SOUTH BEND – The most recent NCAA football statistics don't show that the Notre Dame defense has improved from its worst showing in school history a year ago.
Last year the Fighting Irish ranked 86th in total defense, and after Saturday's 28-24 loss to Michigan in Notre Dame Stadium, they rank 102nd.
But don't try telling that to the Notre Dame players and coaches, because within that defeat, they each saw signs of a group coming together to produce a solid unit.
“We challenged our football team at halftime,” first-year Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “To make sure that everybody knew what kind of football that we were going to play and create our own identity and personality. That was pretty clear that we battled.”
Notre Dame will travel to Michigan State at 8 p.m. Saturday.
Throughout the first half Saturday, Michigan took advantage of an anemic Notre Dame offense, which could not sustain drives without injured starting quarterback Dayne Crist.
Crist initially led the Irish on a touchdown drive to open the game and give his team a 7-0 first-quarter lead. But he took a hit to the head during the drive and could not play after that drive until the third quarter.
Notre Dame backup quarterbacks Tommy Rees and Nate Montana could not keep the chains moving in any way.
Of the seven drives led by the two, six resulted in five or fewer plays before giving the ball back to the Wolverines, thus the Irish defense had to repeatedly return to the field for a substantial amount of time.
Michigan held a 34:09-to-25:51 advantage in time of possession.
“Our defense really kept us in the ballgame,” said Kelly. “Even when we were mucking it up around on offense out there.”
True, Michigan scored 21 points in the first half to build a 21-7 halftime lead.
But in the second half, once the Irish offense regained Crist's services and began to produce points, the defense stiffened considerably.
On the Wolverines' eight second-half drives, Notre Dame's defense kept Michigan from producing any points for the first seven. It wasn't until the eighth and final drive that the Wolverines and their Heisman Trophy-caliber quarterback Denard Robinson (502 yards of total offense), proved too difficult to stop.
“Other than the last drive, I thought that our defense competed,” Kelly said.
Michigan orchestrated a 12-play, 72-yard drive and scored the go-ahead touchdown with 27 seconds remaining.
“We obviously didn't have much (energy) left,” Kelly said of his defensive group. “We would have liked to (tackle) better on that last drive. We had some missed assignments that we had not had, so we were obviously fatigued.”
For the game, the Wolverines were forced into 10 punts and a pair of missed field goals in their 16 drives. Six of those drives were less than four plays in succession.
Though Kelly acknowledged his players were tired in the fourth quarter, he wasn't allowing that to be an excuse.
“It might have been just being on the field too long,” Kelly said.
“That's a great excuse. But we didn't give them that excuse in the locker room. We told them that we have to bow up in those situations, and we've got to make a play.”