For the record: to my eyes, Stepfan Taylor's elbow was pretty clearly down before he reached across the goal line, whistle or no. Just wanted to throw that out there. It may have been a "controversial finish," but it wasn't that controversial, and it shouldn't take away from the fact that Notre Dame is 6-0 for the first time since 2002.
In my 2012 Notre Dame preview, I pulled off the greatest hedge of my life. I talked the Irish up more than just about anybody else on the internet, claimed they should be due both good luck and a ferocious defense in 2012, and told you with a straight face that Brian Kelly's team could be a true Top 10 or 15 squad this fall. I also grew terrified of the schedule and, despite the lofty praise, decided that an 8-4 record might still be rather successful.
So now I find myself in an odd place. Notre Dame is ranked fifth in the initial BCS standings with a 6-0 record. They have survived a stretch that saw them face Michigan, Michigan State, Miami and Stanford and a trip to Dublin. I want to pound my chest and point out how right I was about the Irish, but I can't because I by no means thought they would start 6-0. They are overachieving even compared to my heightened expectations.
How? Three big reasons:
1. Their early schedule has not been quite as difficult as anticipated. Michigan State's offense fell apart even worse than we anticipated (the Spartans currently rank 90th in Off. S&P+), Miami is just not good (61st in overall S&P+), and Michigan and Stanford each had to come to South Bend, where Notre Dame won tight, one-possession defensive battles.
2. They are 3-0 in one-possession games. It bears mentioning. Somehow, Brian Kelly is getting away with basically having a starting quarterback (Everett Golson) and a closer (Tommy Rees). Golson, a redshirt freshman, has thrown at least 18 passes in five of six games this year, but Rees finished the game in three close wins (Purdue, Michigan, Stanford). For the season, Rees has completed just 17 of 25 passes for 218 yards and a touchdown while the occasionally fumble-prone young Golson is on pace for over 2,000 passing yards. But when the Irish are in Win Mode, they seem to go with Rees. It isn't supposed to work this way, but it has.
In 2011, three of Notre Dame's five losses came by four points or fewer. The Irish were wrecked by turnovers in two of those three games (South Florida, Michigan), but the turnovers fairy has been a lot kinder this time around. Notre Dame beat Purdue by three points with a plus-2.3 turnover points margin (as defined here). The Irish beat Michigan by seven with a plus-15.5 margin (they forced turnovers on six consecutive Michigan possessions), and they had a combined plus-21.7 margin in easier wins against Navy and Michigan State. On Saturday, they lost the turnovers battle for the first time all season. They outgained Stanford by a 334-272 margin but went to overtime because they lost three fumbles, including one in their own end zone. Good breaks manifested themselves in other ways, however -- Notre Dame blocked a 25-yard Stanford field goal attempt -- and the bottom line is that, while Brian Kelly has himself an outstanding team in South Bend, unlike 2011 it is also a bit of a lucky one.
Luck is fickle, but for now it is smiling on Irish eyes. That a more experienced team is also operating at a much higher level in crunch time certainly doesn't hurt.
3. They might have the best defense in the country outside of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. We can talk about luck, relief quarterbacks, etc., because they are entertaining topics. But we probably shouldn't ignore the single biggest reason why Notre Dame is looking so strong in 2012: They have an even better defense than I anticipated.
The Irish rank seven in Def. S&P+, decimal points behind No. 5 LSU. They rank second in scoring defense (8.7 points per game), fifth in pass efficiency defense and 11th in total defense. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's 3-4 defense is reactive and fast, sacrificing tackles for loss (at 4.3 per game, they rank just 110th in the country) for complete and total big-play prevention, and it is working. Since allowing 341 yards to Navy, Notre Dame has not allowed more than 299 yards in a game in 2012. They give you 2-3 yards anytime you want it (though those yards are typically accompanied by a strong hit from Manti Te'o), they dare you to go for something more, and when you do, they turn you over.
The Irish have picked off 10 passes and, including sacks, have held every starting opposing quarterback since Navy under 6.0 yards per pass attempt. Coming off of a couple of huge games, Miami's Stephen Morris threw for just 201 yards in 35 attempts against Notre Dame. Purdue's Caleb TerBush and Robert Marve: 176 yards in 41 attempts. Denard Robinson: 117 yards (and four picks) in 27 attempts.
The good defense is in no way a surprise, but the pass defense is. Notre Dame had to replace three starters from what had been a decent, if less than aggressive secondary. Reasonably unheralded junior corner Bennett Jackson (four interceptions, one pass broken up) has been a revelation thus far, and blue-chip freshman KeiVarae Russell has held his own as a first-year starter. Plus, it's amazing how the defense takes shape when you've got one of the best linebackers in college football on your side. Te'o has defended six passes himself (three picks, three PBUs), and when you combine that with a breakout season from enormous sophomore end Stephon Tuitt (6.5 sacks, seven quarterback hurries), you've got yourself a ferocious pass defense.
I'm not going to lie, though: the urge to hedge again is strong. As impressive as the Irish's early run has been, the road does not get easier. Kelly and company host BYU this weekend; they should by all means beat the all-defense, no-offense Cougars, but BYU's defense is good enough to keep things close for a while (which means it would be a bad time to regress in terms of turnovers). Next weekend, the Irish travel to Norman to face a suddenly rejuvenated Oklahoma squad. Three likely wins (Pittsburgh, at Boston College, Wake Forest) follow, then it's off to face USC over Thanksgiving weekend.
Despite a 6-0 start and a truly strong overall squad, a 10-2 or 9-3 record could still be in the cards. Most Notre Dame fans would have taken that at the beginning of the season; now, it would feel rather disappointing.
Still, Notre Dame is a national player once again. For all the "Notre Dame's 6-6, so they get a BCS bid, right?" jokes we like to make, the Irish are likely to finish at least 10-2 this year and not only make a BCS bowl, but truly earn it. In a season full of defense-first teams, Brian Kelly's is one of the best; the Irish will face two enormous battles on the road in the coming weeks, and they are good enough to actually win either or both. There was at least a little bit of a "win or else" sentiment following Kelly around in South Bend this offseason. Needless to say, those clouds are gone for now.