Notre Dame had yet another brilliant defensive performance during the team’s 31-17 victory over 19th-ranked North Carolina.
The Irish defense kept in check an offense that came in averaging 43.1 points per game and 563.4 yards, and an offense that had an extra week to prepare for this game. Notre Dame held the Tar Heels to 17 points and 298 yards of offense. It was an impressive performance, and there are plenty of important takeaways.
CLARK LEA IS AN ELITE DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR
Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea has had a number of outstanding performances during his three seasons in charge of the defense in South Bend, but Saturday was arguably his best. He shut down one of the best offenses Notre Dame has faced during Brian Kelly’s tenure, one that I view as certainly better than the statistically impressive Syracuse team that Lea and the defense shut down in 2018.
There were a number of impressive aspects of this performance from a coaching standpoint. To begin, the Irish defense was coming off its worst two-game stretch of the season in many ways, and Notre Dame had given up 33 and 31 points in regular during its two previous games. Lea was able to use the bye week to not only right the ship, but to get this defense playing as well as it had all season.
Rest was important, but there were clearly adjustments that were made. There were also adjustments made after the first two series, but North Carolina’s first two touchdowns were as much about missed tackles and missed opportunities as it was not having a gameplan that was able to thrive.
But Lea did still push some buttons after the Irish gave up 14 quick points and 125 yards on the first two series of the game. Attacking with the linebackers was part of it, there were personnel adjustments and the front four did a better job of securing the inside gaps.
It was a truly brilliant performance that began with great coaching, but it didn’t end there.
THE RUN DEFENSE IS LEGIT
North Carolina was the most balanced offense Notre Dame had faced up to this point in the season, and is the most balanced unit the Irish will face until the College Football Playoff. While the pass game got a lot of the attention coming into the game, it was the run game that fueled the Tar Heel offense.
If Notre Dame was going to keep UNC in check it had to slow down the run game. When I was thinking slow down the run game I had in mind something along the lines of under 175 yards and below 4.5 yards per carry, which I wrote about HERE.
North Carolina never sniffed those numbers which I would have considered a good performance.
The Tar Heels went for 26 yards on their first carry, but following that touch the Irish run defense absolutely took over and dominated. UNC finished with just 87 rushing yards on 30 touches. Even if you take out sacks you’re looking at a group that had just 108 yards on 24 carries, which would have been good for just a 4.5 per carry average.
After the 26-yard gain, the Tar Heels rushed for just 82 yards and averaged 3.6 yards per carry with sacks removed. That is a truly brilliant performance against an offense that came into the game with two backs that were on pace for 1,000 yards on the ground during the regular season.
It continued a season long trend of truly elite run defense.
PASS RUSH SHOWS OUT
One of my criticism of the defense in recent games, and for much of the season, has been a pass rush that just wasn’t getting to the quarterback with enough frequency. There were some clutch pressures and sacks, but overall the unit wasn’t being as disruptive as it needed to be on a snap-by-snap basis.
That was absolutely NOT the case against the Tar Heels. Even during the opening two drives you could see the pass rushers were controlling their matchups, and if not for a really bad hold that wasn’t called the one long pass UNC had early wouldn’t have counted.
Notre Dame harassed quarterback Sam Howell throughout the game, and it started with the front four. Ends Daelin Hayes and Adetokunbo Ogundeji were outstanding off the edge, the backup ends applied pressure and the defensive tackles got after the quarterback.
The success of the front four also made the linebacker blitzes even more effective.
According to Pro Football Focus, Notre Dame had a total of nine hits (sacks and hits) on Howell, who just never got settled in after the first two series. Being able to dominate against the run while also winning in the pass game is what makes a defensive line truly elite.
BACKUP BUCKS NEED TO PLAY MORE
Starting Buck linebacker Shayne Simon had an excellent game against Clemson, but he has not been able to build on that performance. He’s been average to below average for much of the season. Whether it was Jack Kiser or Jack Lamb, when his backups got into the game they outplayed him, considerably.
We saw that from Marist Liufau on Saturday. The long, rangy, explosive sophomore was highly disruptive against the Tar Heels as a run defender and pass rusher. When he stepped into the lineup for Simon there was a clear gap in production, confidence and playmaking.
Liufau’s pressures were especially effective.
As brilliant as Lea has been as a DC and a linebacker coach, it is a bit puzzling as to why he keeps putting Simon out on the field. I’m sure there are reasons based on what we don’t see (practice), but we now have nine games worth of data that tell a very clear story, and that is on game day, a case could be made that Simon has been Notre Dame’s fourth best Buck linebacker this season, and the other players need to start playing more, and if Simon doesn’t get on track immediately they need to start taking the vast majority of the reps at the position.
BRACY HAS LOST HIS CONFIDENCE
Junior cornerback TaRiq Bracy was beat for an early touchdown and a deep ball that went for 53 yards early against North Carolina. Bracy has regressed from his first two seasons, and it seems to revolve around a lack of confidence. Cornerbacks are like every other position group in that they can battle confidence issues or they can get into a rut, and that is what Bracy seems to be dealing with.
His lack of confidence has led to him developing some bad habits that are causing him to get beat, and he just doesn’t look certain of himself when competing for the ball. This is not the Bracy we saw most of last season, as a freshman and at times this season.
Simply benching him isn’t going to solve the problem long term, as Notre Dame will need Bracy and his speed in the bigger games down the road. Clarence Lewis will continue to eat away at his reps, but position coach Mike Mickens and Lea also need to work hard to restore his confidence so that he’s ready to get back to his old self later in the season.
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