SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — The Notre Dame defense is about to find out just how much it has improved since its dismal start.
Statistically, the Irish look much better since Brian VanGorder was fired as defensive coordinator on Sept. 25, the day after 38-35 loss to Duke. The Irish were ranked 103rd out of 128 teams in total defense, giving up 456 yards a game, when they fell to 1-3.
Heading into their final two games against Virginia Tech (7-3) and USC, Notre Dame (4-6) ranks 39th in the nation in total defense, giving up an average of 371 yards a game. Take away those first four games and the Irish are surrendering 315 yards a game, which would place them 14th in the nation in total defense.
The Irish, though, are about to face two of the three best offenses they’ve faced all season. The Hokies rank 43rd in the nation in total offense at 444 yards a game and USC (7-3) ranks No. 29 at 469 yards a game.
The only team the Irish have faced with a higher-rated offense is Texas at No. 14 at 503 yards a game. The Longhorns beat the Irish 50-47 in double overtime in the season opener.
Coach Brian Kelly said while the Irish could become bowl eligible with two victories and improve their image with wins over Virginia Tech, which was ranked No. 18 before being upset by Georgia Tech last week, and No. 15 Southern California, which has won six straight after a 1-3 start, his focus is building on Notre Dame’s best all-around performance in a 44-6 win over Army on Saturday.
“You want all of the things that you worked so hard on all year to come together in these last two games,” he said. “That is, for us, finishing games, playing the game for us with a mental and physical toughness that at times was not at its best. It’s now coming together. And I think that regardless of how we’re perceived, I think the most important thing is to play the way we’re capable of playing. That’s what I’m looking at more than anything else.”
Kelly said he’s not “losing sleep” over whether the Irish will get to a bowl. Kelly was asked whether he would want to play in a bowl with a 5-7 record. Last season three 5-7 teams went to bowl games because there weren’t enough teams with records above .500.
“I haven’t given it much thought, to be honest with you. I think those scenarios I would address at the end of the year,” he said.