Notre Dame football: Bennett reflects on team's defensive woes

Al Lesar

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- One lasting memory from Notre Dame's loss to Pitt a couple Saturdays ago was Irish safety Matthias Farley whiffing on a tackle of Panther receiver Devin Street.

The net result of the miss was a 20-yard pass reception deteriorating into a 63-yard touchdown.

That was just one of the crucial blunders that have left Notre Dame on the outside looking in at college football's stretch run for elite postseason opportunities.

The upset loss erased any opportunity the Irish might have had for a BCS bid.

"We're all accountable," said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. "Nobody here is looking for excuses. We're looking for solutions.

"The facts are the facts. (On offense), we turned the ball over eight times in our three losses and we took it away once. In our seven wins, we turned it over five times and took it away seven times. In our three losses, (on defense) we gave up passes of 64, 63 and 54 yards. In our seven wins, we gave up one 48-yard pass to Purdue.

"Those are facts. We live in finding solutions to those. We know what they are. We know how to win and we know what to do to win."

While senior cornerback Bennett Jackson has been trained to deal in facts, he can't help but look back to last year's success — when a powerful Notre Dame defense was the dependable rock on which a run to the BCS National Championship Game was built — and wonder what happened.

En route to that 12-1 season, the Notre Dame defense yielded 13 points, 106 rushing yards and 200 passing a game. This season, at 7-3, the Irish have given up an average of 24 points, 160 rushing yards and 209 passing.

"You just try to push through it," the 6-foot, 209-pound Jackson said. "There are always going to be the (big) plays that happen.

"That's why we were so good last year. When we had a chance to make the play, we made the play. Our effort a lot of time diminished a lot of those big plays from happening (last year).

"I don't really have an answer for it. Guys just aren't making plays when they're in position to make them. That's why we're at where we're at."

Last season, as a first-time starter, Jackson accumulated 65 tackles and four interceptions. This year, he has 54 stops, but only one pick. He has been one of the few dependables on a defense that has been devastated by injuries.

Kelly even admitted to drawing up lineups on the sidelines to fill spots after injuries. Heck, at one point, inside linebacker Carlo Calabrese — all 250 pounds of him — had to be moved to nose guard in the Irish "nickel" (passing situation) package.

"It happens," said Jackson, a co-captain. "We just have to make the best of it. We always say, 'Next man in.' Sometimes it gets to the 'Next, next man in.' You just have to figure a way to get through it.

"The thing with our defense, we all live by the same standards. We all have the same common goal in mind. Each person really knows the positions around them, which allows us to move guys into certain situations. Even though they may not perform at the same level as the person before them, they can still get in there and fill in the blank spot on the defense."

Saturday's next challenge, the final home game against BYU, will be significant. Without a BCS opportunity as a dangling carrot, will the motivation be there?

"I don't think we'll have a problem staying motivated at all," Jackson said. "Our job as a player for this university is to go out and win games. We may not be going to the BCS and people think we're going to lose focus. I don't think we'll lose focus at all.

"We're still going to go out on the field and try to win every one of our games. Being a competitive person and having a competitive nature, I feel we're always going to prepare well for BYU, for Stanford and for our bowl game.

"It's something we have to take week by week and keep pushing forward.

"We play for ourselves and our university. At the beginning of the year, you're playing to get to that national championship, but you're also playing for that guy next to you. Now, that we have certain situations that aren't going to allow us to go to a BCS game, we're still going to play for the guy next to us. That's been the focus from the beginning. We're still going to play just as hard because we have that much respect for the guy next to us."

Whoever that guy happens to be from one play to the next.


Notre Dame's Bennett Jackson