played with its offense floundering. Tommy Rees threw three interceptions against USC and lost a fumble, which the Trojans scooped up at the two-yard line. USC still needed four plays to go six feet for a touchdown, snapping a 13-quarter streak of not giving up an offensive touchdown.

That run spanned 227 plays and 209:32 of game time. Notre Dame's defense allowed one touchdown in November. It allowed 11 in both September and October.

"Definitely we have that mentality," Te'o said. "We'll just put the ball down and we'll go out and play. Their five-yard line, our five-yard line, it don't matter."

All 16 of USC's points came off turnovers, all four of which were in Notre Dame territory.

"Unbelievable effort," Kelly said. "We put them in some bad situations and they just continued to battle all year. This is not a one-time occurrence. This is a defense that has played really well in the month of November."

It doesn't take clear vision to see that.







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