Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s defense undeniably of title quality

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BRONX, N.Y. — It is not a comparison to suggest lightly, let alone one to then respond to casually. It is a discussion ripe with overreaction on the surface, questionable in merit but for extreme situations, the highest of praise when deserved. To say it aloud dares accusations of take artistry rather than genuine analysis.

So let’s make it, let’s discuss it, let’s write it publicly and therefore figuratively say it aloud.

Notre Dame’s defense belongs in the same conversation as Clemson’s, Alabama’s and Michigan’s.

Only a few teams can speak of first-hand experience against more than one of that set. Texas A&M lost to both Alabama and Clemson, Northwestern lost to both Notre Dame and Michigan; and Syracuse has now lost to both No. 2 Clemson and the No. 3 Irish (11-0) after Saturday’s 36-3 handling. Orange head coach Dino Babers was reluctant to directly compare the two, but he did not hesitate to put them both in a single piece of lauding.

“All I will say is this, Clemson is extremely talented,” Babers said. “I think there’s no doubt that those two teams are in the top four in the country and rightfully so.”

The stats have lumped that grouping of defenses together most of the year, but now the on-field slowing of worthwhile competition supports Notre Dame’s numbers rather than the other way around.

Before, the Irish were limiting offenses like Florida State’s, Navy’s and Pittsburgh’s, hardly bastions of production in 2018. Then came Syracuse (8-3) at Yankee Stadium. First, the obvious numbers:

The Orange averaged 44.4 points per game before facing No. 3 Notre Dame. The Irish gave up zero points in 59 minutes and 50 seconds.

Syracuse averaged 482.2 yards per game. Notre Dame allowed 234.
The Orange had run 822 plays through 10 games, easy math for figuring out the average of 82.2. Only able to gain multiple first downs on four of 13 drives, Syracuse ran 73 plays against the Irish.
2.4 sacks allowed per game? How about six for the loss of 36 yards?
Two turnovers each week? Add another to get to three.

The list could go on through just about every statistical category. What Notre Dame did to that offense was a display of dominance by an array of athleticism warranting worry for anyone awaiting.

“They’ve got really good players,” Babers said. “We attempted to do some things and they closed off some gaps with their length. They’re very, very long as a defensive football team and because of that length they’re able to cover up a lot more space in the gaps.”

Length is like strength and speed and other conceptual nouns describing raw talent. Even when everything else is going wrong, they are still on the field. They are why Clemson’s floor has been so high all season, and why ‘Bama has long relied on its defense, having discovered an offense in 2018 to complement its usual staple.

The Irish realize as much. When did they begin to think about a shutout of the Orange?

“When there was 15 minutes on the clock in the first quarter, that was the mindset,” fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill said.

Well sure, but when did they realize it was genuinely possible?

“When they throw a trick formation at us, second drive, and we communicate it, get our cleats in the grass, execute it, and [junior safety Jalen Elliott] picks it off,” Tranquill said.

That begins to go beyond length or any other vague quality. That sounds like game plan, anticipation and development. Indeed, first-year Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea deserves as much praise as anyone else, if not more. Babers acknowledged him by name. Tranquill discussed how prepared the defense was. The stats make that readiness clear.

If the defensive line’s length, the linebacker’s experience and the safeties’ playmaking all serve to raise the Irish floor, that work during the week establishes a defensive ceiling worth comparing to those featured by the two programs claiming the last three national championships.

But Notre Dame remains flawed. Its offensive line is good, not great.

The obvious missteps were the four premature ones drawing false start penalties, three by sophomore right tackle Robert Hainsey and one by junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg. Irish head coach Brian Kelly felt some of those jumps directly credited Syracuse ends Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman. That may be true, but if so, then fifth-year center Sam Mustipher saw it as a failing of the entire line, not just the tackles.

“We’ll never allow somebody to take the blame for that,” he said. “It’s just getting back to basics, focusing on what you have to do on the play.”

If some of the jumps trace to inexperience or some other noun or adjective describing youth, Mustipher’s confidence was unwavering.

“I told the guys, if you can’t block him, let us know, but I believe in you guys enough that I think you can block anybody,” he said.

The greater concern may be Notre Dame’s run game. Remove two runs of 35 and 32 yards by seniors Brandon Wimbush and Dexter Williams on the final Irish drive, well past any competitive moment, and the team rushing stats plummet to 110 yards on 30 carries (also adjusting for sacks and kneel downs). A total of 18 out of those 30 rushes went for two yards or fewer, with eight of those 18 not crossing the line of scrimmage. The Irish ran on first down 17 times, creating second-and-long nine times, five of which were 2nd-and-more-than-10. Against better teams, those situations become drive-killers.

The 3.67 yards per meaningful carry average is the third time in the last five games it did not crack 4.0. Adjusting for sacks, Notre Dame ran for 112 yards on 35 carries against Pittsburgh, a 3.2 average, and 121 yards on 40 carries at Northwestern, a 3.0 average.

Down the line, that may not get it done.

Oh, and Ian Book is capable of throwing incompletions.

This is more a reflection of how high expectations had gotten for the junior quarterback. His first five starts this year all featured completion rates greater than 70 percent, including two in the 81-point range. It was absurd.

At Northwestern, Book went 22-of-34, a 64.7 percentage, and his strike rate at Yankee Stadium was 62.2 percent.

Then again, Book went 23-of-37 for 292 yards and two touchdowns. He had a very good day, despite an interception. And his season rate of 72.6 percent is still well ahead of the program record of 68.0 percent, set in 2009 by Jimmy Clausen.

Now then, one to go.

It is that simple. When you embarrass the No. 12 team in the country, you end all conversations about worthiness. Babers explained away the fourth quarter field goal attempts as injury prevention, but they will be remembered as the final piece of defeat delivered by Lea’s defense. And Kelly claimed ignorance as to Irish Playoff odds, but that was simple modesty.

Notre Dame is in with a win at USC. That motivation should outweigh the Trojans’ playing for Clay Helton’s job.

“If [the Irish] play the way they played us, they will probably have an opportunity to play for a national championship,” to quote Babers once more.