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Outside the Irish Huddle: Notre Dame Defense Suffocates Army

Notre Dame has followed up two of the most disappointing losses in recent memory with two of the more impressive victories in quite some time.

On Saturday night at Yankee Stadium, the Fighting Irish put together another elite level defensive effort and suffocated Army all game long. The result is that Notre Dame is now bowl eligible and suddenly one of the more surging teams in college football.

Let’s go Outside the Irish Huddle and take a closer look at this game.

Barnstorming 2.0

Last year’s first neutral game of the 7-4-1 scheduling model went off without a ton of buzz. The Irish routed a hapless Washington State team in San Antonio in front of an energetic but three-quarters full crowd. Saturday’s first-ever football game at the new Yankee Stadium was a lot different.

A sellout crowd of 54,251 fans and an electric atmosphere combined with the storied history of the Notre Dame-Army matchup to create something truly special.

Having the game outside, under the bright lights of New York added to the excitement, and even though Army is certainly no powerhouse, the use of the green jerseys brought a unique feel to the game and added a special aura that otherwise would have been much less thrilling inside Notre Dame Stadium.

That this was technically a Notre Dame home game and that the crowd was very pro-Irish, this gave the contest a unique quality to it and it was nice to see the use of a giant jumbotron and other amenities that are not possible back in South Bend.

For one night it felt as if Notre Dame had entered the modern world of football.

I thought it was interesting to see that former Irish legend and 1947 Heisman winner Johnny Lujack thought the jumbotron was pretty neat in his interview with NBC’s Alex Flanagan.

I’m just saying…

The Green Uniforms

Notre Dame looked pretty sharp in the green under those bright lights didn’t they?

This victory brings the Irish to 2-2 in their last four in green, as well as 2-5 in their last seven, and 5-5 in their last ten.

In comparing these green uniforms to the last version worn in 2006 (exempting the 2007 throwbacks), the shade did seem a smidge brighter, although the lights at Yankee Stadium are considerably brighter than Notre Dame Stadium, so that might play a trick on the eyes.

The green jerseys were no different in design than the current Adidas TECHFIT uniforms currently being worn by the Irish, however the team did take the time to change the ND monogram and Adidas logos on the pants to green, something that was not done with the 2005 and 2006 sets. The team also wore green belts and socks as well.

I’m a big supporter of the green jerseys and I thought the team looked really good. Yet, I will continue to rally against the gold numbers, not because it doesn’t match (which it does), but that I think it is just too much gold for the entire uniform set.

Across the whole spectrum of college and professional football, you just don’t see teams wear anything but white numbers on their dark uniforms. Two teams that buck this trend (Rams and Saints) also use gold numbers, and it has just never looked right to me.

To me, having gold numbers takes away from the importance of the gold helmet, where the primary focus of the gold attention should rightfully be. Besides the post-Willingham and the Devine era, the Irish have always worn white numbers on their green uniforms and I believe this is a change that needs to take place.

Position Grades

Offensive Line: B

The Irish offensive line was effective in run blocking, although still not as dominant as some may like against a smaller opponent. Nevertheless, the line was very good in pass protection and has been largely top-notch since Tommy Rees took the reins three games ago.

Wide Receivers: B

Without their two starting receivers again, the Irish were still fairly effective through the air. Robby Toma continues to impress in the slot and Michael Floyd had another strong performance as well. The star of the night was tight end Tyler Eifert who nabbed two long passes, including a 31-yard touchdown grab to pull Notre Dame away from the Black Knights in the first half.

Running Backs: B+

This unit had their ups and downs, and there were a bit too many plays with a lack of vision or trying to break the long run outside instead of banging it up the middle. Nevertheless, Gray and Hughes churned out some tough yards and Wood is slowly turning into a special runner.

Quarterbacks: B+

It was another calm, cool and collected performance from the young freshman. Rees threw an egregious interception in the end zone on the first drive, but was otherwise a perfect game manager all night long against Army.

