SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame is still missing graduated linebacker Manti Te’o a quarter of the way through this season.
Without the charismatic leader who made those around him better, the once dominating Fighting Irish defense is meandering even with eight returning starters. The defense has given up one fewer point through three games (71) than it did through eight games (72) last season. The Irish defense, which allowed only nine offensive touchdowns all last regular season, already has given up eight this year.
“Our guys were like hunting dogs last year. In other words, when it was time to go, we knew what to expect,” coach Brian Kelly said. “We’re not there yet, but I’m getting a better feel for our football team each and every week. I’d like to be there right now, but the problem is our first four weeks don’t allow us time to grow up.”
While the 22nd-ranked Irish (2-1) opened the season against Temple and then split games with Michigan and Purdue, the Spartans (3-0) opened the season with wins against Western Michigan, South Florida and Youngstown State. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said he expects to learn more about his team today.
“You are going to find out how they handle adversity, how they play away, look for matchups here, how do they play in crunch time in a close game, which we really haven’t had that yet,” he said.
The Spartans this season have looked more like the Irish of last season than Notre Dame has, depending on the nation’s No. 1 defense to win games. Defensive end Shilique Calhoun has led the charge with three touchdowns on a pair of fumble recoveries and an interception return as the defense scored four of the Spartans’ first six touchdowns.
But Irish linebacker Prince Shembo believes the Irish defense is still capable of playing like it did last season.
“It’s just lack of execution. We’ve just got to work at our assignments and get better at it,” he said.
The Irish defensive line, which has not been as productive as last season, could be further hampered by an ankle sprain defensive end Sheldon Day sustained against Purdue. Day practiced Thursday after missing the first two days of practice this week, but Kelly said he will be a game-time decision.
Kelly admits the Irish are still searching for their identity, but believes quarterback Tommy Rees showed leadership against Purdue in the second half that should help with that. With three players sharing the two inside linebacker spots and a first-time starter at safety in Austin Collinsworth, Kelly is looking for people to help fill the leadership void left by the departures of Te’o and Zeke Motta.
“Those are two positions we’re still in flux a little bit with,” Kelly said. “We’ve got leaders; we just haven’t got that position nailed down yet. I think once we do, we’ll have the leadership we need.”