Over the next three weeks, Irisheyes.com will examine the 2011 football season, reviewing the myriad mixed results (rush defense vs. pass defense; 3rd Quarter performance vs. 4th Quarter efforts, slow starts in losses, etc.) while attempting to offer answers whenever possible.
Our first detailed look is at the vastly improved Irish rush defense, one that ranked among the nation's five best at keeping opponents from its end zone.
Protect This LineNotre Dame's defense allowed five more touchdowns in 2011 than did defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's first Irish crew from 2010 (31 vs. 26). The squad's rush defense wasn't to blame for the regression.
Only four teams allowed fewer rushing scores than Notre Dame's paltry total of eight: national champion Alabama (a ridiculous 3), national runner-up LSU (7) and both TCU and Utah (7 apiece).
Remarkably, of the eight rushing scores the Irish allowed, four occurred when Notre Dame led by at least 31 points. The remaining quartet occurred in competitive game situations, but just one was scored by an opposing running back (three quarterbacks scored vs. the Irish when the game was tight, including a fumble recovery score by Michigan's Denard Robinson as detailed below.)
The Irish defense allowed 3.78 yards per carry, lowest at the program since 2004 (more on that below) and more important, held 10 of 12 foes below their season rushing averages.
Top Efforts, Irish Rush DefenseAs usual, each opponent's overall offensive talent and ability weighed heavily in our rankings. For example, Army was the nation's No. 1 rushing outfit, but stopping the Cadets from controlling a game on the ground would not be as impressive as limiting Oregon, a much more talented, explosive and balanced offensive unit.
- Michigan State (Game 3): The Spartans averaged just 3.95 yards per carry last fall but the team's trio of runners keyed an attack that produced 54 offensive touchdowns. MSU was dominated by Notre Dame's rush defense, limited to a season-low 1.2 yards per carry – just 29 yards on 21 attempts without a rushing touchdown in a 31-13 Irish victory.
- Michigan (Game Two): The country's 13th best rushing attack – one that averaged 5.15 yards per carry and scored 31 touchdowns on the ground – was held in check by the Irish defense, gaining just 114 yards, five rushing first downs, and scoring a lone rushing touchdown that was actually a fumble return score by quarterback Denard Robinson. In 2010, Michigan rumbled for 288 rushing yards and three touchdowns on the ground vs. the Irish. The Wolverines didn't approach those numbers in their miracle victory last season.
- September Road Swing: Road victories by Notre Dame at Pittsburgh (Week Four) and Purdue (Week Five) saw the Irish limit their hosts to 2.7 and 3.1 yards per rush, respectively. Neither scored a touchdown and Purdue finished with just five rushing first downs vs. the Notre Dame defense. The Boilermakers finished 33rd nationally in rushing offense but could muster nothing vs. a Notre Dame front playing without two key components (Ethan Johnson and Stephon Tuitt) during the contest.
- Navy (Game Eight): The Midshipmen boasted the nation's No. 4 ranked rushing attack and averaged 5.40 yards per pop with 34 rushing scores. Notre Dame limited Navy to 3.9 yards per carry and just one rushing touchdown – the score occurring when the Irish led 49-7 late in the final period.
- South Florida (Season Opener): The Bulls finished 31st nationally in rushing offense (23 spots ahead of Notre Dame) and averaged 4.62 yards per carry. But September 3 in South Bend offered no such indication with the Irish holding USF to just 3.0 yards per carry and no rushing scores in a 23-20 defeat. South Florida grabbed a 16-0 lead before the Irish could breathe, but the Bulls mounted just one significant drive thereafter.
- Stanford (Season Finale): The Irish defensive front seven held the Stanford offensive juggernaut to its third-lowest rushing total of the season, 4.7 yards per carry on 42 attempts, while keeping Cardinal runners from the end zone. That effort resulted in Stanford's lowest point total of the year as well, albeit in a comfortable 28-14 home victory.
- Wake Forest (Game Nine): The Demon Deacons hit for just 3.0 yards per carry on 37 rushing attempts in a 24-17 Irish win. Running back Josh Harris was one of four players, and the lone running back, to score a competitive rushing touchdown vs. the Irish over the 13-game slate – his two-yard plunge to give the hosts a 17-10 lead late in the first half.
- Florida State (Bowl Game): The Seminoles were technically the worst rushing offense the Irish faced last fall, but limiting a team with a host of athletes and mobile quarterback E.J. Manuel to 41 rushing yards on 29 carries, all while keeping them out of the end zone on the ground, should have been enough to give Notre Dame its third straight bowl victory. (We'll examine the passing breakdowns vs. the Seminoles in Part II of this series.)
- Boston College (Game 11): Backup quarterback Josh Bordner hit pay dirt on a two-yard, second quarter dive. In doing so he became the fourth and final player (third quarterback) to score vs. Notre Dame on the ground in a competitive contest. (Michigan's Denard Robinson and Air Force's Tim Jefferson did as well with the latter's score cutting Notre Dame's lead to 21-9 in the second quarter of what became an epic rout.) The Eagles were held to two rushing first downs and just 80 hard-to-watch yards in an ugly 16-14 Irish Senior Day win.
Other Rush Defense NotablesFour of the eight rushing scores against the Irish defense last season occurred in November, though two were by Maryland in Game 10, and both were scored when the Irish led 38-7; then 45-14 (one scored by a QB; one by a RB).
Notre Dame limited Maryland to 77 rushing yards through three quarters, taking a 38-7 lead in the process before the Irish backups yielded 68 rushing yards and two scores in the fourth quarter.
Aside from Denard Robinson's oft-referenced fumble recovery score, only Air Force QB Tim Jefferson scored a meaningful rushing touchdown vs. Notre Dame's stout front through the season's first two months/eight games.
Air Force running back Josh Lee notched a rushing score in Game Six (the first of the season by a non-quarterback) with 0:33 remaining in Notre Dame's 59-33 win over the Falcons. Rounding out the opponents' season scoring production on the ground is backup Navy quarterback Jarvis Cummings, who scored at the 9:25 mark of the fourth quarter in a 56-14 Irish win over the Midshipmen.
Notre Dame's 13 opponents scored a collective 304 rushing touchdowns in 2011 – just eight occurred vs. Bob Diaco's Irish defense.
Giving GroundSouth Florida's lone offensive touchdown march in the season-opener included back-to-back rushing first downs with 29 yards on six consecutive carries. The effort served as the only chink the ND's rush defense over the course of the taxing afternoon (and evening).
By our estimation, USC and Air Force had the most ground success among 13 Irish foes last fall with the Trojans work earning our vote as the most damaging/impressive performance.
USC hit its season average (4.9 yards per carry) but a whopping 219 rushing yards kept the Irish defense off balance for the majority of the disappointing evening (the Trojans did not score a rushing touchdown in their 31-17 victory.)
Air Force pitched and sprinted its way to 360 yards (6.05 per carry) and two rushing scores–one occurring when the game was in doubt as noted above. The Falcons gained 44 percent of their rushing yards after the Irish had taken a 42-16 lead.
Though the Irish handled Stanford's offense as well as any Cardinal foe last fall, it should be noted Stanford's rushing attack accounted for 134 rushing yards on 23 first half carries to take control of the season-ending contest. The Irish defense responded with an outstanding second half but the damage had been levied in a 21-0 Cardinal lead at intermission.
Note: Part II of our look at the Irish scoring defense from 2011 will examine the disappointing pass defense and its 23 touchdowns allowed through the air in 13 games.