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Best on offense is yet to come for Notre Dame

EAST LANSING MI - SEPTEMBER 15:  Tyler Eifert #80 Notre Dame Fighting Irish can't make third quarter catch while

EAST LANSING, MI - SEPTEMBER 15: Tyler Eifert #80 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish can't make a third quarter catch while being defended by Johnny Adams #5 of the Michigan State Spartans, Adams was flagged for pass interference on the play at Spartan Stadium Stadium on September 15, 2012 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

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Updated: October 29, 2012 6:41AM

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chuck Martin knows his players have the physical tools to compete against the best defenses in the nation. That’s because he saw them do it against one of those defenses on a daily basis in training camp.

The trick is doing it when it counts.

“We did fine against our defense all camp,” Martin said. “It’s, ‘Would we do fine against our defense Saturday night with the coaches standing on the sideline?’ The difference is the level of maturity in the guys that they’re putting on the field. … Manti [Te’o] and the boys up front, they’ve played a lot of football. They’re not overwhelmed by anything. Offensively, we still have too many guys that are growing into positions. They’re not doing bad jobs, but they’re not doing a job on a consistent basis that we like.”

Te’o’s boys have been getting much of the credit for No. 10 Notre Dame’s 4-0 start, and deservedly so. The Irish didn’t yield a single touchdown in wins over Michigan State and Michigan.

That veteran front seven originally was expected to mask an inexperienced secondary. But the young defensive backs have held their own so far, and instead, the defense is masking a struggling offense — one that has to improve if the Irish want to “do something ­really big,” as coach Brian Kelly put it.

The Irish rank 98th among 120 FBS teams with 351 yards per game — 89th in rushing (140.3) and 81st in passing (223.8). Excluding the opener against a woefully ­overmatched Navy team, Notre Dame is mustering a mere 305 total yards per game, which would be eighth-worst in the nation. Over the last two games, the Irish were 4-for-23 on third down. Redshirt freshman quarterback Everett Golson has struggled with his checks at the line and has been pulled in two of the victories, All-America tight end Tyler Eifert has one catch in his last two games, and the Irish are averaging 2.6 yards per carry over the last three games.

It’s easy — and accurate — to say that those numbers came against stout opponents in Purdue, Michigan State and Michigan. But with Miami, Stanford, BYU, Oklahoma and USC looming, the sledding’s only going to get tougher.

Martin was quick to point out that when the Irish absolutely needed to run the ball well — in the fourth quarters against Michigan State and Michigan, salting away the victories — they did. And the one time the Irish absolutely needed to throw the ball — in Tommy Rees’ game-winning field-goal drive in the final two minutes against Purdue — they did.

“Maybe we’ve got to get that feeling in the first quarter, that sense of urgency,” Martin said. “Maybe for the younger guys, they’ve got to have that sense of urgency when they show up at the field.”

Martin pointed to star defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt, saying that if he beats his man and sacks the quarterback in a tremendous one-man effort, it doesn’t matter if there was a blown coverage or a missed assignment. But if a freshman receiver lets up on his block, or if a first-year tight end leaves the middle linebacker untouched, the offense is going nowhere.

Consistency is the buzzword these days.

“If you look at us, we’ll have 10 guys do the right thing and one guy not,” Kelly said. “We’ve left a lot of points out there that are there for the taking. … We just need to gain a sense of consistency on the offensive side of the ball. We just have to continue to practice and hone in on everybody doing their job. It’s one guy here, one guy there.”

So yes, the Irish want to get Eifert more involved. They’d like to be able to run the ball early on, and throw downfield more often, and stop settling for field-position battles and field goals. And yes, they’d like for Golson to finish what he starts at quarterback.

But the offense is a work in progress, and it just isn’t there yet.

“We’ve played very good defense,” Kelly said. “We haven’t played as well offensively yet. But I think that’s going to come.”

And the defense is simply going to have to continue shouldering the load in the meantime.

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