Heading into the Champs Sports Bowl, the underdog Notre Dame Fighting Irish have an opportunity to turn the tables on Florida State and blow out the Seminoles.
Florida State is favored by three points in this game, mostly because of its defense. The Seminoles rank second in the nation in rushing defense, tenth in sacks, fourth in scoring defense and sixth in total defense. Most of this greatness is driven by an elite defensive line, led by Brandon Jenkins and Bjeorn Werner.
Without Braxston Cave at center, it’s hard to have faith in an Irish offensive line that was shredded by Stanford in the last game of the season. Notre Dame struggled to deal with twists and stunts from the defensive line; both Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix were under siege for most of the game. The Cardinal defensive line is good, but Florida State ranks higher in both run defense and sacks.
Last week, I wrote about the ways that Brian Kelly’s game plan can neutralize the Seminoles pass rush, but no matter what scheme changes Notre Dame makes, Florida State’s pressure is going to be an issue.
Notre Dame isn’t going to score 50 in this game, and that’s no surprise. If the Irish are going to win big in the Champs Sports Bowl, they’ll have to hold down the Florida State offense.
It seems like a tall task for a defense that has been pounded by good offenses this season, but fortunately for the Irish, their D actually matches up really well with Florida State’s offense.
Notre Dame’s defensive front certainly isn’t as imposing as the Seminoles’, but with some time to get healthy, Aaron Lynch, Darius Fleming, Stephon Tuitt and (finally) Ethan Johnson can bring it on the pass rush.
Having a couple more able-bodied defensive linemen will also give Bob Diaco the flexibility to change up his defensive alignments. Add that to the fact that Florida State’s offensive line has given up 35 sacks this season, which ranks last in the ACC and in 106th in the nation, and the Irish have a big opportunity to flip the script.
The biggest weakness for Notre Dame’s front has been lack of awareness. With so many young players getting playing time up front, the Irish struggle to balance between stopping the run and rushing the passer. Lynch, specifically, has flourished in obvious passing situations, but can be burned by teams that use his penetration against him in the running game.
That won’t be a problem in the Champs Sports Bowl.
The Seminoles don’t often try to run the ball, but when they do, they don’t usually find much success. Florida State ranks 90th in the FBS in rushing attempts and 100th in per-carry average.
Over the entire regular season, Florida State was held under 100 yards rushing five times and rushed for 30 yards or fewer on three occasions. Devonta Freeman, the ‘Noles leading rusher, accumulated just 531 yards in 11 games.
Their second-leading ball-carrier, quarterback E.J. Manuel, averaged less than two yards per carry on his 99 totes and topped 50 yards rushing in a game just once.
Notre Dame’s rush defense has been weaker in the second half of the schedule, but for the season, the Irish are slightly better than average, ranking a respectable 57th in the nation.
Florida State has played against four above average (ranked 60th or better out of 120 FBS teams) rush defenses this season. In those games, the Seminoles have gained more than 3.5 yards per carry exactly once.
Against Florida State, the Notre Dame front can fully commit to rushing the passer, knowing that the ‘Noles aren’t capable of burning them with the ground game. Lynch and co. can play the run on their way to the quarterback, allowing Notre Dame’s normally aggressive safeties to feel more comfortable sitting back in coverage.
With pressure from the front line and seven or eight players dropping back in coverage, Florida State will struggle to move the ball.
No matter how well its defensive front plays, Florida State’s offense isn’t going to score enough to run away and hide.
The Seminoles’ defensive rankings are intimidating, but taking a closer look, they looked pretty ordinary when facing good offenses. Oklahoma scored 23 points in Tallahassee, and Clemson and Wake Forest both dropped 35 when Florida State went on the road.
If Notre Dame can figure out a way to adjust to FSU’s pressure, and I think they can, the Irish are more than capable of scoring in the 20s in this game. If they can find a way to crack 30 points, they might just win this game by two touchdowns.