Offense for flash, defense for cash

When ranking among the nation’s top 12 in scoring defense, which the Irish have done 15 times, Notre Dame has won more than 90 percent of its games.

Great offenses win a lot of games. Some of the best Irish squads ever scored at prolific rates.

Frank Leahy’s great teams of the late ‘40s were among the nation’s top scoring teams. So, too, were most of Ara Parseghian’s 1960s and ‘70s teams. Lou Holtz’s ground game smashed opponents into submission in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

In seasons in which Notre Dame has ranked among the nation’s top 12 in scoring offense – it has happened 20 times – the Irish are 185-23-8 (.875). Yet in seven of those 20 seasons, the Irish lost at least twice, including three seasons of three losses.

Notre Dame teams with one of the best defenses in the country have had more success than the offensive-driven squads.

Of the 15 Irish teams that have completed a season among the nation’s top 12 scoring defenses, the combined record is 147-14-4 (.903). Only four of those teams had as many as two losses, including just one (the 2002 team and its incredibly anemic offense) that lost three times.

Of Notre Dame’s first nine teams to reach double digits in victories, eight of those squads ranked among the nation’s top 20 scoring defenses, including seven among the top 12.

Why isn’t Notre Dame one of four teams in the playoffs this holiday season? Red zone offense and red zone defense are the main culprits, particularly in Notre Dame’s 38-36 loss to Stanford in the regular-season finale.

So, too, are the long touchdowns drives the Irish surrender – an average of more than two per game of 70 yards plus – and the penchant for allowing big plays. (Notre Dame is tied for 97th nationally in 50-yard plays allowed with nine. Ironically, Ohio State, Notre Dame’s Fiesta Bowl opponent, has the same amount.)

For a majority of the last two seasons, when the Irish have needed a defensive stop to win the game or secure a victory, the defense has been unable to do it.

• Leading by two touchdowns with 2:19 remaining, the Irish allowed a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to North Carolina in the 50-43 victory last October.
• A week later, Notre Dame surrendered three second-half touchdowns to Florida State, including a 70-yard touchdown drive, a 75-yard touchdown drive, and another 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive midway through the fourth quarter in the 31-27 defeat.
• After pulling to within seven (38-31) with 6:37 left in the game, the defense allowed a five-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to Arizona State amidst a 17-0 run (one TD on an interception return) and a 55-31 final verdict.
• Leading by 11 in the fourth quarter, the defense allowed a nine-play, 73-yard touchdown drive, a two-point conversion and a nine-play, 44-yard field goal drive to send the game into overtime against Northwestern, which the Wildcats won.
• Two third-quarter touchdowns gave the Irish a 20-17 lead over Louisville, only to see the defense allow an eight-play, 81-yard touchdown drive and a six-play, 80-yard touchdown drive en route to a 31-28 loss to Louisville.

The pattern has continued in 2015, although the prolific nature of the DeShone Kizer-led offense has bailed out the defense a few times.

• Leading Virginia by 12 with 54 seconds left in the third quarter, the Cavaliers went on a six-play, 75-yard touchdown drive and a 13-play, 80-yard touchdown drive before Kizer displayed his first dose of magic.
• Leading 17-10 at Temple, the defense surrendered a 14-play, 78-yard touchdown drive and an eight-play, 42-yard field-goal drive before Kizer led the game-winning score.
• The defense allowed late touchdown drives to Georgia Tech, UMass, Pittsburgh and Boston College before surrendering five touchdown drives of 70 yards or more to Stanford, including the go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth quarter to complete a nine-play, 74-yard drive.

Notre Dame teams simply don’t play in the most elite games when the defense doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain.

The greatest Notre Dame teams have either been led by the defense or an offensive-defensive combination that was nearly unbeatable.

Among the nine teams in Irish history that finished the season ranked among the nation’s top 12 in scoring offense and scoring defense – the 1946, 1947, 1949, 1964, 1966, 1970, 1973, 1977 and 1989 teams -- Notre Dame is a combined 89-4-2 (.947).

You need offense and defense to be truly elite; you need defense to have a legitimate chance to be elite.


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