One mere month ago pundits knew Notre Dame’s defense would be the critical litmus test for the season after head coach Brian Kelly announced Everett Golson, a redshirt freshman, as the starting quarterback. The conventional wisdom involved a strong Irish rushing attack bolstered by a Notre Dame defense that kept opponents’ scoring to a minimum. Would the Irish defense be able to answer the bell? One of the bigger question marks involving the defensive unit beyond the inexperience, youth and injuries in the secondary came courtesy of sack production. With the loss of Notre Dame’s leading sack artist to transfer, would the Irish be able to even pressure opposing offenses? Now that October is upon us, we can laugh at such speculation (seriously — feel free to let it out. If your co-workers stare at you, well, ND is 4-0 for the first time in a decade, and we’ve earned a little maniacal laughter).
Notre Dame’s sack production has exploded, making ND tied for 8th nationally with 14 overall sacks. To put such numbers in perspective, the 2012 squad is on pace to record 42 sacks, which would eclipse the team record of 41 sacks earned in 1996, Lou Holtz’s final season. These drive-killing statistics, though not entirely responsible for victories, have a strong correlation with success.
Charlie Weis’ first two seasons were known for their dramatic offensive turnarounds compared to Tyrone Willingham, but the untold story came courtesy of defensive production. ND’s back- to-back BCS appearances were definitely aided by 31 sacks in both years, earning the Irish a 29th and 32nd national ranking respectively. Just as telling, however, were the sack totals as the Weis era began to crumble. In Weis’ final three seasons he posted a 16-21 record, earning 19 sacks in two of those seasons and 26 sacks in another. His national rankings in sacks during those poor years were 92nd, 48th, and 92nd.
Brian Kelly’s entrance to South Bend brought an immediate spike in sacks, though the increase was modest. Kelly’s first two Irish squads posted 8-5 records and earned 27 sacks in the first year and 25 in year two, earning ND a 51st and 54th national ranking. It should come as no surprise, then, that ND is currently sitting 4-0 with a 10th national ranking when the 2012 Irish are on pace to break team records in sack production.
One of the more intriguing aspects of the sack statistics stems from how they’re being tallied. In 2007, Trevor Laws led the team with 4 sacks. The following year, Harrison Smith, Pat Kuntz and Ethan Johnson tied for the team lead with 3.5. In 2009, Ethan Johnson led the way with 4. In 2010 and 2011, the Irish had one player lead the squad with 5.5 sacks recorded, courtesy of Darius Fleming and Aaron Lynch respectively. This year’s squad is led by a player who has already topped all of those leaders in just four games.
Stephen Tuitt has notched 6 sacks in four games, making him tied for second place nationally. It’s worth noting, however, the player Tuitt trails, Bjoern Werner of Florida State, has misleading statistics. Though Werner has 6.5 sacks to Tuittâs 6, five of Werner’s sacks have come courtesy of Division I — FCS schools Murray State and Savannah State. Only 1.5 of Werner’s sacks have occurred against Division I — FBS opponents, with the sack in question taking place against Wake Forest. Werner was left sack-less in Florida Stateâs most recent contest against Clemson. Tuitt, on the other hand, has reached his national ranking against Purdue and top- ranked programs such as Michigan State and Michigan.
The success of Tuitt has been recognized nationally, and why not? With his 6 sacks in four games, Tuitt is on pace to register 18 sacks for the season, a feat that would absolutely obliterate Justin Tuck’s 2003 team record of 13.5 sacks. But what makes this season different from ones in the recent past is that Tuitt isn’t simply a one-man wrecking crew — it’s been a team effort. Prince Shembo has logged 3 sacks so far this season, making him on pace for a 9 sack season and only a few shy of Justin Tuck’s record. Having two players potentially chasing the team sack record is something most Irish fans could not have dreamt of a mere month ago. In another twist, true freshman Sheldon Day has notched 2 sacks, putting him in position to record 6 for the season. The contributions on this Irish defense are truly coming from all angles, much like the blitzes that have confused opposing offenses thus far.
While the season is still in its beginning stages, and the likelihood of the 2012 Irish team breaking the team sack record is still a large question mark, the effort witnessed through the first third of this season cannot be ignored. And if this type of defensive production continues, Notre Dame wonât be ignored, either.
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