Tough Sledding

Prediction #17 examines Bob Diaco's defense and its season-end success in the shadow of its own goal.

The unit's late run of success, ongoing as Notre Dame enters 2011, was unexpected. In retrospect, such drastic improvement is difficult to fathom.

In Week Eight of his first season as the Irish defensive coordinator, Bob Diaco's defense put forth one of the worst efforts at the program in 50 years.

Navy, the nation's No. 6 rushing unit, bulldozed through and danced around the Notre Dame rush defense, gaining a laughable 367 yards and four touchdowns. The Midshipmen's triple-option attacked riddled Notre Dame's front seven, averaging a staggering 6.1 yards per rush while converting 10 of its 13 third-down situations.

A 35-17 loss to Navy on October 23 marked the on-field low point of Notre Dame's 2010 season, and its rush defense was chief among several culprits.

But a funny thing happened on the way to irrelevance: over the next five contests, the running lanes closed.

Tulsa, possessing the nation's No. 15 rushing offense, never breeched the Irish goal line. Neither did Utah (62), Army (8), or Miami (30).

Among Notre Dame's final five opponents, only USC (#23) managed a rushing touchdown, and it took the Trojans four snaps to travel one-yard.

Notre Dame allowed 15 rushing touchdowns last season. Opponents won't approach that total this season, which brings us to the next prediction in our pre-season series…

Prediction #17 – Fewer than 10 rushing scores allowed

After its dismal effort in the New Meadowlands, Diaco's group surrendered just 28 first downs in the season's final 76 third-down situations. They allowed 3.4 yards-per-rush over the last five games; just 2.9 during the 4-0 finish.

With most of its primary players back and promising front seven reinforcements now in reserve, Diaco's unit has the potential to rank as the best rush defense at the program since 2002, and could join a quartet over the previous 25 seasons to allow fewer than 10 rushing scores over the course of the schedule.

Indicator of Success

Below is a list of rushing touchdowns allowed by the Irish since the school's most recent national championship season. Not surprising, the 1988 and '89 Irish – winners of 23 consecutive games – boasted the program's toughest rushing defenses of the last 25 seasons. (Bowl statistics included when applicable.):

  • 2010 (13 games): 26 total touchdowns allowed (15 rushing) – After an inconsistent first two months, Bob Diaco's defense served as a team strength over the final five contests. (Final Record: 8-5)

  • 2009 (12 games): 35 total touchdowns allowed (18 rushing) – A disjointed defensive staff doomed a talented but youthful group of defenders. (Final Record: 6-6)
  • 2008 (13 games): 33 total touchdowns allowed (18 rushing) – Jon Tenuta's first defense kept the Irish in 12 of 13 matchups – the exception an annihilation at USC. (Final Record: 7-6)
  • 2007 (12 games): 39 total touchdowns allowed (20 rushing) – A paper-thin, worn-out defense had no chance to overcome the program's worst offense. Final Record: 3-9)
  • 2006 (13 games): 35 total touchdowns allowed (11 rushing) – A bounce-back effort by the front seven was doomed by a lack of speed and developed playmakers in the secondary. (Final Record: 10-3)
  • 2005 (12 games): 35 total touchdowns allowed (17 rushing) – Charlie Weis' first team won with a spectacular passing attack. (Final Record: 9-3)

  • 2004 (12 games): 29 total touchdowns allowed (6 rushing) – Justin Tuck, Derek Landri, and a host of veterans closed rushing lanes throughout the season but the secondary ranked among the program's worst. (Final Record: 6-6)
  • 2003 (12 games): 35 total touchdowns allowed (19 rushing) – The beginning of the end for the once-proud Notre Dame's defense. (Final Record: 5-7)
  • 2002 (13 games): 23 total touchdowns allowed (11 rushing) – A heroic defense wore down late as attrition at defensive tackle, linebacker, and safety took its toll over the final two weeks. The team allowed just 14 touchdowns over the first 11 contests. (Final Record: 10-3)

