Notre Dame football: The swagger is back

Al Lesar

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- Swagger is an intangible no defense should enter battle without.

It can't be faked. It doesn't automatically carry over from one year to the next.

It comes with a confidence that is developed through execution; a style that leaves little room for doubt.

Through adversity and opportunity, the Notre Dame football team seems to have developed a swagger on defense, a commodity that carried the Irish through an unbeaten regular season a year ago, but was lost in the transition to 2013.

Seeds for the attitude were delicately sewn in Dallas when the Notre Dame defense absolutely shut down a good Arizona State ground attack, yielding the Sun Devils just 65 yards on 25 attempts. Giving up 362 passing yards showed the process hadn't completely kicked in.

Last Saturday's 14-10 win over Southern Cal was a lot closer to a finished product — especially in the second half. With the game on the line and the Irish offense in crisis without quarterback Tommy Rees, the defense gave up 121 net yards while pitching a shutout in the final 30 minutes against an offense that had its share of weapons.

Good thing. Without that, and two missed Trojan field goals, the outcome could have been dicey.

Now the challenge is to build on that swagger this week in the thin air of Colorado Springs.

What made the Irish defense's performance even that much more impressive was the field position with which it was faced. Thanks to leaky punt coverage and a fumble by Cam McDaniel, four consecutive Southern Cal drives late in the third quarter and into the fourth started at: The USC 48-yard line; the Notre Dame 33; the Notre Dame 47; and the Notre Dame 34.

No points. No damage. Included in that were some of the 11 consecutive unsuccessful third-down conversions by the Trojans.

"That was fun," said Irish linebacker Dan Fox, sarcastically rolling his eyes about the field position. "Your back's against the wall; you're backed into a corner. You just start fighting. Just throw one more punch; keep throwing punches. Eventually, someone will fall."

"(The defense keeps) playing every single day," said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly. "They don't care where they are on the field. They just play the next play."

Consider everything that happened, and the way the victory unfolded: Reminiscent of anything? Looked a lot like the way the Irish won early last year; say, against Purdue (20-17) and Michigan (13-6); before Everett Golson figured out how to play quarterback.

Give the defense a few scores and get out of their way.

"We know we had a swagger about ourselves last year, and we're getting that back," said nose tackle Louis Nix. "It's a different team, different people, different guys stepping up (and making) plays. We're getting it back in a different way.

"You just keep working hard. I go out there do my job, no melt in this Chocolate (his nickname is Irish Chocolate). Just keep playing."

"I just think it's our mentality now," said Fox. "You look at the score, we're up by four points, that's really all we need. That's our mindset, no matter what happens, we just need a stop."

"As a defense, it's the way we work; the way we practice," said linebacker Joe Schmidt, who is filling the void created by Jarrett Grace's injury. "We practice extremely hard. I think we got (the swagger) back today. We played a really tough game. We played assignment-correct, physical football. We played really well."

That approach to the game takes a lot of the guess work out of the equation. No matter who's playing quarterback or how effective the offense is, if the defense can be counted on, that's always a nice place to start.

It's an identity the Irish have been searching for all season.

"We don't see any pressure (when Rees went down and the offense struggled)," Nix said. "Our mindset is, something will happen and we need to be there to step up. It's all on the defense at the end of the day. The defense is going to have to go onto the field and win the game. That's the way we look at it every week.

"We're up 14-10. If they don't score, they're not going to win."

It's as simple as that.

Now the challenge is to prove the swagger is legit.

Frauds won't stand up to the test.

ALesar@SBTinfo.com

574-235-6318

Notre Dame defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt celebrates a fourth-down stop Saturday night against USC.