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by | College Football Insider

Midseason Report: Notre Dame's defense serves notice it's among nation's best


Any time an opponent enters the red zone against Notre Dame's defense this season, it averages two points per trip.

A layup. That's all you get. That's 28.5 percent of a touchdown. The remaining 71.5 percent is offensive shame, effectively donated to the Manti Te'o Heisman campaign the day after every game.

But despite allowing two passing touchdowns and six field goals in 16 red-zone stands -- easily tops in college football -- Louis Nix remains a bit salty about it all. The Irish nose tackle watched in disgust when Stanford managed one field goal on four red-zone trips in Saturday's thrilling 20-13 overtime win for Notre Dame that included a momentous fourth-and-goal stop from the 1.

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"That's three too many," Nix said. "We're working toward becoming the best defense in the country."

The argument is growing.

Though Alabama is widely considered the nation's top defense, it's hard to overlook a Notre Dame unit that has vaulted the No. 5 Irish into the national title picture with 15 takeaways -– one more than the total from all of last season -- and a touchdown-less streak of 16 quarters. It hasn't been pretty, mainly because of an erratic offense, but Irish fans who have waded through years of national championship irrelevancy will take close wins over Purdue, Michigan and Stanford any day.

Talented offenses such as Oklahoma (Oct. 27 in Norman) and Southern California (Nov. 24 in Los Angeles) will get their crack, but so far the defense has been good enough to put the offense at ease.

Usually, a field goal or two will suffice.

"If the defense keeps playing the way they are, we can go as far as we want," tight end Tyler Eifert said.

When coach Brian Kelly took over in December 2009, the Irish were coming off a season ranked tied for 63rd in total defense. Known as an offensive mind, Kelly chose to build with stout play up front, wanting to grind out close games with toughness on defense rather than high-octane passing attacks.

Te'o (59 tackles, three interceptions) has become the centerpiece of that blueprint, but playmakers have emerged in Nix (three tackles for loss, a forced fumble), cornerback Bennett Jackson (four interceptions), defensive end Stephon Tuitt (6.5 sacks), among others.

The only major defensive category where the Irish rank below the nation's top 25 is sacks (15) at No. 37. Otherwise, consistency across the board -- second in scoring defense, eighth in interceptions, 11th in total defense, 11th in turnover margin, 14th in passing defense and 25th in rushing defense.

At least for now, Alabama is heralded as the country's elite. It's hard to compete with national bests in points allowed (7.5 per game) and yards allowed (181.2 per game). Notre Dame has given up more than 600 yards than Alabama, 1,722 to 1,087, and Alabama takes the turnover advantage 18-15.

But red-zone efficiency is crucial to defensive success, and though Alabama only has allowed eight trips inside the 20, it's given up 28 points, an average of 3.5 per trip.

Winning will overshadow rankings, possibly giving Notre Dame's defense the legendary status it craves.

But these 11 think their way through their dreams before and after the snap.

Take "The Play" on Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium, the kind of goal-line stop that inspires magazine covers -- fourth-and-goal from the 1, overtime against Stanford, and Te'o knew the Cardinal was running a "Lead" or "Power" play. He could tell by quarterback Josh Nunes' eyes, Te'o said.

The monstrous 326-pound Nix read the offense -- eight Stanford blockers up front, Nunes, a blocking fullback and running back Stepfan Taylor -- and plowed his 300-pound frame into the sea of white and red to try to create tackling lanes for teammates.

Jackson swooped in from the edge to keep Taylor in the backfield with a leg tackle, and everybody else moved to the ball. All Te'o could do was push from the back until the whistle blew. "I think our team fights for each other on every play," Nix said.

These are the moments that define -- or deflate -- a dominant defense.

"That's where legends are made," Te'o said of the play. To know how the Notre Dame defense functions before a snap, look no further than a Jackson interception midway through the first quarter.

Stanford was on Notre Dame's 20, flared out in a three-receiver set. Te'o recognizes something and makes a check by extending his arms and frantically twitching his fingers. He runs to each position to show them the call.

Seconds later, Jackson, who was out wide, read Nunes' touch pass toward the sideline and intercepted the ball at the 1. After the game, Te'o didn't want to reveal the call he made, but he trusts teammates are getting the message. Constant communication is crucial.

"That's part of us now, it's not something we have to preach," Te'o said.

After the Stanford game, Notre Dame's defense talked often about the brotherhood of playing defense, how mutual respect between players can become a driving force for a play, or even a season.

If Notre Dame has its way, the defense will be remembered as fondly as these teammates remember each other. "I think our defense will be remembered as one of the most gritty, just get-after-it defenses to ever come through here," Te'o said.

Jeremy Fowler is a national college football insider with CBSSports.com. Fowler joined CBS in 2012 after covering the Minnesota Vikings for the St. Paul Pioneer Press for two seasons and covering the Florida Gators for the Orlando Sentinel for two years. Fowler is also a contributor to the CBS Sports Network.

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