Notre Dame defense tough enough to worry ASU

TEMPE, Ariz. — The numbers through five weeks of college football season would suggest the vaunted Notre Dame defense has lost a step from last season, in which it finished ranked seventh in the nation.

Regardless, Arizona State expects another stiff defensive test when it takes on the fighting Irish at Cowboys Stadium on Saturday.

“Their defense is the strength of their team and their program,” ASU coach Todd Graham said. “They are very big and very physical. It will be a big challenge for us.”

Graham and ASU’s players said the same of USC before routing the Trojans 62-41 on Saturday. USC came into the game ranked fourth nationally in total defense but having played a mostly soft schedule.

Notre Dame enters Saturday’s game ranked 46th nationally in total defense, allowing 364.0 yards per game. The Fighting Irish rank 53rd in scoring defense, allowing an average of 23.8 points per game.

Those don’t sound like the numbers of a defensive stalwart, but Notre Dame hasn’t had it easy thus far. Last weekend, Oklahoma scored 35 points on the Irish. Earlier in the year Michigan scored 41.

“They’ve lost to Michigan and Oklahoma, which are really good football teams,” Graham said.

Notre Dame’s wins, though, aren’t particularly impressive. The defense held Michigan State to 13 points and Temple to six but gave up 24 to Purdue. Michigan State is the only one of the three with a winning record, and none of those team’s offenses rank higher than 94th in the nation. Here’s how the team’s Notre Dame has played rank currently for total offense:

Oklahoma — 33rd
Michigan — 65th
Temple — 94th
MSU — 103rd
Purdue — 117th

It seems pretty apparent the Notre Dame defense, while still very big and very physical, isn’t quite what it was last year, and even Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly appears to know as much.

“I think our defense is solid,” Kelly said Tuesday. “I don’t think they’re spectacular, but it’s a solid defense we can win with.”

A little regression is understandable for a defense as dominant as Notre Dame’s was last season, particularly after losing four starters. Defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore, safeties Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta and linebacker Manti Te’o all graduated and moved on to the NFL.

“They’re replacing one of the best players (Te’o) in college football from last year,” ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said. “But they really didn’t lose that much. They’ve got a couple guys at safety that are newcomers, but the core of their defense is back from a team that played for the national championship.”

The Fighting Irish defense does return All-America candidates on the defensive line in Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt and a seasoned linebacker corps that includes seniors Dan Fox, Carlo Calabrese, Danny Spond and Prince Shembo.

ASU coaches and players believe the tough defensive tests they’ve already faced will prepare them for Notre Dame.

“I’ve noticed a lot of similarities between Notre Dame and Stanford,” ASU tight end Chris Coyle said. “They both play very fundamentally sound.

“We’ve got to do similar to what Oklahoma did to them, hopefully spread them out a little bit. We’ve got to continue to play our power football.”

Norvell hopes ASU’s tempo can be a factor this week the way it was against USC. He also believes ASU’s dynamic spread can give Notre Dame some looks it hasn’t seen yet, but he’s expecting the Irish to present a defensive challenge like the one the Sun Devils struggled with two weeks ago against Stanford.

“They’ve got a talented defense,” Norvell said. “They’ve got a handful of guys that are going to be playing this game for a long time and make a lot of money doing it.”