Defensive drop-off has plagued Notre Dame this season

Notre Dame regained relevance and respect in the college football world last season by riding a rock-ribbed defense to a berth in the BCS National Championship Game.

But plans to continue along a similar path this season have proven rocky for the Fighting Irish (3-2), who have regressed across the board in the national defensive statistics despite the return of seven starters from last year’s 12-1 team. Four of those seven returnees have been touted as All-America candidates and project to be in Saturday’s lineup when Notre Dame meets No. 22 Arizona State (3-1) at 6:30 p.m. at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.

Although coach Brian Kelly described his unit as “a solid defense that we can win with” after last week’s 35-21 loss to No. 11 Oklahoma, the early returns are hard to dismiss. Among 13 key statistical categories tracked by the NCAA, the Notre Dame defense has dropped in all 13 this season.

The biggest downturns have come in scoring defense, where the Irish rank No. 53 among FBS schools (23.8 average) after finishing second nationally last season (12.77 average), and first downs per game. Notre Dame ranked eighth nationally in 2012, allowing 17 first downs per game. The Irish have plummeted to No. 110 this season, allowing 22 first downs per game heading into a matchup against an explosive ASU offense coming off last week’s 62-41 pasting of Southern California that triggered the firing of Trojans’ coach Lane Kiffin.

From a leadership standpoint, the Irish clearly miss the influence of two multi-year defensive starters now on NFL rosters: linebacker Manti Te’o and defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore, a Weatherford High School graduate. But Kelly said this defense — led by OLB Prince Shembo, CB Bennett Jackson, DL Stephon Tuitt and DL Louis Nix III — is good enough to allow the Irish to win their final seven games as long as the offense limits turnovers. Notre Dame lost the turnover battle to Oklahoma, 3-0, in last week’s loss.

“I think our defense is solid. I don’t think they’re spectacular,” Kelly said. “We’re going to play, I believe, well enough defensively to win the rest of our games. But the margin this year is razor thin.”

Among Notre Dame’s primary defensive playmakers, Jackson (three tackles for losses, sack, interception) and Tuitt (three TFLs, two sacks, interception) have backed up their preseason hype. Teo’s replacement, linebacker Carlo Calabrese, leads the team in TFLs (four) and has the lone fumble recovery.

But the Irish, who allowed an NCAA-low four rushing touchdowns last season, have not been as dominant on third down or in the red zone. Opponents are scoring at a 73.7 percent clip inside the Notre Dame 20-yard line, up from last year’s 68 percent mark, and are converting on 42.7 percent of their third downs. Last year, the opponents’ conversion rate was 36.5. A pass rush that averaged 2.62 sacks per game last season has all but disappeared, with a 0.60 average that ranks No. 119 among the 123 teams in this week’s FBS statistics.

Those numbers will be tested Saturday by an Arizona State attack that ranks among the nation’s top 15 teams in scoring (44.3 average) and total offense (505 yards per game). Sun Devils’ running back Marion Grice leads the nation in touchdowns (12), with 22 receptions (four for TDs) to go with 256 rushing yards and 8 rushing TDs. Kelly said his team will enter Saturday’s game with one prevailing thought.

“Eliminating the big plays defensively is absolutely critical to our success,” Kelly said. “We can’t afford to give up any big plays.”

Notre Dame vs. Arizona State

6:30 p.m. Saturday, AT&T Stadium

Records: Notre Dame 3-2, Arizona State 3-1

TV: KXAS/Ch. 5

Defensive downturn

Notre Dame reached last year’s BCS National Championship Game on the strength of a stingy defense. But the Irish have dropped across the board in the 2013 NCAA defensive stats despite seven returning starters.

Defensive category 2012 (rank) 2013 (rank)
Scoring defense 12.77 (2) 23.8 (53)
Total defense 305.46 (7) 364 (46)
Rushing defense 105.69 (11) 133.8 (45)
Turnovers gained 23 (46) 4 (109)
First downs allowed per game 17 (8) 22 (110)
Sacks per game 2.62 (22) 0.60 (119)
Red zone defense 68.0 pct. (7) 73.7 pct. (33)

Head to head

Category Notre Dame Arizona State
Points per game 25.4 44.3
Total offense 382.2 505
Pass offense 244.8 358.8
Rush offense 135.4 146.3
3rd down conv. 46.6% 42.9%
Points allowed 23.8 28.3
Total defense 364 385.3
Pass defense 230.2 193
Rush defense 133.8 192.3
3rd down conv. 42.7 37.7
Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram