After five games, and equaling last season’s win total, your 2017 Fighting Irish are definitely running things the right way. Whether you look at the running game through five games or the defense against the run, The Irish are much better than they were last season. But you knew that just from watching the games, right? Notre Dame has so far looked the part, right? The statistics definitely back that up.
At this point in 2016, The Irish were 2-3 and had most recently defeated Syracuse, the first game of the post-Brian VanGorder era. Notre Dame’s defense last season, whether against the run or the pass, was shambolic. Against the run, which is the focus of this post, four (Texas, MSU, Duke, Syracuse) of the first five opponents cracked the hundred yard mark and Nevada, ND’s only win under BVG in 2016, managed 99 yards on the ground. Three opponents (Texas, MSU, Duke) broke two hundred. Notre Dame’s five opponents ran for a total of 930 yards and 13 touchdowns. They attempted 220 running plays.
At this point in 2017, things are much different. No opponent has cracked the two hundred yard mark and all told, Notre Dame has given up 721 yards on the ground, 209 fewer yards as compared to last season. Our opponents have attempted 189 running plays, 31 fewer than last season. Only Georgia managed a rushing touchdown. That’s right, Irish-fan, Notre Dame has given up just one rushing touchdown this season.
On offense, it’s another Tale of Two Seasons. The Irish are currently the seventh-ranked rushing offense in the country. Notre Dame has attempted 211 running plays, with a high of 51 against Boston College. Yardage-wise, Notre Dame has 1,507 rushing yards, which is sixth-best nationally. The Irish are averaging 301.4 yards per game on the ground, and have managed some downright gaudy numbers. They’ve gone for 422 yards (Temple), 515 (Boston College), and 333 (Miami (Ohio)). Notre Dame has twenty rushing touchdowns, too.
In 2016, through five games, The Irish had attempted 191 running plays, for just 838 yards. In fact, Notre Dame only managed 1,960 yards on the ground all last season, just 453 yards more than where they are today. Notre Dame scored eleven rushing touchdowns through five games.
Notre Dame’s success on the ground can be explained in a number of ways. Defensively, everything is clicking for Coach Elko’s charges. The rover position, the D-line, all of it is resulting in more sacks, more pressures, more disruption, and more interceptions. On offense, Notre Dame is breaking huge chunk-runs, sure, but it’s also feeding the machine more. Against Boston College and most recently against Miami-Ohio, Brandon Wimbush kept the ball on the ground to find success where and when he could not through the air. He has also featured in designed run plays.
Passing offenses and opportunities are screwy. Compare Clemson in 2015 to NC State in 2016. In one weather event, Clemson, The Irish threw thirty-five times for 321 yards and two touchdowns. In the other, NC State, Notre Dame threw twenty-six times for just fifty-four yards. This season, Wimbush has flashed some brilliance, e.g. almost the whole Michigan State game, but he is clearly still developing. This season, Notre Dame is relying on the run to push them up the polls and to enter the national conversation.