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Defense has Irish moving up quickly in rankings

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012 12:04 a.m. CDT

What is with the increasingly smaller numbers that keep appearing next to Notre Dame's school name when I tune into broadcasts of Fighting Irish football?

The Irish have only occasionally had numbers next to their name the past several years, and when they have, they've almost always been double digits and begun with a "2." They're in single digits now, and if the Irish keep this up, they'll stay that way.

And these Irish, unlike so many teams in the past several years that have showed promise and flamed out, appear to have staying power. They're not reliant on a Brady Quinn to Jeff Samardzija connection clicking to win on a weekly basis. Instead, they're built around a defense that gives them a chance in every game.

Notre Dame has yet to allow more than 17 points in a game, and prior to Saturday's 20-13 overtime win over Stanford, it had held three consecutive opponents under seven. Nationally, only top-ranked Alabama is allowing fewer points per game (7.5) than Notre Dame's 8.7, and nobody else is close to the Irish in scoring defense (No. 3 Rutgers allows 11.5 PPG).

When yardage is used as the measuring stick, the Irish aren't quite as dominant. They're 11th in total yards allowed per game at 287.0, ranking 14th in passing defense (173.5 yards allowed per game) and 26th in rushing defense (113.5 YPG).

But the ineffectiveness of the Everett Golson (and, sometimes, Tommy Rees) led offense keeps the Irish defense on the field more than many of their rivals. Notre Dame has faced 31.2 pass attempts and 32.3 rush attempts per game. By comparison, Alabama's opponents are averaging just 26.3 passes and 31.5 rushes a contest.

What's amazing to me is that the Irish are where they are in spite of an offense that's been so inconsistent, to be kind. Take away the 50 points the Irish put up in their season opener against an overmatched Navy team and the 43 they hung on hapless Miami Oct. 6, and the Irish are averaging 18.25 points per game. Watching them play regularly, it doesn't seem like they score that much.

I get why coach Brian Kelly has stuck with Golson, but after watching Rees relieve Golson and give the Irish offense its first spark all day against Stanford, I'd be tempted to pull the plug on the sophomore. The Irish have a higher offensive ceiling with Golson under center than they do with Rees, but they also have a lower floor.

Whether it's from Golson or Rees, the Irish are probably going to need better quarterback play to beat Oklahoma and/or USC in the coming weeks. The thing is, they don't need to beat both ... if your goal for them is a BCS bowl. They'll be in a big-boy bowl with a win over either the Sooners or the Trojans, assuming they win the rest of their games. It's unlikely but possible that the Irish will make the BCS even if they lose to both.

I think Notre Dame fans can be forgiven for dreaming of something more than a BCS bid following a 6-0 start. Even if they win out, the Irish would almost definitely need a bit of help to make the national championship.

Either Florida or Alabama will lose in the SEC Championship if not before; it sure wouldn't hurt Notre Dame's chances if someone like Florida State or LSU could hand those teams a loss before then. It's hard, however, to envision the national championship game not including at least one SEC team.

I also can't see the Irish surpassing Oregon without a Ducks loss; with three ranked teams remaining on Oregon's schedule, plus a likely appearance in the Pac-12 Championship, one is very possible. Kansas State, which is a spot ahead of the Irish in the BCS standings, has nobody ranked higher than 17th in its way until at least the Big 12 Championship.

The guess here is that if the Irish can win as much in their final six games as they did in their first six, they'll be in the title game, one way or another. The cart is being put way in front of the horse, of course, but this is the first time in a while that Notre Dame's national championship ambitions can't be dismissed as silliness.

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