Notre Dame’s Opponents: Much weaker defenses await the Irish, with USC’s arguably the worst

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Few would argue No. 13 Notre Dame’s offense is efficient, potent or nearly any other positive adjective, but perhaps the Irish (5-1) have been underappreciated on that end because their opponents’ defenses have also been underrated.

The Athletic’s Pete Sampson pointed out Notre Dame has faced four defenses in the top 20 of yards per play allowed, the rare aggregate stat that yields a worthwhile amount of intel all on its own. No matter the game situation, if a team cannot gain more than four yards on nearly every play, its drives will stall.

The first instinct is to suggest those four opposing defenses are so highly ranked in part because they played the shuffling Irish offense. But no, they are ranked so highly despite playing Notre Dame.

Remove the Irish stats from the defensive ledger, and Cincinnati jumps to No. 2 from No. 4 in yards per play allowed. Wisconsin would remain at No. 3.

Toledo gave up 5.99 yards per play to Notre Dame, but only 4.33 to its seven other opponents, which would rank No. 6 instead of the Rockets’ current No. 13 status. And Purdue would move up to No. 17 from No. 20.

This is not a coincidental manipulation. Looking at SP+’s defensive rankings, both the Badgers and the Bearcats are considered top-10 defenses and Toledo and Purdue are in the top 30.

The Irish should have done better than 31.0 points per game to date — a number that drops to 27.5 if removing the fourth-quarter special teams and defensive touchdowns against Wisconsin — and 5.22 yards per play would be Notre Dame’s lowest in 12 years under Brian Kelly. The Irish have not fallen short of 6.0 yards per play since Kelly’s second season in 2011.

But those numbers are also a reflection of those defenses, and they should thus be buoyed shortly. Notre Dame’s coming opponents do not have the defensive résumés of the schedule’s first half. The Irish have already faced four opponents that gave up fewer than 4.75 yards per play against the rest of their schedules. Five defenses await Notre Dame that give up more than 5.5 yards per play. The Irish have played four defenses inside SP+’s top 30 but will now face three outside the top 80.

If ever there was a time for Notre Dame’s offensive line to provide space for its running backs and time for its quarterbacks, it will be these next six weeks.

USC: No. 106 in yards per play allowed at 6.18; No. 81 defense per SP+.
North Carolina: No. 72 in yards per play allowed at 5.58; No. 58 defense per SP+.
Navy: No. 103 in yards per play allowed at 6:08; No. 88 defense per SP+.
Virginia: No. 101 in yards per play allowed at 6.04; No. 62 defense per SP+.
Georgia Tech: No. 55 in yards per play allowed at 5.31; No. 44 defense per SP+.
Stanford: No. 92 in yards per play allowed at 5.80; No. 103 defense per SP+.

Florida State (2-4): Coming off an idle week with renewed health along the offensive line, the Seminoles are favored by a mere five touchdowns against Massachusetts (12 ET; ACCN) with a combined point total Over/Under of 60 as of Wednesday’s earliest hours. Given the Minutemen boast one of the country’s — one of history’s — worst defenses (to put it in the context of above, UMass gives up 7.02 yards per play, No. 126 in the country, and is ranked No. 130 in defense by SP+), Florida State may crack 50 points this week.

Toledo (3-4): The Rockets lost in overtime, 26-23, at Central Michigan, essentially dooming their MAC title hopes. If the conference turns upside down, though, then Toledo can get back on track against Western Michigan (3:30 ET; CBSSN), despite being a 2.5-point underdog. A total of 45 suggests a 24-21 result that simply sounds too traditional for MAC play.

No. 25 Purdue (4-2): The Boilermakers pulled off what may have been the upset of the season, a 24-7 win at No. 2 Iowa. To go on the road and so thoroughly dominate the Hawkeyes, outgaining them 464 yards to 271, was entirely unexpected. Star receiver David Bell caught 11 passes for 240 yards and one touchdown, the kind of explosion that Notre Dame devoted much of its defensive attention to avoiding last month.

