Defense: Better, Worse, Why?

Part II of statistical prediction examines the seven major team defensive statistics tracked by the NCAA, and whether the Irish will improve or decline in each.

Prediction #5 (continued) – 2011 Defense: Better, Worse, Why?

The NCAA tracks seven major team statistics: rush defense, pass defense, pass efficiency defense, total defense, scoring defense, sacks, and tackles-for-loss.

Others such as turnovers created, interceptions, third-down conversion percentage, and red zone defense will be covered in a future column.

Rush Defense:

  • 2009 (Rush Defense): #89
  • 2010 (Rush Defense): #50
  • 2011 Prediction/Why?: Markedly better than '10; the dregs of '09 are no longer part of the equation…

Seeds sewn last September – A funny thing happened during Notre Dame's three-game losing streak last fall: the Irish found a way to stop the run. From the 4th quarter (and OT) of the team's loss in East Lansing through the conclusion of Game Six and a matchup with power-oriented Pittsburgh, Notre Dame held four run-heavy foes (MSU, Stanford, Boston College, Pitt) to an aggregate 182 yards and two touchdowns on 110 carries.

The dominance disappeared toward the end of November (Navy and Tulsa had incredible success rushing the football) but famously resurfaced in three November contests through the Sun Bowl (126 rushes for just 367 yards and one score).

Four major tests for the 2011 rush defense await: Michigan, Michigan State, Air Force, and Navy. As well, Pittsburgh's new head man Todd Graham will find a way to run the ball, and a ground-based approach will also be the focal point for Boston College, Stanford, and Maryland under first-year coach Randy Edsall.

The Irish front seven is finally up to the task.
Certainty of my prediction: 90 percent

Pass Defense:

  • 2009 (Pass Defense): #76
  • 2010 (Pass Defense): #54
  • 2011 Prediction/Why?: Similar to 2010; much better than '09…

Semantically speaking – The statistic is measured in total passing yards allowed, and those numbers tend to rise for quality squads that take double-digit leads into the fourth quarter. Whether the Irish finish with five, four, two, or zero losses, they'll be involved in their fair share of one-sided affairs in 2011 – opponents will accumulate passing yards in comeback attempts as a result.

Add the reality that the team has just two proven cornerbacks and a new drop linebacker among its starters and there's enough ancillary evidence to suggest injury plus graduation losses such as Darrin Walls, Kerry Neal (and especially) Brian Smith at inside ‘backer could hurt the defense at times next fall.

The official prediction is "better" – just not by much.
Certainty of my prediction: 60 percent

Total Defense:

  • 2009 (Total Defense): #86
  • 2010 (Total Defense): #50
  • 2011 Prediction/Why?: Better

Best since ‘02 – Tyrone Willingham's first squad featured the nation's 13th-ranked defense but the head coach and defensive coordinator Kent Baer took over a unit that few realize finished 14th-nationally the previous season. Like the 2011 Irish, that group returned a host of talented veterans and Baer helped turn those solid defenders into playmakers in '02 – the result was the program's best national defensive finish since Lou Holtz's final season of 1996 (11th overall) and the third-best since the team's most recent national championship (the '88 title team also finished 13th in total defense).

I'll have more on my reasoning for the further ascent of the Irish defense,led by coordinator Bob Diaco, in a forthcoming prediction. Suffice it to say, the Irish will finish much higher than No. 50 in this category next fall.
Certainty of my prediction: 95 percent

Scoring Defense:

  • 2009 (Scoring Defense): #63
  • 2010 (Scoring Defense): #23
  • 2011 Prediction/Why?: Better, I suppose…

Fourth Quarter concentration – Pitfalls to the prediction include two major factors: 1.) The Miami beating, and 2.) Semantics.

Notre Dame held foes to 20.23 ppg last fall, the lowest total since 2002 (16.7) and the 10th lowest number since the '88 championship season and a team that yielded just 12.3 per contest. (Seven of those "better" defenses occurred pre-BCS.)

I have the Irish slated for double-digit wins next fall, and it's not because I have overwhelming confidence in the offense. 11 of the 22 teams slotted ahead of Notre Dame on last year's Scoring Defense list won 10 or more games, and a whopping 19 of the 22 posted the same number, or more wins than the Irish.

Of note, 11 squads with 10 or more victories ranked below Notre Dame's standing at #23 (three ranked #'s 24-26) and National Champion Auburn ranked #53 overall, while finishing 14-0. The Tigers defense wasn't great, but it wasn't the 53rd best unit, either.

Why the disconnect? Simple: the Miami Factor

For 50 minutes last December, Bob Diaco's Irish defense waylaid everything Miami's offense brought to the table. But a defense that forged a 30-3 advantage eventually lost focus: players let down, backups entered the contest, garbage points were scored en route to a 33-17 finish.

