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Notre Dame's nation-best red zone defense does not budge

by | CBSSports.com
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- One half-yard short.

That's how close No. 1 Notre Dame came to missing out on its historic run to the BCS Championship Game on a rainy night in mid-October against Stanford. The play that defined the Irish's season paints a larger picture, one that reveals how this unit both incited and unified its team in the most improbable of situations: at goal-to-go.

After being stuffed on the previous two attempts, Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor took a handoff in overtime with the then 5-0 Irish up 20-13. Taylor quickly scanned the line to find a hole. There was none. Junior cornerback Bennett Jackson knifed through the Cardinal blockers and wrapped Taylor by the waist, while senior safety Zeke Motta and the rest of the defense swallowed Taylor near the line of scrimmage.

Half of a yard short.

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"The goal-line stands are a function of players knowing clearly, exactly what to do," Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said, "playing with whole heart, whole body, whole mind, being physically talented enough to get their job done and win their individual matchup at that particular moment."

Although No. 2 Alabama brings years of defensive consistency into Monday night's BCS Championship Game, the Irish squad is characterized by its resilience and determination. Notre Dame may give up its share of yards, as it did vs. Oklahoma, when quarterback Landry Jones was allowed to throw for 356 passing yards. The defense, however, believes that once opposing offenses step into the red zone, points won't light up on the scoreboard.

In 33 red zone drives this season, Notre Dame has only ceded 95 points and two rushing touchdowns -- both best in the country.

"Those stands definitely bring you together," junior linebacker Danny Spond said. "They show that you can get through anything. It's not easy standing with nothing behind you and having to push an offense backwards, especially some of the great offenses we've faced this year.

"The camaraderie we've built in those instances -- it's tough to match."

Notre Dame's defense is anchored by a stout front seven that features several players who will no doubt soon suit up on Sundays.

Senior linebacker and emotional captain Manti Te'o is the most heralded of the group. He has his long list of postseason awards to validate his play this season. Notre Dame also boasts sophomore Stephon Tuitt and junior Louis Nix III, linemen who -- for their size and stature -- may be the most athletic in the country.

Tuitt is a 6-foot-6, 300-pound hybrid with enough speed to rush the quarterback from the edge, and enough power to move inside on third downs and passing situations to disrupt the offensive line from the interior.

Standing in at 6-foot-3 and 330 pounds, don't confuse Nix for a space-eater. The junior nose guard nimbly takes on multiple offensive linemen to foil plays in the backfield.

With Tuitt and Nix hailing from Southeastern Conference territory -- Georgia and Florida, respectively -- this Irish defense is built like many of those in the SEC: powerful athletes along the defensive line and linebackers who can range from sideline to sideline.

"Honestly, I just think that we're a Notre Dame defense," senior defensive lineman Kapron Lewis-Moore said. "The SEC is known for their defense. The SEC has played great football in the past eight, nine years, but we really don't compare ourselves to anybody."

Notre Dame's season has been defined on smothering performances: on the road against Michigan State, at home against Michigan at home against Stanford, on the road against Oklahoma and on the road at USC. In each game, the opposition managed to move the ball. Once it arrived inside the red zone, however, the Irish tightened up. Against those opponents, Notre Dame allowed an average of only 9.6 points per game.

"To be able to do that and say that we've done that is something that I'll carry with me for the rest of my life and these guys will too," senior safety Zeke Motta said.

Te'o has been the inspirational leader of the defense, creating a sense of fraternity that has been unbreakable in 12 games so far this season.

"In order to make it this far, you can't be a team of individuals," Te'o said. "You have to be a team that plays as one, as one unit, and that trusts in each other and have kids on the team that plays for the guy next to him. And I think that's exactly what we have. We've demonstrated that throughout the year by the close games we've had, and also the big victories we've had. We've demonstrated that brotherhood that we have on this team."

Although Notre Dame has faced a number of talented offensive attacks, it has not lined up against a bruising rushing offense with the ability to wear opponents down quite like Alabama's.

Junior Eddie Lacy and freshman T.J. Yeldon have combined for 2,182 rushing yards and 27 rushing touchdowns. Monday night's game will be a test of wills pitting two imposing defenses against dynamic rushing offenses.

As successful as Notre Dame's defense has been, Alabama's two-headed rushing attack also has its share of crowning moments this season. The SEC Championship Game completely debilitated Georgia, as the Tide pounded the ball in the second half en route to 350 rushing yards, and wore down the Bulldog defense.

Much like the way Notre Dame regards its goal-line stands, Monday night's game is just another test in a trying season.

"You create that next level of energy as, 'Hey, what a great challenge,'" Diaco said. "This isn't a negative, this is a great challenge. You have an opportunity to do something really special here, and your game rises."

Follow Lorenzo Reyes @LReyesCBS

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