As the line continues to give him time to throw the ball, Rees has carved up opponents with quick decision making and good accuracy, even throwing a couple beautiful longer passes to Eifert in the first half. With this kind of play Rees is going to make it very difficult for Crist or any other quarterback to start next season.

Defense: A+

There’s no need to break the defense down by units because they all played exceptional.

After the first drive, the Irish only surrendered 97 yards the rest of the game.

Army only put up three first downs after their first series.

Army scored at least 20 points in every game this year, but was held to just three points against Notre Dame.

Army was averaging almost 300 yards rushing a game but was held to just 135 yards on 45 attempts against the Irish.

And as Keith Arnold pointed out over at NBC Sports’ Inside the Irish, this defense hasn’t given up a touchdown in the last nine quarters, the longest streak since the 1988 national championship season.

Now all of a sudden, a defense that was possibly the worst in school history a year ago is a respectable 55th (+31 spots) in total defense and 33rd (+30 spots) in scoring defense.

Final Thoughts

This was a great game to watch because of the toughness and fundamentals shown by both sides of the ball.

On offense I am most impressed with Cierre Wood who has drastically improved his blocking and toughness, while showing a burst through the hole that is truly exceptional. When he is on the sidelines and comes into the game and runs past the line of scrimmage, his burst of speed is so much more eye-popping than any other Irish runner.

With three more years of eligibility I continue to hope that Wood is the once-in-a-generation runner that Notre Dame has so desperately needed. With the way he has improved from the early part of the season to now, it will be wonderful to see how much better he can get with another off-season of training and knowing he will be the number one ball carrier in 2011.

While I’m still a little bit skeptical about Tommy Rees being a long-term solution, the freshman is doing everything he can to try and assuage my fears. He is simply managing the game and making smart throws in similar fashion to Chad Pennington, when Pennington was playing at such a high level despite hearing a lot of the same criticisms Rees is getting.

I wasn’t particularly ecstatic that the offense when into a little bit of a shell and got away from throwing the ball in the second half, but with a big lead I can’t blame Kelly for doing that. It was probably the smart thing to do and it’s really not that easy to win the time of possession against Army either, so that was a positive.

I liked that Floyd was being used on jet sweeps (even as a decoy most of the time) to open up the running game a little bit. At the end of this season the offense won’t be highly ranked and that is to be expected with all of the injuries, but once one of the quarterbacks settles in and gains experience next year, it should be a very potent unit.

Defensively, there is so much to like right now.

First of all, a lot of the credit should go to defensive coordinator Bob Diaco for improving this side of the ball. He’s young, he’s made mistakes, but he has unquestionably made this defense better and put together two of the finest performances for an Irish defense in recent memory.

I still have no idea what he was thinking with his scheme against Navy (I believe he over-valued the playmaking abilities of Te’o and Williams mostly), but the good thing is he came back with a four-man front and put the players in a position to dominate physically and really set the pace for the entire contest against Army.

Some of you may have been worried after Army’s first play from scrimmage and first drive that ended in a field goal. Not me, because I knew the Irish were set on taking away the middle of the field, that Army was not going to have success if they constantly had to pitch the ball, and they showed their hand a little too early with a pass play anyway.

All in all, this was a tremendous performance by the defense.

The defensive line was stout, the linebackers flowed to the ball and stood their ground whenever Army tried to go up the middle, and the entire secondary made sure that Army was not going to pick up any yardage on the pitch play.

It has taken quite a long time, but the Notre Dame defense is starting to live up to its potential and many players are starting to live up to the hype they received coming out of high school.

One of the more surprising aspects of the past two games is how physical the Irish have been without perhaps their most physical player in Ian Williams. If you doubted the effectiveness of the defense once the senior nose tackle went down with injury you had every right to, but Sean Cwynar and Hafis Williams have stepped in and played great in his absence.

This is a good sign for the future and needed this upcoming weekend against USC, where Notre Dame will need to play its most physical game of the season.