On the surface, the raw numbers are a bit intimidating, although perhaps not so much for Notre Dame’s No. 17 total offense (498.9 ypg.) and No. 18 scoring offense (38.3 ppg.).
With five regular-season games remaining, there is not a single Notre Dame opponent that ranks worse than 35th in the country in total defense or lower than 46th in scoring defense.
That would seem to indicate that the Irish offense might be knocked down a peg or two down the final stretch of the season. Or does it?
Let’s take a closer look at the defenses of Temple, Pittsburgh, Wake Forest, Boston College and Stanford, in particular, the opponents against which they’ve racked up such impressive defensive numbers.
Temple (7-0): No. 8 scoring defense (14.6 ppg.), No. 14 total defense (307.7)
The Owls took a huge step forward last year under head coach Matt Rhule and defensive coordinator Phil Snow. After allowing 29.8 points per game in 2013, that number dipped down to 17.5 last year while reducing the total yards per game by 127.
The numbers are even better this year with linebacker Tyler Matakevich, rush end Nate D. Smith and defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis leading the charge. Temple has allowed just 102 points/11 touchdowns in seven games.
But Temple has beaten up on some horrendous offenses this season while surrendering 557 yards to the No. 7 total offense in the country – Cincinnati. Four of Temple’s seven opponents rank 103rd or lower in total offense – Central Florida (No. 128), Tulane (No. 122), Penn State (No. 110) and Charlotte (No. 103) -- with five opponents 94th or lower in scoring offense.
Make no mistake, this is a fundamentally sound defense. But the Owls have built up their numbers against six non-Power 5 conference opponents, and the one they faced is one of the worst in all of college football.
Pittsburgh (6-1): No. 16 total defense (308.3 ypg.), No. 33 scoring defense (21.6 ppg.)
The Panthers have lived the charmed life in ACC play, winning all four of their conference games by four (at Virginia Tech), seven (Virginia), three (at Georgia Tech) and three (at Syracuse) points. The Panthers have scored less than 30 points in five of their six games versus FBS opponents.
But the defense has been sound with the No. 15 passing defense while allowing just a 53.5 completion percentage. Pittsburgh is tied for 14th nationally in sacks. Their only loss of the season came at Iowa on a 57-yard game-winning field goal as time expired.
Pittsburgh has beaten up on some average-to-below-average offenses, none of which are higher than 51st nationally in total offense or 32nd in scoring offense. Georgia Tech rushed for 376 yards on 40 carries – a whopping 9.4 yards per carry – yet the Panthers still pulled out the victory on a last-minute field goal.
Bottom line: First-year head coach Pat Narduzzi built some of the great college football defenses at Michigan State and likely will do the same at Pittsburgh over time. Look for points to come grudgingly for the Irish on the first weekend of November.
Wake Forest (3-5): No. 35 total defense (348.6 ypg.), No. 46 scoring defense (23.4 ppg.)
Some pretty impressive numbers for a Demon Deacons program that has difficulty attracting top-notch talent, particularly on the defensive side of the football (other than defensive backs).
North Carolina, Indiana, Florida State and North Carolina State all are among the upper portion of the FBS in total offense, and Syracuse joins them in scoring offense. Yet Wake Forest has managed to remain among the top 30 percent in total defense.
Wake’s real problem is on the offensive side of the football where they haven’t averaged better than 18.5 points per game since 2011, including a mere 14.8 last season with just 40 yards rushing per game and an incomprehensible 1.3 yards per snap.
In losses to Indiana, Florida State and North Carolina State this year, the Demon Deacons held them to 31, 24 and 35 points, but couldn’t score enough to pull out a victory. Wake Forest needed a shutout to defeat Boston College while managing just three points.
You can run on Wake Forest’s defense, which explains some of the positive numbers against the pass. This is a formidable unit, although probably not one that’s going to hold Notre Dame down unless the Irish have a road hangover from trips to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
Boston College (3-5): No. 2 total defense (217.4 ypg.), No. 3 scoring defense (11.8 ppg.)
Imagine holding eight opponents to 94 points/10 touchdowns, and yet falling to 3-5 overall and 0-5 in conference play. That’s where head coach Steve Addazio and the Eagles find themselves with a sledgehammer defense and an offense that hasn’t reached 20 points in the last six games.
Three of the last four losses have been by a combined eight points with a 9-7 loss at Duke, a 3-0 setback to Wake Forest and this past weekend’s 17-14 loss to Louisville in which the Eagles managed just 79 yards total offense while surrendering 14 tackles for loss, including seven sacks.
It should be interesting when the Irish and Eagles square off, considering the respective strengths of the two teams. Boston College currently has the No. 1 rush defense in the country, allowing just 62.1 yards per game and 1.92 yards per carry while giving up just three rushing scores. The Eagles have 77 tackles for loss, including four players with double digits and eight with at least 4.5. Notre Dame is 15th nationally in rushing offense at 234.5 yards per game and 5.95 yards per carry with 19 rushing scores.
It should be noted that Boston College has done some of its best work against four teams with top 55 total offenses – Clemson, Northern Illinois, Florida State and Duke. The Eagles probably won’t have enough offensively to out-score the Irish, but this will be a great challenge for Notre Dame’s highly-touted line.
Stanford (6-1): No. 32 total defense (339.3 ypg.), No. 32 scoring defense (20.6 ppg.)
It’s a bit more difficult to rank among the nation’s best defenses when you’re a member of the Pac 12 where eight teams average at least 34.7 points per game, including Arizona at 41.7. Among its last five games, the Cardinal has squared off against USC (No. 13 scoring offense), Arizona (No. 8) and UCLA (No. 31).
(It also should be noted that four of Stanford’s first seven opponents – Northwestern, Central Florida, Oregon State and Washington – rank in the bottom 10 percent offensively.)
The Cardinal defense is one of just 32 units in the land allowing less than three touchdowns (21.0) points per game while only 21 teams nationally have allowed less than the 17 touchdowns surrendered by Stanford.
Former Cardinal head coach Jim Harbaugh not only established a punishing rushing attack while on The Farm, he also inspired a strong defense that didn’t allow more than 104 yards rushing the previous four seasons while holding opponents under 20 points per game in four of the last five seasons. From 2012-14, Stanford averaged an incredible 49 sacks per campaign.
With a Stanford offense scoring at a pace (37.4 ppg.) comparable to Notre Dame’s (38.3), the final game of the ’15 regular season just may decide who fills one of the four spots in the college football playoff.