SOUTH BEND, Ind. — No one around the No. 9 Notre Dame football team will take offense if you say the defense is responsible for the Irish’s climb in The Associated Press Top 25.
That certainly includes head coach Brian Kelly and members of his powerful offense that is taking advantage of the turnovers produced by first-year defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s swarming and suffocating unit.
“The plan in hiring Mike Elko was that he’s got a great reputation in taking the football away,” Kelly said late Saturday night after the Irish converted three first-half turnovers into touchdowns on their way to dismantling No. 11 Southern California 49-14 at Notre Dame Stadium.
Following a dismal 2016 that produced only 14 turnovers during a 4-8 campaign, Kelly shook up his staff, did a lot of homework and hired the 40-year-old Elko, a coaching journeyman who had eight stops in 18 seasons since his 1999 graduation from Penn.
In 2016 at Wake Forest, Elko’s 4-2-5 defensive scheme produced top-20 finishes in fumbles recovered (third), turnovers forced (10th), sacks (12th), red zone defense (17th) and scoring defense (20th).
“I loved the fact that he had come up through the ranks,” Kelly said, “because it really is an indicator of your ability to teach and communicate and do more with less.”
The cupboard wasn’t bare when Elko arrived and since the Irish lost 20-19 at home to No. 3 Georgia in Week 2, his defense has been on a roll and so have the Irish — on the field and in the poll, from receiving votes Sept. 10 to ninth six weeks later.
The Irish matched their 2016 total of 14 takeaways with three in a 33-10 victory at North Carolina on Oct. 7, and the three against USC gave them 17 (eighth nationally) and a turnover margin of 1.43 per game (fourth).
“I think his ability to communicate and build relationships with his players key,” Kelly said. “It’s a trust factor. They really trust him.”
Sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes, who had five solo tackles and one of five sacks against USC, said Elko has a simple message.
“He is always harping execution,” Hayes said, “that if we execute the defense big things will happen. He puts us in position to make plays.”
Elko, who likes his charges running to the football, likes to keep his defenders fresh, which is why another of the more than 20 who played, sophomore backup defensive end Khalid Kareem, had two sacks for 17 yards. Notre Dame now has 18 sacks as compared to 14 all last season.
“This is the most fun I’ve had playing football,” Kareem said.
The defensive fun has become infectious. The Irish offense, which has made just seven turnovers in seven games, has a 94-10 edge over its foes in points after turnovers and has noticed.
“Our defense has played lights out all season,” said offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey.
“They give us energy and we try to score to give them energy,” added junior running back Josh Adams, who has 967 yards and eight rushing touchdowns this season.