Notre Dame Scoring Defense Quietly Among Best Again
One of the supposed “mismatches” in this week’s matchup between 8-2 Notre Dame and 5-5 Boston College is the Fighting Irish run defense versus the Eagles’ potent ground attack.
Whereas Boston College ranks No. 4 nationally in rushing offense with a 282.2 average per game behind the powerful tandem of 250-pound A.J. Dillon, the nation’s third-leading rusher with 1,451 yards, and 240-pound David Bailey (765 yards), Notre Dame is a pedestrian 79tha gainst the run, allowing 169.9 yards per game.
But here is where statistics can be deceiving.
While running the triple-option, Navy totaled 281 yards rushing versus the Irish — but 202 came after the Irish had already built a 38-0 cushion. At that point, the Midshipmen had only 79 yards on 29 attempts. Navy still finished 77 yards under its average, a laudable feat by the defense.
If an opponent was averaging 200 yards rushing and was limited to 123 it would be viewed in a different context, but the 77 yards less that Navy produced also is praiseworthy for the Irish defense in its own right.
That made it three straight opponents the Irish confronted who relied heavily on their running game to compensate for some question marks at quarterback, and each time the run defense excelled.
On Nov. 2, Virginia Tech managed only 96 yards rushing and 2.7 yards per carry, and in the ensuing week Duke produced only 95 yards on the ground at only 3.2 yards per clip.
Two current stats for the Notre Dame defense are far more telling.
One is that it is tied for third nationally in turnovers forced with 22, with the 14 fumbles recovered No. 2 in the country.
In three of head coach Brian Kelly’s first nine seasons from 2010-18, the Irish defense totaled 14 turnovers for the entire season (2011, 2015 and 2016), and the most was 25 in his debut campaign (18 interceptions, seven fumbles).
At its current pace and with three games remaining, that mark will be eclipsed, and with a flourish this could be the first Notre Dame defense to reach 30 since 2002, when under first-year head coach Tyrone Willingham the team forced 33 (21 interceptions, 12 fumbles).
Second, prior to the 21st century, any defense that allowed more than 20 points per game was deemed a sieve.
The 1990 Notre Dame defense that permitted 22.6 points per game — despite having All-Americans such as nose tackle Chris Zorich, linebacker Michael Stonebreaker and cornerback Todd Lyght — ranked 90th in scoring defense. Through 10 weeks of the 2019 season, that would have been No. 36.
Football has changed dramatically the past few decades, especially in the ability to put up points. Today, if a defense is holding the opposition to less than 20 points per game, that is stellar.
Under second-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea, Notre Dame is 18th in scoring defense this season with a 19.3 average during its 8-2 start. In his 23 games as a coordinator, an opposing offense went beyond 30 points only once, the 45-14 debacle at Michigan on Oct. 26.
Last year it placed No. 13 with an 18.2 average and particularly excelled in November, including limiting a Syracuse offense that was averaging more than 40 per contest to three.
If it maintains the pace this year, it will be the first time since 2001-02 the Fighting Irish defense would have kept the scoring average under 20 in consecutive years.
Here are the five best figures since the turn of the century in 2000:
1. 2012 (12-1) — 12.8 points per game (No. 2 nationally)
2. 2002 (10-3) — 16.7 (No. 9)
3. 2018 (12-1) — 18.3 (No. 13)
4. 2019 (8-2)* — 19.3 (No. 18)
5. 2001 (5-6) — 19.5 (No. 22)
* Does not yet include this year’s Boston College and Stanford games in the regular season, plus the bowl.