ND defense takes next step with turnovers

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Nicky Baratti doesn't really know how to explain it. He wasn't here last year, after all, when Notre Dame's defense forced just 14 turnovers over 13 games in a five-loss campaign. So he can't really compare.

But the freshman safety sees something in the way the Irish's defense comes out to practice every day. He sees the effort that coordinator Bob Diaco puts into studying opposing defenses. And he knows that he and his teammates will be ready for virtually any look an opposing offense throws at them week to week.

"No loafs," Baratti said of the practice mentality. "If you mess up, then go all-out. And that's the ultimate eraser. Just hustle everywhere you go, and if you're loafing -- something bad's going to happen to you."

For now, the bad things have been happening to the Irish's opponents, who have turned the ball over 13 times through four games. Notre Dame is tied for second nationally in forced turnovers, and it is fifth in turnover margin. The Irish finished last season 118th in that category, and they had only five takeaways after a 2-2 start.

Priority No. 1 for the unit, as Diaco and his players will tell you, is to keep the points down. Holding Michigan State and Michigan without a touchdown in consecutive games is a good start, especially when the Wolverines reached the red zone five times. Two of those red-zone trips resulted in turnovers, with Baratti responsible for one of them with a first-quarter interception in the end zone.

"In terms of the list defensively, we can't move too far away from our core beliefs," Diaco said. "That's -- we're interested in keeping the points down. In keeping the points down, the next piece that produces points is big plays. So, defensively, we have to be sure that we're constantly focused on eliminating big plays.

"After that, we try to analyze what the opponent does to produce points, so we can limit and keep the points down. After that, if I had to put an emphasis, if you forced me to, we're interested in attacking the football and creating ball disruptions."

The Irish are holding opponents to 9 points per game, good for No. 4 in the nation.

"I would say it helps," defensive end Stephon Tuitt said of forcing turnovers. "It helps a lot. Our whole goal is to keep the opposing offense's points down. … Right now we want to be the best defense out there, but we have a long way to go to keep working at it."

Tuitt, whose six sacks are second-most in the nation, has a hard time putting a finger on why the defense has been able to impose its will so much better in his second year at Notre Dame.

Forcing nemesis Denard Robinson into five turnovers, and Michigan into six, was the latest step in the unit's development. But the Irish insist that it is just that -- one simple step that has built upon the foundation set when the majority of the staff assembled three years ago and laid out its plan.

"We've continued to maintain the same core beliefs and the same defensive ideologies that we've had since we've gotten here," Diaco said. "Over time, consistency, maturity of the players -- obviously the expectation is that they continue to improve on the things we're working on. So we're working on it, they're improving at it. Sheer physics -- as the players become bigger, faster, stronger over time as they mature or through the recruiting and collection of talent, there also becomes a little bit better clock in the head of the opponent quarterback.

"Partner with the emphasis and partner with the focus of the players and the diligence of them in film study and in practice, and also just the sheer physics of a pretty stout front, creates some ball disruptions."