Notre Dame kicks off against Stanford this weekend in the regular season finale which could very well be a make-or-break game for Irish playoff hopes. No doubt our fans' biggest worry is stopping Heisman candidate and sophomore Christian McCaffrey out of the Cardinal backfield.
Through 11 games, McCaffrey has 1,546 rushing yards (2nd nationally), 416 receiving yards, 2,807 all-purpose yards (1st nationally), and 11 total touchdowns. The only reason he doesn't have more touchdowns is because 5th-year senior Remound Wright has been taking the bulk of the goal line carries this season.
Is this a cause for concern? Of course it is!
However, if there are two aspects to Notre Dame's run defense that I think are undeniable it's that they continue to give up a couple annoying long runs (and sometimes REALLY long runs) and quarterback runs have become a larger problem late in the season.
Let's take a look at the numbers. Below I've taken out the sack yardage from the quarterbacks and didn't bother charting Georgia Tech and Navy as they are triple option teams and not all that pertinent to this discussion anymore:
Sometimes research can you surprise you but these stats don't do that. In general, the Irish have done a good job limiting opposing teams' running backs. Giving up 98 yards per game to running backs is pretty solid. Heading into Saturday the only running back to eclipse the 100-yard mark was UMass' Marquis Young who only carried the ball 5 times but had that ludicrous 83-yard touchdown scamper. Curse those long runs!
Another way to look at Notre Dame bottling up running backs is to point out some of the averages among the individual players. In total, 28 different running backs have carried the ball against the Irish this year and 17 have averaged under 4 yards per carry.
An additional 4 more backs were held between 4 and 5 yards per carry.
That leaves 7 running backs who have averaged over 5 yards per carry--none of whom carried the ball 10 times in any individual game against Notre Dame. This is a double-edged sword though because it points to that pesky issue of giving up long runs. Those 7 backs combined for just 32 carries yet the gained 357 yards at 11.1 per rush. That's 40% of the total yards given up to running backs in just 16.2% of the carries over 9 games.
Young's 83-yard run for UMass mentioned above, plus USC's Ronald Jones (65 yards) and Justin Davis' (32 yards) runs were just killers for the averages. That's half of those 357 yards in just 3 carries.
That's terrible but that also means on the other 165 running back carries Notre Dame is only giving up 3.2 per rush. This is a public service announcement for "If we could just limit the big plays by a play or two the run defense would be doing quite well."
It may be just coincidence or maybe it is opponents scouting this defense but the rushing from quarterbacks over the last 4 games has been dominating the headlines.
Temple, Pitt, Wake Forest, and Boston College running backs combined for 90 carries for 297 yards at 3.3 per rush. If that was the only damage on the ground the Notre Dame defense would be flying high right now.
But then you look at the quarterbacks and they've run the ball 36 times for an absurd 377 yards at 10.4 per rush. Even with Boston College QB Jeff Smith's 80-yard touchdown run removed that's still 8.4 yards per carry surrendered to quarterbacks in recent weeks.
This is why I'm curious to see how we go about defending Stanford. Since week 3 McCaffrey has gained at least 100 yards rushing in every Stanford game and he's a huge threat in the passing game too. But if we put so much focus on him, and maybe even do a good job limiting his impact, are we opening ourselves up to some brutal Kevin Hogan runs to keep crucial drives alive?
Say what you will about Hogan's passing abilities but he's been a complete pest using his feet for most of his career. With sacks removed he's gained 356 yards in 2015 on only 48 carries--good for a 7.4 average. Against Notre Dame over the last 2 seasons he's gained 93 yards on 11 carries--good for 8.4 per rush.
With the way McCaffrey has been playing this season keeping him under 100 yards rushing will be a chore. In recent weeks the Irish have been also allowing huge swaths of turf to open up for quarterback runs so keep an eye out on the damage Hogan will do with his feet. This is not the game where we need Hogan rushing for 50 or 60 yards and the Cardinal pushing towards 200 total on the ground.
For example, take a look at this late run from Boston College last week.
Full disclosure, this was a 3rd down on Boston College's last series in a situation where Notre Dame was clearly looking for the knockout game-ending sack. Further, we won't expect Stanford to spread the field all that often, especially on early downs, so situations like this would be quite rare this weekend.
Nevertheless, this is how we've been getting gashed by quarterback runs. The safeties are deep, the defensive line is 5 yards up-field with no gap control, Jaylon gets pulled out of the box covering a receiver, and it's Joe Schmidt alone in the middle of the field forced to defend a pitch to the running back, and then he isn't quick enough to chase down John Fadule before the first down marker.
If there's any cause for hope it's this: Notre Dame absolutely ate Stanford's lunch in the run game last year. Jaylon and Schmidt had among their best games of their careers (combined 21 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 sack, 2 hurries) and held Cardinal running backs to just 62 yards on 19 carries. Also helping matters is that Stanford's fullback Daniel Marx is out for the rest of the year with a lower leg injury and he'll be replaced by senior walk-on Chris Harrell.
What's more this is largely the same offensive line for Stanford as last year. However, the pieces on both sides of the ball aren't quite the same as last year. Notre Dame is without nose guard Jarron Jones and will need Daniel Cage to play one of his best games coming off a concussion which forced him to miss the last two contests. James Onwualu at linebacker and KeiVarae Russell at corner will also be missed as strong in-the-box tacklers.
For the Cardinal, it's been Christian McCaffrey who has made all the difference. The offensive line no doubt has gelled and improved but last year Remound Wright was too plodding and ineffective. Stanford's stuff rate (23rd to 9th nationally) and power down rate (23rd to 4th) were good last year and are among the best this season but it's in opportunity rate where the Cardinal have improved dramatically from 103rd last year to 39th this year.
That's largely thanks to McCaffrey who has remarkable patience combined with vision and the ability to accelerate through the smallest of holes in order to pick up positive yardage. A key this Saturday will be bringing a safety closer to the line of scrimmage to sell out against the run, keep Jaylon in the middle of the field, and cross your fingers the Irish give McCaffrey little room to run while protecting themselves against any Hogan scampers through the middle of the field.