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Defensive Surge

Oct 6, 2013, 12:11 AM EDT

AP Photo/LM Otero

Craig Chval, the official 2013 football beat writer for the Strong & True blog, is currently a junior at the University of Notre Dame. Over the course of the year Craig will bring you insight from within the student section, interviews with Fighting Irish players and previews of each game. You can follow Craig (and the rest of the Notre Dame student beat writing staff) on twitter at @JrNDBloggers.

Proving all the pundits (not named Lou Holtz) wrong, the Irish kept their perfect Shamrock Series record alive tonight, beating Arizona State 37-34 in Arlington.

The final score would indicate a shootout, but the story of the night was the resurgent Irish defense. Until a Sun Devil touchdown with 11 seconds remaining, Notre Dame’s defense had only given up 20 points to one of the most vaunted offenses in college football, thanks to the improved play of several Irish defenders.

After a maligned start to the season, Stephon Tuitt showed glimpses of why he was projected to go early in the first round in the next NFL draft, recording a sack and a forced fumble while putting pressure on Taylor Kelly all night.

Prince Shembo had a career night while recording three sacks. After getting to the quarterback only four times all season, Notre Dame’s defense doubled that total in tonight’s game, mostly thanks to Shembo.

But for me the biggest story of the night was freshman Jaylon Smith, who had a breakout game, especially in the first half. Smith showed the Irish faithful why he was such a highly touted recruit, getting all over the field while displaying great speed, power, and instinct.

I mentioned yesterday that the Irish linebacking corps needed to step up their performance to get the win. And despite losing Jarrett Grace, they answered the call. In addition to Smith and Shembo’s performances, Dan Fox sealed the game with an interception return for a touchdown.

Last year the formula for success was minimizing offensive mistakes while letting the defense carry the day. I think the Irish still have a lot of work left on offense, but the progress on the other side of the ball gives much cause for optimism. Guys who were so critical last year – Tuitt, Shembo, Louis Nix, Matthias Farley – are returning to form.

Arizona State was the toughest game remaining on the schedule until the Thanksgiving showdown in Palo Alto, so this game was enormous for the Irish. Now, taking care of business would mean a 9-2 record before facing Stanford. I certainly don’t want to look that far ahead, but this game was huge for the outlook of the season. Despite a rocky start, the defense carried the day. Sound familiar?

There’s still much to improve before the end of the season. Minimizing mistakes like penalties and pick-sixes was the key to last season and will be important for 2013. But if the defense continues to make strides, this could be a dangerous team.

It wasn’t always pretty, but I’ll take this win every time. I was not without my doubts while watching another game by myself, but the Irish found a way against a ranked opponent. It’s something they had yet to do this season and is a great step in the right direction.

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