  • 2001 (11 games): 23 total touchdowns allowed (10 rushing) – The team's defensive excellence is long forgotten due to a horrendous offense that produced just 19 total touchdowns for Bob Davie's final season. (Final Record: 5-6)
  • 2000 (12 games): 33 total touchdowns allowed (15 rushing) – The Fiesta Bowl qualifiers won ugly, but the defense's deep frontline played solid football for the entire 11-game regular season (Final Record: 9-3)
  • 1999 (12 games): 34 total touchdowns allowed (13 rushing) – A leaky secondary doomed the explosive Irish (Final Record: 5-7)
  • 1998 (12 games): 26 total touchdowns allowed (11 rushing) – Davie's defense – aided by coordinator Greg Mattison – brought the Irish back to the brink of a BCS berth in the organization's inaugural season. (Final Record: 9-3)
  • 1997 (13 games): 30 total touchdowns allowed (24 rushing) – The transition from Lou Holtz to Bob Davie was felt on both sides of scrimmage with the Irish managing just two more offensive scores than their collective opponents. (Final Record: 7-6)

  • 1996 (11 games): 23 total touchdowns allowed (14 rushing) – The Irish were statistically superb, allowing just 191 points while scoring 407, but Holtz's final season ended in disappointment (Final Record: 8-3)
  • 1995 (12 games): 31 total touchdowns allowed (11 rushing) – A huge bounced-back effort by the front seven was keyed by future draft picks Renaldo Wynn, Kory Minor, Kinnon Tatum, Paul Grasmanis, Oliver Gibson, and Bert Berry. (Final Record: 9-3)
  • 1994 (12 games): 33 total touchdowns allowed (23 rushing) – New defensive coordinator Bob Davie struggled following an alarming two-season exodus of defensive talent. (Final Record: 6-5-1)
  • 1993 (12 games): 29 total touchdowns allowed (11 rushing) – Rick Minter's second and final season in control of the defense helped land him the head coaching gig at Cincinnati. (Final Record: 11-1)
  • 1992 (12 games): 20 total touchdowns allowed (9 rushing) – The beginning of a two-year run of dominant play by the Irish front four. The '92 defense ranked among the program's best during a 7-game winning streak to end the season. (Final Record: 10-1-1)
  • 1991 (13 games): 35 total touchdowns allowed (21 rushing) – New defensive coordinator Gary Darnell struggled mightily in his second season with a reloading, young Irish defense. (Final Record: 10-3)
  • 1990 (12 games): 31 total touchdowns allowed (19 rushing) – The team's 19 rushing touchdowns allowed (and 31 overall) is a statistical outlier as the Irish played for part of the national championship in the Orange Bowl. (Final Record: 9-3)
  • 1989 (13 games): 24 total touchdowns allowed (6 rushing) – An impressive effort vs. nine bowl participants on the schedule. (Final Record: 12-1)
  • 1988 (12 games): 16 total touchdowns allowed (7 rushing) – The total number allowed (16) ranks as most impressive on the list. (Final Record: 12-0)

Potential Pitfalls

Unlike the bulk of defenses Notre Dame has employed over the past decade, the 2011 group's strength appears to lie in its front seven – a group that the staff believes contains at least 10 quality starters and at least six additional reserves that could play a key role.

As well, the unit thrived late last season in quick-change situations. That is: with its back to the goal, Diaco's defense rose to the occasion, continually holding opposing offenses to field goals, regardless of the drive's starting position.

What then could prove this prediction false?

  1. Run-heavy foes: Michigan, Michigan State, Air Force, Navy, Boston College, and Stanford will all earn a living rushing the football this season. USC could as well. The Irish will be challenged to hold those seven foes under an aggregate 10 rushing scores, much less its entire 12-game slate.
  2. Manti Te'o: His absence. Without Te'o in the middle, the number will be closer to 20 than 10 rushing scores allowed.
  3. Second-unit swoon: Much is expected of promising backups Aaron Lynch, Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt, and Kona Schwenke. Of the group, only Schwenke has played in a college football game. If the Irish defense is to reach its potential, the quartet of youngsters must be as advertised, even in a relief role.

Prediction #16 – Under 20 Again

Prediction #15 – Touchdown Trio

Prediction #14 – Slow Play

Prediction #13 – Breaking Vegas

Prediction #12 – Three for Three?

Prediction #11 – Eifert to score 5 or more

Prediction #10 – 13 under 30

Prediction #9 – MSU as the highest scoring game

Prediction #8 – Roaring 20s

Prediction #7 – September Slip

Prediction #6 – 17-season streak ends

Prediction #5 – Better, Worse, Why? (2010-11 statistical comparison)

Better, Worse, Why? Part II

Prediction #4 – Blanton to lead team in picks

Prediction #3 – The Irish will lose a home game

Prediction #2 – Fleming and Johnson join the Top 5

Prediction #1 – Wood will score 10 TD Top Stories