Purdue now heads to Wisconsin (3 ET; BTN) as a field goal underdog despite last week’s surprise.

Wisconsin (3-3): The Badgers slogged to a 20-14 win against Army, the kind of dominating defense vs. unstoppable triple-option entertainment that only a true football devotee can enjoy.

No. 2 Cincinnati (6-0): The Bearcats know they need to make a statement every week to be sure the College Football Playoff selection committee has no excuse to leave them out of the top four when it releases its first rankings in two weeks. Thus, they took no mercy on Central Florida in a 56-21 win and will take none on Navy (12 ET; ESPN2), even as 27.5-point favorites.

Frankly, with that need to impress the committee — an unfair need that may be unnecessary with a few more upsets a la Purdue topping Iowa — Cincinnati should easily cruise past a team total Over/Under of 38.5 as set by a game total of 49.

Virginia Tech (3-2): The Hokies lost 28-7 to Pittsburgh in a rout that was not as competitive as that score, nudging head coach Justin Fuente that much closer to the unemployment line. Virginia Tech’s three-game homestand ends with Syracuse (12:30 ET; Watch ESPN), and while the Hokies may be favored by 3.5 points, there is already clear sentiment the Orange may pull off the upset and serve as the nail in Fuente’s proverbial coffin.

USC (3-3): The Trojans come off an idle week and head to South Bend (7:30 ET; NBC) as touchdown underdogs. The total of 57.5 predicts a 32-25 conclusion, the kind of close, but not too close, win that Irish fans should relish.

North Carolina (4-3): The Tar Heels enjoyed a 31-17 halftime lead against Miami but then had to withstand a rally from the Hurricanes to hold onto a 45-42 win. Star junior quarterback Sam Howell scored four total touchdowns, but he threw for only 154 yards on 17-of-26 passing.

As is form in 2021, North Carolina has the week off before it faces Notre Dame, but a reminder, the Irish are 11-1 against teams coming off idle weeks since the start of the 2017 season, the one loss being to Cincinnati this year.

Navy (1-5): The Midshipmen fell 35-17 at Memphis, a competitive game undone when Navy quarterback Tai Lavatai had to enter concussion protocols.

Virginia (5-2): If any coming Notre Dame opponent is going to be ranked, it will be the Cavaliers, though their 48-0 dismantling of Duke should be considered simply a task well done and not something truly impressive. Virginia enjoyed turnover luck to an extreme but did get quarterback Brennan Armstrong back to prime form after suffering a knee injury a month ago. Armstrong finished with 34 yards on eight rushes with one touchdown and 364 passing yards with two additional scores.

Dispatching Georgia Tech (7:30 ET; ACCN) in a similar manner as only 7-point favorites would be far more notable, particularly if Armstrong can shine again when facing a defense that isn’t as porous as the Blue Devils’.

Georgia Tech (2-3): The Yellow Jackets come off an idle week with that Virginia task ahead of them.

Stanford (3-4): The Cardinal fell 34-31 at Washington State in Nick Rolovich’s final game as Cougars head coach before his own decisions cost him his job. Losing to a team in such tumult is another piece in Stanford’s up-and-down season. In the last month, it has lost to UCLA, upset No. 10 Oregon in overtime and then lost two straight conference games. Topping the Ducks looks more and more like the anomaly of the stretch.

The Cardinal now has the week off to try to find a steadier path.

12 ET — Florida State vs. UMass, ACCN; Cincinnati at Navy, ESPN2.
12:30 ET — Virginia Tech vs. Syracuse, Watch ESPN.
3 ET — Wisconsin at Purdue, BTN.
3:30 ET — Toledo vs. Western Michigan, CBSSN.
7:30 ET — USC at Notre Dame, NBC; Georgia Tech at Virginia, ACCN.

Favorites: Florida State (-35), Wisconsin (-3), Cincinnati (-27.5), Virginia Tech (-3.5), Virginia (-7).
Underdogs: Toledo (+2.5), Purdue (+3), USC (+7), Navy (+27.5), Georgia Tech (+7).