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Notre Dame Defense Will Need to Break Tendencies to Slow Clemson

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“Bend but don’t break” has been great against the lesser offenses on the Irish schedule; the same approach invites a blowout against Clemson.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame Spring Game Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

I am guilty. I am guilty of only getting up for big games and going through the motions with the boring regular season snooze-fest ACC games and overmatched Will Muschamp teams. I am guilty of overlooking Notre Dame and dreaming of another marquee matchup against Alabama or — if Oklahoma outscores them — a beatdown against Oklahoma for another title. But the College Football Playoff awakened in me the metaphorical hurricane which embodies our last meeting against Notre Dame. I am amped and I am angry.

This rediscovered emotion combined with an interesting case study in new Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea afforded me the necessary desire to look deeper into a defense which is improved statistically despite a supposed downgrade at coordinator. It led to pressing questions regarding what changed, and an overarching question which needs answering: is this defense as good as the numbers suggest, or will film reveal merely a good unit made to appear better by un-athletic and unimaginative offenses?

The Notre Dame defense has undergone a series of philosophical overhauls in the coordinator turnover from Brian VanGorder, to Mike Elko, and now finally to Lea. Unlike his predecessors, Lea is far more conservative when it comes to pressure and rarely sends even 5 into the pass rush. They’ll stick in a 4-3 on standard downs and bring in an Indy dime package on 3rd and longs. Against Clemson’s 11 personnel, the Irish will throw in a nickel package, but usually with the 3rd corner split out wide, and bring a safety into the box to deter the run threat. This will lead to chances downfield, likely for Amari Rodgers and Hunter Renfrow since you have to expect the single high safety will shade toward Tee Higgins or Justyn Ross.

The biggest difference in this Irish defense is the rather vanilla conservatism; I was surprised at the lack of exotic pressures, coverages, and line stunts I saw from the unit throughout the year. Like we saw when we scouted Texas A&M, Elko was far more creative and intent on disguising his coverages. More often than not, we’ll see soft cover 4 and man cover 2 on passing downs and tight cover 3 and man cover 1 on expected runs. It’s this lack of creativity and disguises which expose Notre Dame against not only the first balanced offense they will have faced, but one which brings far superior athleticism.

With a good defensive line and a solid pairing in cornerback Julian Love and free safety Alohi Gilman, the Irish have held up well through the air, and haven’t needed to send extra pressure to be successful. Credit Lea where it’s due, though: this Irish defense is largely without a glaring weakness, and aggressive scheming isn’t needed when you don’t need to mask deficiencies. The caveat is they have not yet been challenged; the Irish have yet to face a dynamic or balanced offense, and Clemson’s (statistically) modest passing offense will be the best they have faced all season.

Remember the last time we saw Pittsburgh? The same offense which threw for 8 TOTAL YARDS against Clemson? They managed a bit more success against Notre Dame, but their methodical approach only warranted cover 1 and cover 3 shells, with strong safety Jalen Elliott in the box against all but 10 personnel looks:

And in obvious passing situations, we most often found an undisguised man cover 2:

At least there was a line stunt here.

Even with the game on the line late in the 4th quarter, Lea didn’t disguise a basic cover 4; this couldn’t be more different from the defense under Elko, who almost never showed you his actual deep coverage. Pickett saw cover 4 pre-snap here, knew the dig route would be open when the coverage didn’t change, and he hit it in rhythm:

This will have to change to contain Clemson’s offense even if Notre Dame shuts down the run; Clemson has proven it can win with Trevor Lawrence when the run game isn’t there. For all the talk of Lawrence still being a freshman, Notre Dame will have to force him to make freshman mistakes. This will require more than the occasional stunt from merely the front four.

However, to write off this pass defense’s success based on poor opposing offenses would be throwing stones in a glass house, and the Irish dominance should not be discounted merely for opposition. A deeper look will in fact reveal that the most glaring mismatch in this contest — outside of Clemson’s defensive line versus any offensive line — can be found with Clemson’s wide receivers against the Irish secondary, namely the lack of an effective nickel corner.

The nickel position itself has been a frustration all year, bouncing between 3 different defenders before settling (it would seem) on Nick Coleman for the Cotton Bowl after a disastrous performance by Tariq Bracy against USC, who not insignificantly enjoyed a monster night through the air thanks to its speed advantage:

A rare pressure look with a Will bullet in front of man cover 1. Demoted nickel corner Bracy is beaten and can’t recover. Since Notre Dame MUST keep Love on Higgins or Ross, there’s a mismatch to be found with whomever ND throws at nickel corner; Higgins and Ross on the field together should prove deadly.

Combining the lack of creativity (thus far, at least) with relative question marks in the back end outside of Love and Gilman leads me to expect more success for Clemson through the air than on the ground, despite the outstanding numbers in pass defense. It’s the defensive line play which has afforded Lea the luxury to play conservatively on the back end, and the tight numbers reflect it, but film tells me those numbers are something of a mirage; just like Clemson’s defensive line has masked a secondary which was exposed by our respective season finales against the two USCs’ receiver groups.

So what ultimately changed from Elko to Lea? A more experienced defense took fewer risks thanks to strong defensive line play and feasted on poor offenses. So while I contend this defense is not as good as it seems, I do feel it mirrors Clemson’s to an extent: the pass defense is the weakness despite statistics which suggest otherwise, and the run defense is surprisingly stingy thanks to line havoc but especially solid linebacker play.

And so Lea is faced with this conundrum: break his tendencies and try to pressure Lawrence, or rely on the same safe but consistent play which allowed the Irish to feast on lesser offenses? Increased pressure may expose Notre Dame to the mismatches out wide, but the conventional “bend but don’t break” defense the Irish have employed will allow a more talented offense to toy with a defense and ultimately rack up the snap count. This is the most interesting question in tomorrow’s Cotton Bowl, and I expect it will be the main factor in deciding the outcome.

On the other side of the ball, this is a very poor matchup for the Irish offense even without having to face Dexter Lawrence. Notre Dame lacks explosiveness and very much needs to remain on schedule with efficiency to maintain success on offense. Despite Ian Book’s efficient numbers, he does not possess a strong arm and Notre Dame is far better on the ground than through the air. Trouble is, nobody has run against Clemson, much less sustained scoring drives; Syracuse and Duke found fleeting success early; Texas A&M and South Carolina hit on busts through the air. The Irish do not have the athleticism or explosiveness outside to burn this defense (there is size but little speed), and any consistent success through the air outside of fades or quick passes likely comes down the seams to tight end Alize Mack.

But will Mack find openings without a run game to open things up for him? Will Clemson need to devote help outside against Miles Boykin? With a dominant front seven in run defense, and Trayvon Mullen and AJ Terrell each possessing adequate size and superior speed, I think the answer to each question is no. The indoor conditions and slick turf will only exacerbate Notre Dame’s speed disadvantage. Unless Book has a career day like Jake Bentley AND the Irish completely stuff the run, I don’t think Notre Dame covers the spread unless Trevor Lawrence is simply overwhelmed. Given what we have — or in this case haven’t — seen from a vanilla Irish defense, it’s foolish to think the freshman will be overwhelmed simply by the moment. Lea will have to call more aggressively to keep Clemson from pulling away.

Clemson 35, Notre Dame 17