The Miami team that took the Sun Bowl field that afternoon couldn't have scored 17 points vs. a focused Irish first defensive unit over 17 quarters, much less a 10-minute span. But even good defenses often let down when the game is no longer in doubt, and if the Irish offense improves, there'll be plenty of contests concluding without doubt for Brian Kelly in his second season.

In good health and with better 60-minute focus, the Irish could have a Top 15, even Top 10 level defense next fall, but that doesn't mean a few fourth quarter contests won't get away from them, or that you'll see back-to-back 3-point outputs from foes as witnessed last November. Its also likely the Irish could yield fewer than 20 ppg. next fall but still drop a bit in their final national slotting. Your final 2011 eye test will suggest a top tier defense – I'm just not sure this category's final number will back up that claim.
Certainty of my prediction: 50 percent. I flipped twice before settling on "better".

Pass Efficiency Defense:

  • 2009 (Pass Efficiency Defense): #82
  • 2010 (Pass Efficiency Defense): #25
  • 2011 Prediction/Why?: Worse

Where's Walls? – Notre Dame returned its two best cornerbacks from the 2010 squad in Gary Gray and Robert Blanton. It's reasonable to assume the trio of returning safeties, Harrison Smith, Zeke Motta, and Jamoris Slaughter, will each improve as well (especially Slaughter, who fought through a high-ankle sprain for the bulk of 2010). What they lost, was a luxury few college squads enjoy: a solid third cornerback.

Darrin Walls started 13 games last fall and ranked among the team's Top 15-16 overall players; the returning duo of Gray and Blanton among its top seven (according to our year-end rankings). I wrote this regarding Walls last January:

I have him as the third most important cornerback and fourth most important defensive back…a tough omission (from the Top 10) considering his overall improvement in both coverage and run support as a senior. Walls was great vs. Purdue and in November/El Paso.

When a player of that caliber is your third-best cornerback, a shut-down pass defense usually follows, and the 2010 Irish secondary allowed just five touchdown tosses over the regular season's final nine games.

Can sophomore Lo Wood approach that effort as a first-year player? Can Wood or converted wide receiver Bennett Jackson carry a full load should Gray or Blanton fall even briefly to injury? The Irish endured injuries aplenty last fall, but the cornerback trio remained relatively intact. It needs to again in 2011, and Wood must take an accelerated step in his development to replace a reliable 5th-year corner in Walls.

Certainty of my prediction: 60 percent – injury, total yards, and a few more touchdown tosses will likely, in total, bring down the final ranking.
Devil's advocate: Why might the pass efficiency defense be better? Because the Notre Dame pass rush, will be.

Tackles-for-loss:

  • 2009 (Tackles-for-loss): #48
  • 2010 (Tackles-for-loss): #77
  • 2011 Prediction/Why?: Better, because it can't be much worse…

The pieces fit – Ten of Notre Dame's 13 opponents posted more tackles-for-loss than did the Irish last fall (only Army, Navy, and Michigan State were worse). In 2009, Bob Diaco's Cincinnati defense ranked No. 3 nationally with a whopping 110 TFL. His first Irish group finished with 69.5 last season.

One cause of the team's dearth of TFL's was a middling pass rush (discussed below), though the greater culprit was likely the early, intermittent failures of the team's outside ‘backers to secure and thus, attack, the edge. Regardless, a #77 ranking is exceptionally low, even for a team that didn't rely on the blitz, rather focusing on gap integrity.

But that was the still-learning Irish of Year One. In Year Two, eight starters and 14 of the top 18 defenders return. The training wheels will be off when Diaco's group its the field next September.
Certainty of my prediction: 95 percent

Sacks:

  • 2009 (Sacks): #89
  • 2010 (Sacks): #54
  • 2011 Prediction/Why?: Better

The Prince – Notre Dame finished with 27 sacks last season despite finishing five games without a QB takedown, and another (Miami) with just one sack over the course of the contest. Consistency off the edge eluded the team's outside ‘backers, especially drop end Kerry Neal (1.5 sacks and just 7 in 50 career games). Neal's replacement in 2011 is one of the team's best pass-rushing threats, sophomore ‘backer Prince Shembo. For the first time since Diaco spoke of the position's need to "mirror" each other, the Cat and the Dog 'backers possess traits capable of that end: Darius Fleming and Shembo can both bring the heat on any given play.

So too can senior Ethan Johnson, freshman Aaron Lynch, and, potentially, Lynch's incoming classmate Stephon Tuitt and fellow early enrollee Ishaq Williams. And I still hold out hope that Steve Filer will develop in that niche role during his final season.

The 2011 team won't approach the program record of 42 sacks set in 1996, but for the first time since Victor Abiamiri and Derek Landri exited campus in 2006, 30-plus seems a reasonable goal.
Certainty of my prediction: 80 percent


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