Notre Dame gets back to action on Friday when it heads to North Carolina to take on the 6-2 Tar Heels. Notre Dame has three regular season games remaining, and two could be especially challenging. The Irish would then likely get a rematch against Clemson in the ACC title game.
Running the table is the goal, and it’s an achievable one. In order to make that happen, the Irish defense must regroup and get back to playing like it did for much of the first six games and improve in a couple of key areas.
If the defense can get back to its pre-Clemson form and clean up a couple areas it will play at a level that will allow the program to compete for a championship.
1. PASS RUSH MUST BE MORE CONSISTENT
I will give it to the Notre Dame pass rush in recent weeks, what it has lacked in volume it has made up for with clutch pressures. Against Georgia Tech, Clemson and Boston College the pass rush made plays in big moments, and that is very important.
Moving forward, however, the Irish defense must become more consistently disruptive with its pressures. The performance against Boston College was a good sign, but more will be needed as the competition increases.
North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell has impressive pocket mobility and he can make plays on the move, but he’s most dangerous when he throws from a clean pocket and gets into rhythm. When teams are able to keep him from getting into rhythm he’s far less effective. The same is true of Clemson star Trevor Lawrence.
I’m not talking about sacks, although those are nice. What I’m referring to is overall disruption, which includes quick penetration up the middle and good edge pressures that keep the quarterback from getting settled in the pocket. I’m referring to getting more hits on the quarterback, and forcing quarterbacks to make more mistakes because of the consistent pressure.
2. CORNERBACK PLAY NEEDS TO GET BETTER
Notre Dame’s cornerback play has been solid, but down the stretch it needs to get much, much better. An issue has been a bad habit of giving up big plays and bouts of inconsistency, especially at corner. The second aspect must be eliminated completely, and the unit must play sound and consistent football. As Clemson showed, one technique mistake or being one step late reacting to a route results in big plays for the opposition.
North Carolina, Wake Forest and Clemson are the three most explosive offenses Notre Dame will face this season, and a lack of consistency at cornerback could prove incredibly problematic. The same will be true if the Irish find themselves matched up against an offense like Alabama, Ohio State or Florida in the postseason.
The corners will also play a key role in helping limit the run games that North Carolina and Wake Forest will throw at the defense.
3. SOUND TACKLING IS A MUST
Notre Dame’s tackling was poor against Clemson, and it’s been erratic for much of the season. Against North Carolina, Wake Forest and in the possible rematch against Clemson the defense must get a lot better. The Irish defense cannot afford to allow those offenses to get cheap yards. If an offense is good enough to earn yards against Notre Dame, so be it, but the defense cannot have the missed tackles that gave Clemson so many yards after the catch.
4. MAKE MORE PLAYS IN THE PASS GAME
Those three ACC opponents often discussed in this breakdown are all prolific passing teams, and being disruptive against those groups is important. The pass rush is part of that, but making more plays on the ball is also important, especially on first and second down.
If Notre Dame can have success being disruptive on the ball in the pass game on first and second down (break ups, throw aways, short gains on screens) and get those offenses into third-and-long the defense will be able to make enough stops to keep the points down.
Notre Dame had six break ups in each of the first three games, and in the last game against Boston College, but it averaged just 2.5 in the four games in between. Notre Dame also ranks just 53rd nationally in interceptions, and three came in one game against a backup quarterback (Pitt). For context, 47 of the teams ranked below Notre Dame have played four or fewer games.
5. RUN DEFENSE MUST CONTINUE TO BE DOMINANT
A big key is the run defense remaining as dominant as it has been all season. North Carolina averages 329.9 passing yards per game and 233.5 rushing yards per game. If the run game gets going and the offense can remain balanced they will be very hard to defend. The same is true for Wake Forest and Clemson.
If the above areas are cleaned up or improved and the run defense remains what it has been all season the defense will play championship football and the Irish will be hard to beat.
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