Irish 'D' not fazed by red zone issues

Irish 'D' not fazed by red zone issues
September 20, 2013, 3:00 pm
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- During last year's 12-0 regular season, a hallmark of Notre Dame's defense was an ability to stop opponents in the red zone. In a dozen games, Irish opponents scored eight red zone touchdowns in 33 attempts, or about one in every four times they took the ball inside the 20.

It was a point of pride for the Irish defense -- "We were confident the closer we got to the goal line that someone was going to step up and make a play," cornerback Bennett Jackson said in August -- but it's something Notre Dame hasn't had success with this year.

Through three games, Irish opponents have already scored eight touchdowns when reaching the red zone, equaling last year's total over a dozen games.

Notre Dame's defense has not only bent, but it's broke, too.

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"A lot of it has been just miscommunication, missed assignments -- little things that make something so big, that it makes a big hole in the defense," Jackson said Wednesday. "But I don't feel like (our confidence) has left. Personally, I get 100 percent confident when we get in the red zone -- it's just certain misfits that guys have been doing, something that we've been working on that gets fixed."

The numbers, though, don't lie: Temple scored on one of three red zone possessions, Michigan got into the end zone on all four of its opportunities and Purdue was successful on three of four chances.

In turn, Notre Dame is 58th among FBS teams in scoring defense, allowing an average of 23 points per game. Notre Dame allowed 20 or more points in only one regular season game last fall.

Manti Te'o isn't directing traffic and making big plays anymore. Kapron Lewis-Moore isn't stuffing the run on the defensive line. Danny Spond's versatility can't be tapped into. Zeke Motta's experience can't, either.

Plenty of top-quality players remain: Jackson, Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt and Prince Shembo, to rattle off a few. And yet, the dropoff has been significant.

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"We're still the same people," Shembo said. "We know what we did. If you do something amazing one time, you know it's in there. No one's really changing, it's just lack of fundamentals."

The confidence still exists for this defense, though. It was only 11 months ago that this unit controversially/heroically stopped Stanford's Stepfan Taylor from a game-tying touchdown just inches from the goal line.

That experience, that "hey, we've done this before" mentality, has kept spirits running high even as opponents have found the end zone at a far higher rate than last year.

"We still have the feeling," Shembo said. "It's in there."