SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame’s defense has led the charge for the team’s 4-0 start and No. 10 ranking in the Associated Press Top 25.
The Irish have the nation’s fourth-best scoring defense, giving up 9 points per game, haven’t given up a rushing touchdown this season and kept both Michigan State and Michigan from getting into the end zone in Notre Dame’s last two victories.
Heading into its bye week, Notre Dame is ranked 16th in total defense (291.3 yards per game), 16th against the run, (112.5 ypg.) and 23rd against the pass (178.8 ypg.).
Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, who spoke to the media for the first time this season Wednesday, said the strong start is because the Irish are sticking to their core defensive beliefs.
“We are interested in keeping the points down,” Diaco said. “The next piece that produces points is big plays. Defensively, we have to be sure that we are constantly focused on eliminating big plays. After that, we try to analyze what the opponent does to produce points, so we can eliminate it and keep the points down.
“After that, we are interested in attacking the football and creating more disruptions.”
The third part of Diaco’s defensive diagram has been the biggest change for the Irish, whose next game will be against Miami (2-2) on Oct. 6 at Chicago’s Soldier Field.
Notre Dame has forced 13 turnovers (eight interceptions, five fumbles) after creating only 14 turnovers (eight interceptions, six fumbles) last year.
“I think it is the group of guys we have. … We really want it,” cornerback KeiVarae Russell, who has one interception, said of the Irish’s ability to create turnovers. “Our whole 11 are hungry. Every single play, we want to get better. I think you see every game, we are getting better and better. Some people go down, but we are going up.”
Notre Dame is also getting to the quarterback more this season. The Irish have 14 sacks through four games after having 25 all of last season.
“Sacks are like an energizer,” said defensive end Stephon Tuitt, who has a team-high six sacks. “Once I get one, you don’t want to stop. You just keep going. I get really excited because I know during the summer I worked really hard to increase my pass-rushing skills. I’m just really excited to make plays.”
Even though the Irish have started the season strong, Diaco said the defense is not a finished product. He said improvements can be made in fundamentals, pass defense and understanding the team’s defensive concepts.
“We’re in no way anywhere close to where we need to be, and we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Diaco said. “Our players are improving and our coaches are improving defensively every day. That’s built into what we consider to be a successful day.
“But, we’re nowhere near where we want to be.”