There are two ways to play complementary football, and both are needed at some point in a season for a team to compete for a national championship, which is what Notre Dame is trying to do in 2020.
The first way to play complementary football involves one side of the football, or one aspect of a unit (offense, defense) stepping up and playing well in a game where the other side of the ball, or other aspects of the team are struggling.
A great example is Notre Dame’s 12-7 victory over Louisville, when the Irish defense played outstanding football, which overcame an abysmal performance by the offense. Another is Notre Dame’s offense stepping up in a win over Clemson when the Irish defense gave up 33 points in regulation (40 overall).
Another example is the Irish ground game carrying the offense through the first five games as the pass offense scuffled, or the run defense dominating in an effort to protect the pass defense.
Notre Dame has proven it can play that kind of complementary football.
To get to that next level, which means running the table in the regular season, winning an ACC championship and doing damage in the College Football Playoff, the Irish need to start playing the other form of complementary football.
That form of football involves both sides of the ball playing at a high level, but doing so in a way that aids the other.
Notre Dame will need that to beat North Carolina, Wake Forest, Clemson, Ohio State and Alabama.
It must start when Notre Dame heads down to Chapel Hill for Friday's matchup against the North Carolina Tar Heels.
North Carolina has has given up 45 points and 53 points in a game …. and won! The Tar Heels averaged 34.5 points per game in its two losses. To beat UNC, Notre Dame will need its offense to protect the defense, and it will need the defense to make the kind of plays needed to pick up the offense.
So what does that look like against a team like North Carolina? It means the offense answering Tar Heel scores with scores of their own. It means the defense making stops after the offense has put points on the board. It means the offense knowing when a long, physical, time consuming drive is needed in order to give its own defense a breather against the high octane Tar Heel offense.
It means the defense coming up with a big stop, or a big turnover that gives the offense an opportunity to put some distance between the two teams. It means the offense capitalizing on short fields or turnovers, and the defense coming up with big stops if the offense or special teams has a turnover or big mistake.
You could say the same thing when the Irish play Wake Forest, Clemson, Alabama or Ohio State.
The first kind of complementary football can only take you so far. You can beat Louisville on a day when your offense only scores 12 points, but you aren’t beating Clemson or North Carolina or Alabama that way. You can beat Clemson without Trevor Lawrence by giving up 40 points, but you likely won’t be able to do that in a rematch, or in a playoff game against the Crimson Tide or Buckeyes. Neither is a recipe for consistent success when the schedule toughens up.
You need both sides of the ball playing at a high level.
Notre Dame’s offense is starting to heat up late in the season. If that continues, and if the defense can get back to where it was in September and October this Irish team could be very, very dangerous.
Playing that kind of football is how you compete for championships.
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