TOM COYNE, Associated Press
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — The Notre Dame defense is looking nothing like the dominant squad that led the Fighting Irish into the national championship game a season ago.
A quarter of the way into the season, the 22nd-ranked Fighting Irish (2-1) are giving up 23.5 points a game, nearly double last year’s average of 12.8, and are surrendering 411 yards a game after holding opponents to 306 yards a game a year ago. Even worse, two of their opponents they’ve face — Temple (0-3) and Purdue (1-2) — rank among the 30 least productive offenses in the nation.
The Irish eked out a 31-24 victory against a Purdue squad that had had managed to only score only 27 points and two offensive touchdowns in its first two games and was without its leading receiver, Gabe Holmes, because of an wrist injury sustained in practice last week.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, who said repeatedly during the offseason that last year’s success wouldn’t help this season’s defense, continued Sunday to downplay concerns about the defense and the team in general.
“We’re still finding out who’s the middle linebacker, who’s playing safety, who’s playing wide receiver. I mean, there’s a number of positions that we’re still trying to find ourselves at,” Kelly said.
The Irish figured to miss linebacker Manti Te’o, the Heisman Trophy runner-up, but the eight returning starters from last season were expected to make up for much of that. So far, though, they haven’t. Kelly placed part of the problem on communications, saying Te’o and departed safety Zeke Motta played key roles in that area last season.
“The two big leaders on our defense in terms of communication are the safety and the mike linebacker. They’re no longer here. Those are new communication positions. That’s evolving,” he said.
He said the Irish had great communication against Purdue. Still, the Irish, who finished seventh in the nation last season in total defense, sit at No. 56 heading into Saturday’s game against Michigan State (3-0), which sits 84th in total offense. Kelly, though, says he is seeing signs of improvement, saying the Irish had held the Boilermakers to 38 yards on 21 carries.
“This offense is built to run the football. That’s what they wanted to do. They weren’t able to do that,” he said.
He said some of “the basic tenets” coaches are looking for are coming together on defense. Kelly said he wasn’t concerned defensive end Stephon Tuitt, projected by some as a potential first-round draft pick, has only one tackle the past two games.
“I really liked his play up front,” Kelly said.
Kelly said the Irish were still trying to figure out their pieces and where they go.
“We know there’s going to be an evolution of getting those players in the right position, developing them. That’s going to take a little time,” he said.
The Irish defense had better get it together soon. After facing the Spartans on Saturday, the Irish play Oklahoma, which ranks 32nd in total offense, and Arizona State, which ranks 29th. Kelly, though, sounds confident.
“We’re still evolving. It takes time. Even if you’ve got guys that are veterans, we have some key positions that have some new players in it. They’re coming together,” he said.
Kelly confirmed a Tweet by third-string quarterback Malik Zaire that he has been cleared to play after missing the first three games with mononucleosis, but indicated he still might not suit up against Michigan State on Saturday.
“He might be suspended for violating the rules relative to information. We’ll have to get back to you on that,” Kelly said.
Purdue, meanwhile, took solace in their effort.
“That is a huge step for this program,” coach Darrell Hazell said. “We talked all week about being level and not being too high or too low throughout the course of the game because it was going to be a battle from start to finish. I thought our guys did a great job of handling the situation.”
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