SOUTH BEND, Ind. – The drop off in Notre Dame's play on defense after carrying the Fighting Irish to the national championship game last season is perplexing to some.
That's not what's bothering coach Brian Kelly.
"Where we're really pulling our hair out is trying to find that balance from an offensive standpoint. We're going to play, I believe, well enough defensively to win the rest of our games. We've got to get ourselves where we have enough balance offensively to run the ball and throw the ball effectively. And as you know, our margin isn't great," he said.
The Fighting Irish (3-2) are an enigmatic team trying to establish an identity. A year ago at this time the Irish were 5-0 and had not yet trailed in a game and knew they could count on their defense to come up with a big play while the offense struggled to get going. Notre Dame (3-2) heads into Saturday's game against No. 22 Arizona State (3-1) at Cowboys Stadium in Texas a game above .500 having trailed in every game except the opener against Temple.
The Irish have outscored opponents by just eight points, rushed for just four more yards than opponents and passed for 73 more yards, while they have 20 fewer first downs and two more turnovers. The margin of error for this team is narrow. But Kelly said that was the case last season, too, when the Irish finished the regular season 12-0 before being blown out by Alabama in the BCS title game.
"The margin last year was razor thin, and the margin this year is razor thin," he said.
Offensively, the good news is the Irish are coming off their best rushing game of the season, amassing 220 yards against Oklahoma. The bad news is they are coming off their worst passing game in five seasons with just 104 yards against the Sooners. A week earlier, in a win over Michigan State, the Irish had just 224 yards total offense — their lowest total offensive output in five years.
Before that the Irish had three straight games of passing for 300 yards, but struggled on the ground.
"We were talking about how well we were throwing the football and how poorly we were running it. Now we're talking about how well we're running the ball and how poorly we're throwing the ball," Kelly said. "We have to find our balance there offensively."
The Irish are looking for answers on defense as well as they prepare to play the Sun Devils, the most high-powered offense they've faced this season. The Sun Devils had 612 yards total offense last week in beating USC 62-41 and have been held to fewer than 30 points just once this season, in a 42-28 loss to Stanford. The Irish are 1-8 under Kelly in games when they give up 30 or more points, the exception coming in a 59-33 victory over Air Force in 2011.
Defensively, the Irish have seven starters from last year's team, but so far hasn't looked much that squad. A year ago after five games the Irish defense ranked in the top 20 in nine categories, including scoring defense (2nd at 7.8 points a game) red zone defense (4th), pass efficiency defense (10th), total defense (13th), first downs defense (13th), interceptions (16th), turnovers forced (16th) and sacks (20th).
This season the Irish don't rank in the top 20 in any of those categories and are among the worst in the nation in two of those categories, giving up 110 first downs, placing it 110th in the nation, and has just four sacks (10 fewer than the same time last season) placing it 119th.
Kelly said there's no one reason why the defense isn't putting up as good numbers, but said he still remains confident in the defense.
"I think our defense is solid. I don't think they're spectacular, but I think it's a solid defense that we can win with," he said.