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Notre Dame Run Defense Keeps Dominating ... And Its Not Slowing Down

Notre Dame's run defense keeps dominating week after week, and it's fueling the Irish undefeated season

It wasn’t that long ago that Notre Dame’s inability to stop the run was a root cause of the team’s inability to put a quality defense on the field. In fact, from 2014-16 the Irish defense had its worst three-year stretch of run defense in program history.

Fast forward just a few seasons, and Clark Lea has turned Notre Dame into one of the elite run defenses in the country. I’ve written about this before, but since then the Irish run defense has only gotten better and better.

Just look at what it did to Clemson.

A major key to beating the Tigers was stopping star running back Travis Etienne. The talented Clemson rusher racked up 3,272 combined rushing yards in 2018-19, averaging 8.0 yards per carry during that stretch. Etienne was the ACC Offensive Player of the Year in both the 2018 and 2019 seasons. In 2020, he was down a bit, averaging “just” 5.9 yards per carry.

Etienne was coming of a performance against Boston College in which he had 224 total yards in a come-from-behind win.

When you consider his talent, experience and production, what Notre Dame did to him has to go down as one of the best defensive performances I’ve ever seen from an Irish squad.

Notre Dame held Etienne to just 28 rushing yards on 18 carries, and he had a total of 85 yards on 26 touches, which included eight receptions. Etienne’s first carry of the night went for 10 yards, which means he had just 18 yards on his next 17 carries.

By shutting down Etienne, the Irish put all of the burden for a Clemson victory on the shoulders of freshman quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei. The talented rookie quarterback put up big numbers thanks to a few too many chunk plays, but ultimately the one-dimensional nature of the Clemson offense played a big role in the Notre Dame victory.

Clemson tried to run the clock out late but couldn’t get anything going on the ground, which gave the Notre Dame offense one last chance to tie the game, and that’s exactly what happened.

Through seven games, Notre Dame has played four of the nation’s Top 25 rushers, and they’ve shut all of them down. Just look at these numbers.

Javian Hawkins, Louisville - Ranks 3rd with 822 rushing yards (6.2 YPA)
Travis Etienne, Clemson - Ranks 15th with 634 rushing yards (5.2 YPA)
Mataeo Durant, Duke - Ranks 19th with 592 rushing yards (7.2 YPA)
Deon Jackson, Duke - Ranks 22nd with 580 rushing yards (4.5 YPA)

Here’s how they performed against Notre Dame:

Hawkins - 15 carries, 51 yards, 3.4 YPA, 0 TD (season low)
Etienne - 18 carries, 28 yards, 1.6 YPA, 1 TD (season low)
Durant - 5 carries, 7 yards, 1.4 YPA, 0 TD (season low)
Jackson - 15 carries, 52 yards, 3.5 YPA, 0 TD (season low)

Those four backs have combined for 53 carries and 138 yards for 2.6 yards per attempt and just one touchdown. That’s an average of 46 yards per game.

Notre Dame’s dominant run defense will need to continue moving forward. The Irish still have to face North Carolina’s two-headed monster at running back. Javonte Williams ranks fourth nationally with 767 yards (7.7 YPC), and he is tied at No. 1 with 14 rushing touchdowns. The Tar Heels also have Michael Carter, who ranks 10th nationally in rushing with 733 yards (7.3 YPC).

Wake Forest has a strong duo as well with Kenneth Walker III (528 rushing yards, 11 TDs) and Christian Beal-Smith (472 rushing yards).

Of course, the odds are quite strong that Notre Dame will also have to face Etienne once again in the ACC Championship game. You can be sure that Clemson’s star back will be motivated to overcome his career-worst performance against the Irish.

Dating back to last season, in its last 12 games against non-option teams, the Irish defense is giving up just 89.8 rushing yards per game, 2.9 yards per rush and has allowed just eight rushing touchdowns.


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