No matter how much the game of college football changes stylistically and aesthetically, there are still some truths that have existed throughout the years. One is that to play championship caliber defense you must be able to stop the run.
Consider that seven of the Top 10 teams in the current AP Poll are ranked in the Top 20 in rushing defense, and two more (Alabama, Florida) rank in the Top 35. All ten rank in the Top 40 in rushing defense, with Oklahoma rounding things out in the No. 40 spot. Eight of the ten rank in the Top 35 in yards allowed per rush attempt.
Notre Dame currently ranks No. 80 in rushing defense and No. 64 in rushing yards allowed.
Notre Dame has been a quality run defense the last two seasons, but coming into the season getting better against the run was a key ingredient to improved defensive play. Notre Dame has done a lot of good things on defense this season, but its run defense has faltered far too much, and it has factored into the team not playing to the level it should.
That was never more prominent than it Saturday night during the team’s 45-14 shellacking at the hands of Michigan. The Wolverines rushed for 303 yards, marking the first time in the Brian Kelly era that a non-triple option opponent went for over 300 yards. To make matters worse, it was a heavy downpour in the first half and it was obvious that Michigan was going to run the football.
Notre Dame must address this problem and find solutions immediately. The next four Irish opponents average more yards per game than did Michigan and USC coming into their matchups with the Irish, and both had a great deal of success running the ball against the Irish.
Here are just some of the issues that must be addressed:
1. Poor Tackling — Notre Dame missed 11 more tackles against Michigan, but according to Pro Football Focus the Wolverines missed zero, so blaming the missed tackles on the rain won’t work. In the three games where Notre Dame has allowed over 200 rushing yards it has missed a total of 36 tackles, with at least 11 coming in each game.
Right now the Irish defense is on pace for 145 missed tackles on the season after having just 101 missed tackles in 13 games last season and 113 missed tackles in 2017. The team leader in missed tackles last season - in 13 games - had 11 missed tackles.
When you play the kind of schedule Notre Dame does, missing that many tackles is going to make stopping the run incredibly difficult.
2. Losing Gap Integrity — Part of the problem for the Irish this season is they are giving up far too many big plays on the ground. Poor tackling is part of the issue, but losing gap integrity at times has also been a problem. When the Irish defense has been sound from a gap integrity standpoint its run defense has been quite effective.
What this means is on every play a specific defender will be tasked with controlling a gap, which is the area between each offensive lineman. Here’s what I mean:
When a player doesn’t hit the right gap, or when he gets into the gap but gets pushed back or pushed laterally, he loses gap integrity. That makes it easier for run lanes to open up. The defensive linemen and the linebackers are responsible for run gaps, and at times the safeties are as well. At this point all three levels are having issues at times, and when that happens the defense is susceptible to big runs.
It's not happening all the time, and that's why the defense makes a lot of tackles for loss and stops in the run, but these issues flare up enough to create far too many big play opportunities for the opposition ground attack.
3. Leverage/Contain Issues — These two issues go hand-in-hand. Contain is basically the notion that you cannot allow the offense to get outside of the defense.
It can mean an end or an outside linebacker getting blocked on his outside shoulder, which allows a runner to get to the perimeter, which we’ve seen too often this season. It can mean a player getting sealed inside, or a backside player getting sucked too far down and allowing the quarterback to get outside on a zone read keep or a bootleg, both things we’ve seen happen this season.
It’s all about playing the backside effectively, although that can also be a part of the gap integrity discussion. Notre Dame’s backside defenders have not been nearly as effective at getting down the line and making sure that cutback runs aren’t going for big gains.
Michigan hurt Notre Dame with this all game long. I heard a lot of complaints from Irish fans about the offense running east-west, but the Notre Dame offense was trying to do what Michigan was doing. Stretch the field and open up vertical creases. The Michigan defense did a great job with contain and it also did a great job with backside pursuit, so the Irish runners had nowhere to go.
Notre Dame’s defense did not effectively do this enough on Saturday night. When they did their job they ate up the Michigan offense. The Wolverines had a lot of short runs, and the Irish had an impressive 27 run stops in the game. Michigan's defense only had 22 run stops in the game, albeit on fewer rushing attempts.
The issue for the Irish is that the higher frequency of contain or leverage mistakes, and gap mistakes, leads to far too many big runs, and that must be corrected in a hurry.
4. Regression From Top Players — There are coaching things that must be cleaned up from a scheme and technique standpoint, and execution must improve, just as scheme can be improved. But at the end of the day, Notre Dame’s regression as a run defense this season has as much to do with bouts of subpar play from its “top players” as it does from the newcomers into the starting lineup.
Senior end Julian Okwara has been a subpar run defender all season long, and his numbers reflect it. After registering 26 run stops a season ago, Okwara currently has just six, and he’s on pace for only 11. Khalid Kareem is on pace for only 19 run stops after registering 22 a season ago. Losing Daelin Hayes, who was the best run defender at end the first three games, has been more damaging than expected.
Safety has been an issue as well, as both Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman have regressed against the run. This is especially true for Gilman, who is second on the defense with 10 missed tackles after missing just four last season.
All of these issues must be addressed in the short term and long term if Notre Dame is going to play the kind of defense it must to truly compete for a championship.
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