Three Yards and a Cloud of Dust

IrishEyes offers statistical analysis to provide an early answer to a key pre-season question: Will the Irish stop the run?

In August we asked a series of camp questions – most of which won't receive a final answer until season's end. But Saturday night will mark the half-way point of the 2010 season and though the final exam is still six weeks away, Irish fans now have a telling mid-term grade regarding the team's 5-season Achilles Heel – its rush defense.

As Lou Holtz said during a field interview following a particularly sloppy 1990 win over Navy (52-31), "If you can't stop a team from running the football, you're whistling in the dark."

Notre Dame has stopped very few teams (that mattered) from doing just that since the end of the 2005 season. I have ample evidence that trend is changing, and it's not a faith-based claim.

See below:

Tough Sledding

The formerly maligned Irish run defense has stiffened since Superman left the building in a Week Two loss to Michigan.

  • Purdue: One 4th-and-1 carry for a 23-yard touchdown by quarterback Robert Marve. Additional rushes of 13, 11, 13 and 14 yards by Purdue ‘backs resulted in first downs. Final tally: five carries that hurt the Irish.

  • Michigan: Three runs gashed the Irish, each performed by the nation's best football player to date: sophomore QB Denard Robinson: a 36-yard rush (the defense held and eventually forced a punt); an 87-yard touchdown sprint; a 19-yard run that set up a (missed) field goal.

    Robinson added carries totaling 9 and 14, 11 and 12 yards (all for first downs); and two inconsequential runs of 8 yards (on 2nd and 15) and 11 yards (on 1st and 24) that led immediately to punts. Neither Michigan running back totaled more than six yards on 12 combined rushes. Final tally: 7 carries that hurt the Irish, all by Superman

  • Michigan State: Back-to-back 16-yard runs that set up a touchdown; a 56-yard touchdown run; another 16-yard run for a touchdown. Each occurred before the 4th Quarter, one in which the Irish limited the Spartans to 15 yards on five carries (not including sacks or penalty). To paint a complete picture, the Spartans did use a 14-yard carry to set up the game-tying touchdown pass with just under eight minutes remaining. Final tally: 5 carries that hurt the Irish

  • Stanford: No carries in excess of 11 yards though 11 separate carries resulted in gains of 7 to 11 yards; 7 of which technically led to a field goal or touchdown

  • Boston College: The Irish were literally never hurt by a hand-off, allowing one carry for 7 yards (and a punt two plays later); and one carry for 10 yards (on 3rd and 12 to set-up a punt). It's hard to imagine a better effort in the history of the school, though it's equally difficult to imagine the program has faced many offenses as hideous as was the Eagles' Saturday night.

"I think we're getting better against the run each and every week," Kelly said Tuesday. "I think that's been really good for us, the progress that's been made there."

The Irish rush D has played well enough to win, and win handily, twice; well enough to win vs. most teams if it had any help from its offense once (Stanford) and encountered two relatively rough, but controllable outings (UM and MSU).

It improved and performed in the clutch in the latter and well – credit to Denard Robinson, he won the former (don't let anyone understate that sublime solo mission; if a similar effort was produced by a player in Blue and Gold, he'd have a statue erected outside Gate E).

Accepting the fact that an extra safety in the box vs. Michigan, Michigan State and Stanford contributed to the plethora of mid-range passes that have hurt the Irish, the rush defense has consistently outperformed both facets of the Irish offense and its complimentary piece, the pass defense.

Gains of 3 yards or fewer vs. the Irish

Each listing below took into account the gray area of down & distance or the rare commitment to running for three+ yards on four consecutive plays (Stanford employed that approach on one drive).

Each is thus, a positive play for the defense as all short-yardage conversions by an opponent were eliminated as were gains of 3 yards on 2nd and 5 or less.

Because sacks are generally passing plays those were not included either. (And ND didn't sack Michigan - the exception to the rule.)

  • Purdue: 32 rushes; 16 resulted in gains of 3 yards or fewer (4 Irish sacks not included).
  • Michigan: 41 rushes; 19 resulted in gains of 3 yards or fewer (no sacks by the Irish D). Robinson was held to three yards or fewer in 12 separate carries.
  • Michigan State: 43 rushes; 21 resulted in gains of 3 yards or fewer (4 Irish sacks not included).
  • Stanford: 44 rushes; 17 resulted in gains of 3 yards or fewer (no sacks by the Irish D)
  • Boston College: 23 rushes; 13 resulted in gains of 3 yards or fewer (5 Irish sacks not included).

With the exception of the Stanford loss, one in which the rush defense performed admirably but admittedly lost the battle up front, the Notre Dame run defense has limited opponents to 3 yards or fewer on 49.6 percent of all running plays.

Including Stanford, 69 of 183 rushing plays have been completely stuffed and proved detrimental to opposing offenses. 24 others were successful in design or resulted in long gains of between 11 and (Denard) 87 yards.

(Stanford's text above illustrates the best example of "successful" while not necessarily something that gashed a defense). Included in the 24 are but four carries surrendered in excess of 20 yards, though none in the last nine quarters.

It doesn't change the fact that the Irish are 2-3 and lost two winnable games. It doesn't mean the rush defense ranks among the nation's best or that ND will close the season with an 8-game winning streak.

It does indicate that after five seasons of inefficient, underwhelming, or overwhelmed front 7s, the Irish rush defense is finally turning the corner. The bulk of the contributors to this revival return next season (with one glaring exception in NG Ian Williams…we have the spring to discuss that).

I tend to navigate the minefield of coach-speak in the wake of collegiate losses, and thus wondered aloud whether Kelly had overstated the performance of his rush defense vs. UM and MSU. He might have, but the nation's 7th-winningest active head coach was right when he indicated the defensive glass really is half-full as we enter the season's second half.

Now stop the best backfield tandem you'll face this season over the weekend or the discussion will begin anew.


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