It was nighttime in South Bend, a cold rain starting to fall hard and make those golden helmets glisten, and Stanford was now about a foot away from a touchdown that might pose a threat to Notre Dame's undefeated season.

It was tension-filled and it was wonderful. A football painting come to life. "Pretty much everything that you could ask for," remembered Bennett Jackson, a starting junior cornerback on that Notre Dame defense.

Bob Diaco's defense was on call. An outsider might conclude his guys were in trouble, "up against it" in Rockne-speak. But someone who was on that 2012 Notre Dame defense can tell you this is where they felt most comfortable of all.

"I think he kind of instilled this mentality in us that the closer we got to the goal line, the harder we played, and it showed with all the goal-line stands we had …" Jackson said. "He would call it our DNA. We would work on it every day until it was instilled in our DNA.

"He's a different guy, for sure. One of the better guys out there."

Stanford, rugged Stanford, did not find the end zone there, although the fourth-down ruling on whether that Cardinal got in can still cause spirited debate.

The stop gave Notre Dame a 20-13 overtime win and continued the march to an undefeated regular season that now is being revisited closer than the dinner bill by Nebraskans searching for every kernel of info they can find on the new Husker defensive coordinator.

Among the Diaco traits that quickly emerge when talking to those who have played for him is that he brings a large supply of both energy and confidence.

"He's 100 percent a confident guy," Jackson said. "You have to be confident. When you're putting everything you have into something every day, you should be confident in yourself. Yeah, he'll let you know his thoughts on everything. He doesn't hold back, and I think that's kind of something guys started to respect him more for."

There were some tough times recently for Diaco, sure. He took over a UConn program that finished 3-9 the year before he arrived. It was a rebuilding job, and he did guide the team to a bowl trip in the second of his three years there. But it was sandwiched around a two-win season and a three-win season, and naturally there is some criticism of his work by fans up there, as well as the occasional quirky quote he delivered.

And as it is with every coach, there are stats you can pick at even during his successful run as a defensive coordinator from 2009-13. His last Notre Dame rush defense ranked 71st, for example. He had other defenses that ranked 47th and 51st in run defense in South Bend.

His Cincinnati defense in his one year as the Bearcats' D-coordinator in 2009 was 67th in total defense. It was also a defense on a team that finished 12-0 in the regular season.

An epic season, according to former Cincinnati linebacker J.K. Schaffer, that people in the town still talk about with fondness.

It helped Diaco, Schaffer thinks, that other players saw a guy who not only had exuberance but a proven background as a player.

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"When you have a coach that the players know did it himself as an all-conference linebacker at Iowa, that's an automatic respect that you have for a guy when he's gone through everything you have and done everything he's preaching," Schaffer said.

The switch to the 3-4 had its challenges, the ex-Bearcat player will tell you. You better have some versatile backers and ends who can maximize the use of the different rush packages, for starters.

There's been plenty of words already from media and fans about what Diaco's scheme will look like and what players might be affected. The man who matters, the new guy, will voice his own thoughts Friday afternoon when he meets the local media for the first time.

Diaco did offer his first public remarks Wednesday since being hired over the weekend during an appearance on the Husker Sports Network.

He said he couldn't wait to talk defensive football day and night with the staff. He's already met a few players.

"I can't wait to meet everybody, and learn their names, and learn who they are, and what makes them tick, and what are the things that they love," Diaco said. "I'm so excited to be around the team."

According to Jackson's words, the team should be equally excited to be around him. The former Notre Dame star says it was Diaco who taught him how to watch film the right way.

"If an offense has any type of tendency, he'll figure it out for sure," Jackson said. "He definitely runs the defense differently than probably, I think, any other D-coordinator in college football. But that's kind of what makes him so special."

It has been pointed out already, but is worth repeating, that not one of Diaco's Notre Dame defenses ever ranked lower than 27th in scoring defense.

Jackson remembers media sometimes using the phrase "bend but don't break" about those defenses. That's one way to say it.

Another way is how he puts it: "You can have all the yards in the world. If you don't score, it doesn't really make a difference, right?"

Jackson still checks in on mostly a monthly basis with Diaco. He texted him congratulations when he heard he got the Nebraska job. One thing he really appreciates about the coach is he was the same guy every day.

"A lot of guys grew a lot of respect for him," Jackson said. "With doing that, it kind of made us want to play that much harder for him."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7439 or bchristopherson@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.


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