SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Notre Dame's defense dominated Navy and Tennessee State the last two weeks.
The 10th-ranked Fighting Irish face this season's first big test on Saturday at North Carolina State and new quarterback Brennan Armstrong.
“There’s no doubt he’s a challenge,” second-year defensive coordinator Al Golden said. “Anyway, that’s what we signed up for. This is great. It’s a great opportunity for us.”
A barometer, too. Notre Dame (2-0) limited its first two foes to just one field goal each, marking the first time since 1975 the Irish haven't allowed a touchdown through their first two games.
The strong start has the Irish ranked among the FBS' top six in scoring defense and total defense (162.5 yards per game).
But it's about more than producing promising stats against overmatched opponents. The defense also looks better and appears capable of keeping Notre Dame in the playoff hunt as the schedule gets tougher.
Coach Marcus Freeman isn't surprised.
“I really believed in the second year of the same scheme, the same coaches, our players are truly understanding the details of the defense,” he said. “Now they’ve been able to go out and execute.”
Freeman understands why. The former Ohio State linebacker got a first-hand glimpse of why continuity matters as the defensive coordinator at Purdue, Cincinnati and Notre Dame before becoming a head coach last season.
And while Navy and Tennessee State certainly aren't Ohio State or Southern Cal, both presented unique challenges because of their differing offensive philosophies and the fact they had an entire offseason to plan for the Irish.
A little bit of Irish luck helped, too.
Navy may have scored on its opening possession if two open receivers hadn't collided while trying to catch a fourth-down pass. Last week, the Tigers had Notre Dame befuddled on their opening possession. Tennessee State gained four first downs on a 15-play, 55-yard drive and even once caught the Irish with 10 players on the field.
But Notre Dame showed its mettle by digging down and settling in.
Tennessee State averaged just 2.3 yards per play after that first possession despite playing against Notre Dame’s third-string defense most of the second half.
Another slow start this week could prove costly against Armstrong, who completed 17 of 26 passes for 155 yards and led the Wolfpack with 19 carries for 95 yards and two TDs in their season-opening 24-14 win over UConn.
“He’s big. He’s strong,” Golden said. “You’ve got to wrap him up.”
Last year, Notre Dame struggled at times to meet expectations. Navy, Stanford and UNLV averaged 24.0 points against the Irish even though all three finished in the FBS' lower tier for scoring.
Notre Dame wound up 9-4 and was ranked 39th in points allowed, but it still was a dramatic dip from the previous four seasons. Each of those Brian Kelly-coached teams had top-15 rankings, leading to two playoff appearances and a 44-7 overall record.
But Notre Dame appears to have fixed its biggest weakness — red zone defense — and it could lead to a revival.
A year go, opponents scored TDs on 27 of 34 trips inside the 20-yard line (79.4%, No. 128 in FBS). This year, opponents are 0 for 5 in the red zone, settling instead for just those two field goals.
“It has to be an understanding that the field shrinks and your matchups have to become really tight," Freeman said. "There’s not a lot of space for zone defense down there. All those things come into play, and they’ve shown in the first two games.”
Of course, there's plenty of room for improvement.
Notre Dame has only three sacks this season and missed 11 tackles against Tennessee State, many of which enabled quarterback Deveon Bryant to escape the pocket and extend plays. Golden knows it's a problem that must be solved or the defense could pay a steep price, starting this weekend.
“We need to tackle better than we did last week,” Golden said. “We need to get more pressure on the quarterback. I’d like to see us keep attacking the football.”
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