The Notre Dame defense has produced the "teeth-gnashing" moments that coach Brian Kelly predicted before the season. So far, though, it's been the opposing teams clenching their jaws in frustration.
The Fighting Irish defense shut down Stanford's offense for most of the game in a 17-14 victory Saturday, holding the Cardinal to 205 yards of total offense. That's the fewest yards in a game by the Cardinal since TCU held them to 193 yards in 2008.
The sixth-ranked Irish (5-0) are putting up numbers comparable to two seasons ago, when the Irish defense carried the team to an undefeated regular season and the national title game. The Irish are giving up 12 points a game — third best in the country and the same average the Irish had five games into the season two years ago.
Coach Brian Kelly predicted before the season the defense would cause consternation because players were so young and inexperienced. He said Sunday that he's not surprised by how well they've played, but conceded he's particularly pleased with the run defense.
The Irish are ninth in the nation in rushing defense at 95.8 yards a game and 21st in total defense, giving up 316 yards a game. The Irish held Stanford to 47 yards rushing, the fewest running yards by the Cardinal in seven years.
Kelly said the key was that the Irish put the Cardinal in third-and-7 or more 11 ties on Saturday.
"When you can control first and second down and in particular running the football, out teams in third-and-7 or more, it's very difficult to convert in college football because there are so many exotic looks you can give quarterbacks," he said.
The Irish defense sacked Kevin Hogan four times and forced seven more hurries and kept the Cardinal offense off-balance the entire game. Perhaps most impressively, though, was how it shutdown wide receiver Ty Montgomery, who had been averaging 154 all-purpose yards a game. The Irish held him to 68 yards, with 42 of that coming on a fourth-quarter kickoff return.
Notre Dame's defense is succeeding with a much different style than the 2012 squad, which ran out of a base 3-4 scheme played a read-and-react style preferred by then-defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. First-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder has installed a more aggressive 4-3 defense that takes more chances.
Stanford coach David Shaw praised VanGorder's play-calling.
"He mixes it up. A lot of pressure. We picked up, not as many as we'd like. Our quarterback got hit a lot today," he said. "Give them a lot of credit for their scheme. We flat out missed some things and some things our guys just got beat."
The Irish defense was expected to be young, but got even younger when five players were withheld from practices and games while the university determines whether papers and homework they turned in had been completed by others. Kelly said a decision is likely this week. Four of those being withheld are defensive players, including cornerback KeiVarae Russell, who was expected to be Notre Dame's best defensive player.
His replacement, Cole Luke, had two interceptions, a sack, a forced fumble, a pass breakup and four tackles against Stanford.
"There are a lot of people that we lost, but it is all about how you step up," Luke said. "It does not really matter how great the players were that we lost. It is all about now, and even if we cannot get them back, we cannot play with one player down, so you just have to step up."
Kelly said he won't begin worrying about what he might do with any of the returning players until decisions are made on whether they are allowed to return.
"Once that decision is made on each one of them, then I'll have to have a plan on reintegrating all of the players, or those players I can," he said.
University spokesman Paul Browne emailed a statement out later Sunday saying the results of the honesty committee hearings will be released to the players and the school will not disclose the results publicly.
"If it is determined that student-athletes would have been ineligible during past competition, Notre Dame will voluntarily impose appropriate sanctions, report our findings to the NCAA, and await its independent review," he wrote.