Don’t look now, but the Notre Dame defense is showing signs of life. Yes, the same Fighting Irish defense that allowed 33.5 points a game en route to a 1-3 start to the season is actually now actually showing a pulse.
The improvements since the dismissal of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder have probably seemed subtle since the team is still just 2-2 in the post-BVG era, but the improvement has actually been fairly dramatic under new coordinator Greg Hudson.
For starters, the Irish have dramatically cut the points allowed from 33.5 in those first four contests to their current 27.6 season average. They surrendered their most points in a 50-33 win over Syracuse the week after VanGorder’s firing, but have yielded a 22.5 average in the past four games.
Two of the biggest reasons for the drop in opponent scoring have been better run defense and more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Notre Dame was allowing 201 rushing yards a game over the first month of 2016, but lopped that almost in half (119.25/game) in their four games in October. The worst mark was 176 yards in a loss to Stanford on Oct. 15, but the Irish bounced-back by yielding just 18 yards on the ground in last week’s win over Miami.
The Irish are currently giving up just 160.1 yards a game on the ground for the season, but that number will likely inflate pretty dramatically over the next two weeks. This weekend’s opponent – Navy – ranks 5th in the nation (296.6 ypg), while next week’s foe – Army – is No. 2 (342.6) in rushing.
Yards per carry is also down from 4.4 to currently 3.7 per-attempt. That number has allowed ND to go from allowing opponents to convert at a 42-percent clip on 3rd down to 37-percent for the season. Opposing offenses converted just 31-percent (19 of 20) in four October games.
Meanwhile, pressure up front, which was virtually non-existent in VanGorder’s scheme, has improved each week. Notre Dame had just one sack through four games, but they have brought opposing quarterbacks down 10 times since then.
The secondary, a glaring weakness early in the season, has also made big strides – most notably by all but eliminating “explosive” big plays.
Opposing offenses totaled seven plays of 35-plus yards in the first month of the season, but they have had just two such plays in the past four games. Both of those plays – 72 and 36-yard pass completions – came in the first half of the Syracuse game. That means the Fighting Irish have allowed zero plays of 35 or more yards in the past seven halves of football.
A less consistent offense over the past month has masked the overall improvements of the defense, but the growth has been there defensively for the Fighting Irish.