Irish take baby steps in right direction

AP photoSyracuse wide receiver Amba Etta-Tawo, left, makes a catch before scoring a touchdown as Notre Dame cornerback Julian Love defends on the play during the first half of a college football game, Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016, at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

Practically planning a parade to celebrate a Notre Dame defense that allowed 489 yards and 33 points to a below-average Syracuse team seemed a little overblown Saturday afternoon.

But when a 1-3 football program has slipped so far during the first month of the season that even baby steps on the improvement scale are considered giant leaps, the 50-33 win, a few signs of defensive life, and a 2-3 record might actually be parade-worthy.

"Just the attitude. We knew we were going to just come out and play and enjoy what we were doing," is how Notre Dame captain Isaac Rochell explained the defensive attitude adjustment that led to only the second Irish win in the last seven games, dating back to late last season. "That's what we did and we played really well."

"We played really well" might be a bit ambitious when assessing the Irish defensive play. After all, the 33 points allowed matched the most Syracuse has scored all season — the Orange also hung 33 on Colgate — and the Irish actually slipped three more spots to 106th in total defense after the weekend.

But the in-game improvement against Syracuse helps to validate Rochell's point.

Syracuse scored on three of its five first-quarter drives, recording 281 yards on 29 plays, or 9.7 yards per play. The Orange scored 13 of their 33 points in the first five minutes of the game.

The script flipped during the final three quarters, when the Irish surrendered only 208 total yards on 59 plays, or just 3.5 yards per play.

The Irish defense held Syracuse to 3-of-15 on third-down conversions, it forced four straight punts and an over-on-downs on the first five Orange drives of the second half, and it even recovered its first fumble of the season, setting the stage for the Notre Dame offense to take control of the game.

"There's a lot to do," head coach Brian Kelly said of the defensive play. "But I thought it was a good start."

Kelly spent most of last week challenging his players to find more energy and urgency. They did.

And in return, Kelly vowed to get more players involved in the game plan to keep guys fresh and help lift morale. He did.

Notre Dame's rotation of defensive players went deeper than it ever has during Kelly's seven seasons on the ND job, a lineup expansion made possible last week during practice when Kelly and interim defensive coordinator Greg Hudson shrunk the complex defensive playbook from about 120 plays down to about 60.

Sophomore tackle Elijah Taylor and freshman cornerback Troy Pride both made their Irish debuts. And at one point in the first half, four freshmen (Pride, Donte Vaughn, Devin Studstill and Jalen Elliott) made up Notre Dame's entire defensive secondary.

"We've got a lot of depth," Kelly said. "We've got a lot of really good players that deserve to get on the field, and that's the kind of defense this is going to be. There are going to be a lot of players playing in this defense.

"Let's put these guys in a position to succeed this year, utilizing a lot of young players, gaining them experience as we go."

Kelly said last week that fatigue caused by a reluctance of former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder to rotate backups into the game was the primary reason why the Irish defense had slipped to near the bottom of the NCAA pack in nearly every statistical category.

"We have so many young players who can't sustain 70 or 80 plays," Kelly explained. "They're good for 20 or 30 and we need to keep rolling guys in."

Similar to this season, Kelly also started 1-3 in 2010 during his first year at Notre Dame before guiding his team to seven wins in its last nine games. And if he can lead a repeat performance and find another quick turnaround to the crummy start of this season, perhaps a parade will be in order after all.

Todd Burlage is a freelance columnist who covers Notre Dame sports.

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