Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s defense puts Irish firmly in conversation with Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State

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“We’re the best defense in the country.”

Drew White did not mean to diminish Cincinnati’s defense, allowing 15.0 points per game, or Northwestern’s, having given up only six touchdowns through five games. The senior Irish linebacker certainly did not intend to knock Georgia’s name-brand defense, which has allowed only four rushing touchdowns this season (compared to eight on Notre Dame) and 2.47 yards per carry (2.88).

But White may be on to something. The No. 2 Irish (9-0, 8-0 ACC) just might have the best defense in the country.

“I really am (proud of the defense),” head coach Brian Kelly said after Notre Dame shut out No. 19 North Carolina in the second half of a 31-17 Black Friday win. “There’s a lot to be said about holding this offense to under 300 yards. That’s a pretty big accomplishment in terms of what they were able to do.”

The Tar Heels (6-3, 6-3) had been nothing but prolific thus far this season, averaging 43.1 points and 563.4 yards per game before this week, and 7.7 yards per play. Then came White and the rest of Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s unit.

17 points, 298 yards, 5.2 yards per play.

Those numbers do not do the performance justice.

After North Carolina opened with two touchdown drives, an effect of Notre Dame coming off an idle week more than anything else in Kelly’s mind, the Heels gained 173 yards in the final 47:59, averaging 4.02 yards per play.

To put that into context, North Carolina ranked No. 4 in the country in yards per play before this week. That figure for three-plus quarters against the Irish would rank No. 125, ahead of only Massachusetts and Kansas, one spot behind Notre Dame’s next opponent, Syracuse.

“There were some adjustments that were made, but by and large, the game plan was in,” Kelly said. “It was executed flawlessly. It was well-developed, well-planned. At the end of the day, it was extremely well-executed.”

There is a knee-jerk reaction in college football to undercut a strong performance by pointing out the opponent’s shortcomings, lack of previous worthwhile competition and so forth. Doing so to the Tar Heels offense misses many points: Sophomore quarterback Sam Howell is an efficient and talented quarterback who averaged 299 yards in his first 21 career games. That is a sample size beyond dispute. In the next 16 games of his career, there is a distinct chance no one else holds him to as few as 211 yards, not to mention only 7.8 yards per attempt, his lowest mark in the last 11 games.

All that without the best Irish defensive back for most of the game, 

The best defense in the country.

For the last 5-8 years, offenses have increasingly outpaced defenses in college football. Be it the influence of year-long 7-on-7 work at the prep level, a simple influx in brainpower on the offensive side of the ball or a shift in the rules, offenses now rule the day.

Even Alabama head coach Nick Saban, the man who used to spend entire seasons ridiculing anyone who won a game while giving up as many 30 points, has acknowledged the days of 2012’s suffocating defenses are long-gone. Offense now wins championships in college football.

The effects of the pandemic — loss of spring practice, loss of conditioning, interrupted preseason practices — have exacerbated that, worsening defensive fundamentals across the country this season, at least compared to the negative repercussions on offenses.

But Notre Dame’s defense appears to be the exception at the top of the sport. Entering this Saturday, No. 1 Alabama gives up 359 yards per game, No. 3 Clemson, 349; and No. 4 Ohio State, 390 (not to mention 26 points per game, among other developing issues). The Irish, meanwhile, give up 303 yards and 16.7 points per game.

Lea has developed a defense that proved magnitudes better than the No. 4 offense in the country, per SP+, this week and at least stood up against one of the generation’s most consistent offenses earlier this month.

Combined with a power running game that has yet to be stopped when it commits to ending a game — Friday’s final drive marked the fourth time this season Notre Dame has run down the clock with a methodical march down the field to strangle away any desperate hopes from its opponent — that defense makes the Irish look like real contenders. Add in mistake-free quarterback play, and perhaps Notre Dame should be considered every bit the threat that the Tide, Tigers and Buckeyes are, even if it feels odd to describe Ian Book as playing “mistake-free” the day after he approached quarterbacking in a way that would make Brett Favre beam.

“Playmakers make plays,” Kelly said. “… You let guys play, he’s a playmaker.”

To be a true championship contender, someone has to make those plays. The last two months have shown the Irish that they have that player. The entire season has featured a running game that refuses to yield. And Friday proved Notre Dame can claim the best defense in the country.

In this most flawed of seasons, perhaps a team thriving on fundamentals is a team to look forward to watching in Miami in mid-January.