While waiting for Ian Book and Dexter Williams to meet with the media following Notre Dame’s 38-17 win over No. 7 Stanford on Saturday, another reporter paused our conversation to ask me, “You’re still not convinced, are you?”
I do not remember what I said to spark the question, but it was an accurate assessment of the meanderings of my mind.
“Can they do it against a good run defense?” I replied. “Will they face a good run defense?”
That question has knocked around in my head since. Digging through the numbers, the answer to the latter wondering is very clearly, “Yes, the No. 6 Irish will face a good run defense this very weekend at No. 24 Virginia Tech.”
The former pondering could hold the lead in this space’s weekly “Things To Learn” piece, but it warrants a standalone spot. That is how vital Notre Dame succeeding on the ground Saturday (8 ET; ABC) will be to keeping alive Irish Playoff hopes.
To offer context, let’s compare the Hokies (3-1) to Michigan’s and Stanford’s defenses, Notre Dame’s two biggest wins to date. All numbers have been adjusted to not include sacks, contrary to the most inane of NCAA stat-keeping practices.
Virginia Tech: 3.59 yards per attempt; 103.25 yards per game; 28.75 attempts per game.
Michigan: 3.00 yards per attempt; 109.8 yards per game; 36.6 attempts per game.
Stanford: 4.76 yards per attempt; 175.0 yards per game; 36.8 attempts per game.
The Irish skewed some of the Wolverines’ and Cardinal’s numbers, though, the latter in particular. Taking 53 carries for 282 yards will do that. To a lesser but similar extent, the egg the Hokies laid two weeks ago at Old Dominion diminished some of their figures, even if the Monarchs had only 31 rushes for 156 yards.
If removing each of those losses from the equations …
Virginia Tech: 2.95 yards per attempt; 85.67 yards per game; 28.0 attempts per game.
Michigan: 2.89 yards per attempt; 99.75 yards per game; 34.5 attempts per game.
Stanford: 4.53 yards per attempt; 148.25 yards per game; 32.75 attempts per game.
These numbers make two things very clear: The Cardinal run defense is not what one expects it to be under head coach David Shaw. And the Hokies run defense is much, much better than that.
Even if wanting to argue Virginia Tech and defensive coordinator Bud Foster have built these numbers on inferior competition, bolstered by facing William & Mary and the offensive line-inept Florida State, consider last weekend. The Hokies faced No. 22 Duke, who to that point had averaged 5.24 yards per rush and 226.75 yards per game, numbers earned primarily against pertinent opponents. Virginia Tech held the Blue Devils to 93 yards on 33 rushes, a 2.82 average.
The Hokies’ run defense is comparable to the Wolverines’, and Notre Dame had success running against them, right? Well, sort of. Obviously, the Irish offense of the last two weeks hardly belongs in any comparison to the one seen in the opener, both due to the quarterback change and due to the return of senior running back Williams. That said, Notre Dame’s running backs took 26 carries for all of 77 yards against Michigan. Senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush used 17 to gain 77 of his own.
Without sophomore running back Jafar Armstrong (knee infection) and junior running back Tony Jones hobbled by a sprained ankle, the Irish ground attack was already going to be a question mark this weekend. That reduced backfield will also be facing its toughest challenge of the season at Lane Stadium. If it succeeds, this skeptic will be convinced.