Blue and Gold Illustrated

BGI April 2019

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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Page 33 of 55

34 APRIL 2019 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED I n this column a year ago, we discussed what im- provements were needed on defense to make the Notre Dame unit one that could carry the team. The Irish needed to defend the run better, get more pres- sure on the quarterback and improve its safety play. Check, check, check. In Clark Lea's first season in charge, he built on the foundation laid by previous coordinator Mike Elko, and the Irish defense emerged as one of the nation's best. Notre Dame dropped 15 yards allowed per game on the ground, and the yards per rush dropped from 3.97 to 3.84. According to Pro Football Focus, the Irish de- fense registered 261 quar- terback pressures, up from 196 the previous season. The team's safeties had 25 passes de- fensed after just five in 2017. Lea and his staff oversaw the de- fense go from competent in 2017 to championship caliber in 2018. As good as the play was in 2018, there is another level remaining. Notre Dame finished 12th in de- fensive efficiency in 2018 according to the Fremeau Efficiency Index after placing 19th in 2017. National title game participants Clemson and Ala- bama ranked first and fourth. The 2017 championship game en- trants, Alabama and Georgia, fin- ished second and third, respectively, and the 2016 contestants, Clemson and Alabama, were ninth and first, respectively. The 2015 title game teams, Alabama and Clemson, placed first and fifth. You get the point. Taking that final step requires the pass defense continuing its outstand- ing play from 2018, while the pass rush needs to finish off a few more pressures with hits and sacks. No defensive coordinator is going to say forcing more turnovers wouldn't be welcomed. But for Notre Dame to become a truly elite defense, it must get better at stopping the run. The Irish defense has certainly come a long way in controlling the ground game. When Elko was hired the defense was coming off its worst three-year stretch of run defense in school history. Opponents aver- aged 171.2 to 182.4 yards per game from 2014 to 2016, but that number dropped to 154.5 yards under Elko and all the way down to 139.5 yards in year one of Lea's tenure. Clemson was the standard bearer when it came to superior defense in 2018, and its run stuffing shows the level Notre Dame aspires to reach. Clemson's national championship defense gave up just 95.3 yards on the ground per game and 2.5 yards per rush in 2018. Even more impres- sively, the Tigers played two top-10, five top-30 and eight top-50 rush- ing offenses. It held four of the top- 50 ground games it faced below 100 yards, and it limited Notre Dame's No. 51-ranked rushing attack to a paltry 88 yards. Clemson and Notre Dame both faced six top-40 rushing offenses last season. The Tigers held those six opponents to 120.7 yards per game, while the Irish yielded 175.8 yards a contest in those matchups. Clemson also played two FBS triple-option of- fenses and surrendered an average of 113 yards on the ground in those battles. Notre Dame allowed 292 yards to its lone triple-op- tion opponent. Alabama's 2017 national championship defense held opponents to 94.7 yards per game and 2.7 yards per attempt. The Tide gave up 138.7 yards per game against the six top-40 rush- ing offenses it faced that season. Notre Dame clearly has to get better against the stron- ger rushing teams it faces, but it also has to improve against the bottom teams as well. Clemson's 2018 defense held its non-top-40 rushing opponents to 75.4 yards per game. Alabama's 2017 defense suffocated its non-top-40 rushing foes, limiting them to 61.8 yards per game. Notre Dame's 2018 defense surren- dered 108.3 yards per outing to its non-top-40 rushing challengers. Since the College Football Play- off began in 2014, the lone national champion to give up more than 130 yards per game on the ground was the first one — Ohio State, which al- lowed 141.3 yards per game and 3.95 yards per rush. It was the same story in years prior to the playoff. Florida State permitted 124.8 yards per contest and 3.3 yards per at- tempt when it won the title in 2013. Alabama limited opponents to 76.4 yards per contest and 2.4 yards per carry during its 2012 title run, and the Tide allowed merely 72.2 yards a game and 2.4 yards per rush when it won the championship in 2011. Getting all the way down to 70- plus yards a game isn't needed for the Irish to have an elite defense, but the closer it can get to 100 yards per game and 3.3 yards per rush the bet- ter it will be. ✦ Run Game Defense Needs Improvements CLOSER LOOK BRYAN DRISKELL Bryan Driskell has been a football analyst for Blue & Gold Illustrated since April 2015. He can be reached at Clemson's defense gave up just 95.3 rushing yards per game and 2.5 yards per carry en route to a national championship in 2018, the type of effort the Fighting Irish should aspire to moving forward. PHOTO BY BILL PANZICA

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