The game of college football has changed quite a bit in recent seasons, and one of the great aspects of the game is its constant evolution. Some things, however, stay the same, and one of those things is winning championships is aided greatly by being able to stop the run.
From 2014-16, Notre Dame had its worst three-year stretch of run defense in program history. Notre Dame was light years away from being a championship caliber defense.
The arrival of Mike Elko and Clark Lea began to turn things around, and in 2018, Lea built on the foundation he and Elko laid in 2017.
Even with the improvements, Notre Dame was nowhere close to being a championship caliber run defense. That was never more evident than during Notre Dame's embarrassing 45-14 loss at Michigan last Oct. 26.
Michigan ripped the Irish defense to shreds, rushing for 303 yards and three scores. It was the third time in seven games to start the 2019 season that the Irish defense gave up at least 212 yards on the ground, and the run defense was nowhere near where it needed to be.
I don't know what Lea and the defensive staff did or said following that game, but ever since that loss to the Wolverines, the Irish run defense has been truly elite, and has begun playing at a level that you can win a championship with.
The 10-game stretch refers to games against non-option teams, which means I removed its game against Navy. The reason is those championship teams never played a team like Navy, which skews numbers.
Notre Dame "gave up" 281 yards to Navy last season, which came during this stretch of great run defense. Consider that Navy led the nation at 360.5 rushing yards per game, which means the Irish held them over 79 yards BELOW their season average, and almost two full yards below their yards per carry average.
Notre Dame hasn't beaten up on a bunch of bad non-option rushing teams during this stretch, either. Notre Dame faced Boston College and AJ Dillon during that stretch, and the defense held the Eagles to just 128 rushing yards, which was 135 yards BELOW their season average.
Notre Dame also completely shut down Louisville running back Javian Hawkins during that stretch, holding Hawkins to just 51 yards in the team's victory just under two weeks ago. The Cardinals rushed for just 96 yards, its lowest total of the 2020 season.
Dillon finished 6th in rushing in 2019, and Hawkins was right behind him in 7th place.
Notre Dame held Dillon to just 56 yards rushing. He racked up 165 yards in the game before he faced Notre Dame and 178 yards in the game that followed. It should be noted his 178 yards came against Pitt, a defense that finished the 2019 season ranked 12th in rush defense.
Hawkins rushed for 155 yards in the game before he faced Notre Dame and 174 yards in the game after he faced Notre Dame.
Notre Dame held Iowa State running back Breese Hall to 55 yards on 17 carries in the Camping World Bowl. It should be noted that Hall currently leads the nation in rushing with 716 yards to go with nine scores.
Notre Dame's "worst" game of the 2020 season came against Florida State, as the Seminoles rushed for 153 yards and averaged 3.8 yards per attempt against the Irish. In the game prior to playing ND, the Seminoles rushed for 263 yards, and in the two games that followed they went for 241 yards in an upset win over North Carolina and 265 yards against Louisville.
Notre Dame has been tested during this stretch of dominant run defense, and they've answered every challenge. They are doing it with excellent defensive line play, but the biggest factor is the Irish play great team defense.
Just as important, Notre Dame hasn't sacrificed anything to stop the run. Some teams that struggle against the run are forced to be more aggressive with their safeties, or design risky run stunts to slow down the opposition ground attack, but Notre Dame hasn't had to do that.
As the graph above shows, Notre Dame's third-down defense has been outstanding and its pass defense has remained quite strong during that stretch. They have remained stout in both areas while dramatically improving their run defense.
Notre Dame will need its run defense to be at its best when they play Clemson on Nov. 7 and North Carolina on No. 27. The Tar Heels rank 12th nationally in rushing offense and have a pair of running backs (Michael Carter, Javonte Williams) on pace for more than 1,000 yards this season, and Clemson has stud back Travis Etienne.
If the Irish defense continues its trend in November, it will play well enough on defense for Notre Dame to win both games, and it will give the program a foundation to build a championship around.
After that it will be up to the Irish offense to get on the same level.
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