A look back at Notre Dame’s last four national championships and the last four by any school point to one glaring commonality: Championship teams have to play great defense. It may sound trite, but that fact gets lost as fans concentrate on the more glamorous side of the ball. If a team plays great defense and wins the turnover battle, it can win any game.
Ara’s first national championship team, in 1966, featured the number one ranked defense in the country. His second national championship team finished with the country’s 4th ranked defense. Devine’s national championship team was 12th and Lou’s lone national championship team ranked 3rd.
One could argue that 20 years ago may not be relevant given the changes in the game, but the last four national champions finished 1st, 50th, 1st and 5th in the country in defense. Auburn remains the lone outlier, but their defense won them the national championship game vs. Oregon holding the Ducks to 19 points.
The most encouraging aspect of Kelly’s coaching resume was not the offense, but consistent defense. While some are surprised that Notre Dame’s defense is outperforming the offense, that has been true in five of Kelly’s last six seasons.
2007 – His first year at Cincinnati his defense finished 11th in the country in defense.
2008 – Kelly’s second year the defense slipped to 25th, but their offense was exceptionally mediocre (kind of like jumbo shrimp) very much like our offense this year. Kelly credited the defense with carrying the team that year, but he still fired his DC (Joe Tresey, now at UCLA) for Diaco.
2009 – Under Diaco, Cincinnati’s defense initially was even better. Eight games through the season it was giving up just under 13 points a game (top 10) and was leading the country in both sacks and tackles for loss. The defense fell apart after that giving up vast swaths of yards and points leading to rightful speculation about Diaco’s capability (including my own.)
Only in 2009 did Kelly’s offense outperform the defense and that was only for the part of the season.
Performing on defense is not new to Kelly’s teams, what does seem to be different about Kelly is that he’s seemingly more content to win the battle at the line of scrimmage and play great defense. That’s a marked shift and one that will be tested this week as he faces Oklahoma and Stoops who has candidly said he doesn’t care about time of possession.
“Some guys are just worried about time of possession and eating the clock and playing close to the vest,” said Heupel, now OU’s quarterbacks coach. “That is not coach Stoops at all.” “They can’t score fast enough for me,” said Stoops. “That’s always been my mentality… to score as often and as quickly as you can. You go up 21-0, that presses the other team, too.”
To his point, Kansas held the ball 40 minutes to Oklahoma’s 19 last week, but Oklahoma’s ability to strike quickly put the game far out of reach. Oklahoma has the ability to run a fast-break quick strike offense.
The interesting fact here is that Kelly too has previously said he didn’t care about time of possession, only scoring points. His new philosophy will likely fall under pressure this weekend, especially if Oklahoma climbs on top of Notre Dame early. If Oklahoma goes into hurry-up mode, will Kelly stick to his new philosophy, revert to his old or morph into something new? My guess is that Notre Dame will try to keep up in a shoot out. Perhaps Notre Dame’s defense is strong enough to make the point moot, but I suspect it will take more than 20 points to win this game.
I’ve written much about Kelly having a strong coaching floor, but this weekend should give us some insight into his ceiling. A win Saturday would represent a true turning point for the program and will likely put the Irish in the BCS for the first time since 2006.