Notre Dame defense getting credit for wins

AP
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Pittsburgh wide receiver Mike Shanahan (87) stretches for a first down after making a catch past Notre Dame linebacker Troy Nicklas during the second quarter of an NCAA football game, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2011 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — With the turnovers still coming on offense, coach Brian Kelly and quarterback Tommy Rees have an emerging defense to thank for Notre Dame's first two victories of the season.

The defense held Michigan State and Pittsburgh to a combined 25 points with strong play from young and veteran players alike along the front seven. That combination fits with the way Kelly wants to build his program.

"We felt our recruiting efforts and everything we have done since we have been here is to put together a championship defense, and then we'll catch up on offense," Kelly said. "But I think you have to start with building your defense first and the line of scrimmage."

With Notre Dame (2-2) preparing to play at Purdue (2-1) on Saturday night, it is the Irish pass rush that has displayed the full range of talent.

Following freshman defensive end Aaron Lynch's one sack and six quarterback hurries against Michigan State, senior linebacker Darius Fleming had two sacks against Pittsburgh. The six sacks the Fighting Irish had against the Panthers were the most for the team since the 2008 Hawaii Bowl.

Kelly said the coaches have told Fleming to become a great player.

"We're challenging him every day," Kelly said. "We come to the meal on Sunday and said, 'Two sacks, one weekend. Are you a real player? Then you need two more next week.' So it's always been those jabs at him to keep pushing him to be the kind of player we think he can be."

Freshman Stephon Tuitt and sophomore Louis Nix have also become consistent contributors on the defensive line, but playing such youth has come at a price for Kelly.

"We've had to use two timeouts the last two weeks on defense because we had some confusion with our young guys as to who was supposed to be in the game," he said.

Still, Kelly said he is optimistic about the depth in the front seven of his 3-4 defense.

"Moving forward, obviously you feel really good that those young guys are going to be here for a few years," Kelly said.

The strong play of the defense can influence Kelly's play-calling on offense, especially with the turnover situation (Notre Dame came into the Pittsburgh game dead last in the nation in turnover margin). He pointed out two series against Pittsburgh that didn't result in points, but helped take time of the clock and give the defense a rest.

"I know they're not beauty contest winners relative to points on the board, but we're able to eat clock and flip field position, and it didn't result in a negative situation for us," Kelly said. "I guess the genesis of the question is I'm willing to play whatever way is necessary for us to find a way to win."

Notes: Saturday night's game against Purdue will be Notre Dame's second nationally televised night game on the road this season. The game will kickoff at 8:06 p.m. ET and will be televised on ESPN. ... Fleming moved to 10th on Notre Dame's career sacks list after his two sacks against Pittsburgh. He has 14 in his four years. ... Notre Dame's defense has allowed only one rushing touchdown this year. Only Florida has allowed zero rushing touchdowns this season.