Last week we hit on the blueprint of sorts, a required component if you will, to beating the Alabama Crimson Tide. Now, after a huge win over the Oklahoma Sooners, we give the Notre Dame Fighting Irish the same treatment.
The window for beating Nick Saban's team is quite small. It requires "the stars to align" when it comes to a team's scheme and talent makeup. For Notre Dame, that window is not much bigger; having a great front-seven will do that for you. Passing the ball over 50 times a game doesn't get it done; Oklahoma proved that. Running the ball is like beating your head against the wall but that will at least get you close, provided you have success against one of the nation's best front-sevens.
Notre Dame is still a bit of a question mark on offense. We know they want to run the ball and take advantage of timely passing. They want to lean on you and they want to wear you down. It's worked for the most part; sprinkle in Tommy Rees saving the day to get them this far undefeated.
While the 'Bama blueprint is fairly specific, the outline for how to beat this Notre Dame squad is a bit more broad:
You have to out-muscle this team.
It doesn't matter if you try to get cute on the ground or get cute through the air, odds are you're not going to beat this Notre Dame squad. Both sides of the ball are nasty, mean, love-to-win-ugly groups that would rather punch you in the face than dance around you.
On defense, that means you'll have to stop the run. When Notre Dame gets to pick when they pass the ball, they're a dangerous team. The opposition has to dictate when the Irish pass, first by stopping the run and then by putting Brian Kelly's team in third-and-long, passing downs. Double-up Tyler Eifert and tackle well and you'll be on your way.
However, the real issue beating the Irish is how you conquer their defense. A secondary that is definitely capable and a front-seven that would fit into the SEC quite well. Cute, sideline-to-sideline football is not going to beat the Irish. You have to man up, show some gumption and be ready to go 60 minutes in the ring. You have to be ready to take some body blows, get a bloody nose, a swollen eye and a busted lip.
More importantly, you have to be willing to do all of those things, and then be able to triumph in the end. You have to have enough in the tank to get up off the mat and deliver a kill shot.
Enough ideals, let's talk reality. To beat this Notre Dame defense you have to run the ball. That means having an offensive line that can block the Irish front-seven. You've got to be able to run the Power-O, load and log-block their defensive ends or rush backers and get bodies to Carlo Calabrese, Dan Fox and Manti Te'o to keep them occupied.
That has to happen every single play. Not just a series in the game. Not just a few plays here and there. But, it has to happen all of the time. Sure, you might not have early success running the ball. That's okay. Keep at it. The worst thing you can do is pull an Oklahoma and totally abandon the run game. If you don't keep pounding the run, it's never going to work and quitting on the rushing attack just lets the front-seven get well-acquainted with your quarterback.
To go along with a dedication to a legitimate, punishing rushing attack, you have to be able to do things vertically. Sideline-to-sideline passing is cute. However, the Irish secondary is a gang of great tacklers and ultimately there is little success to be had by dinking and dunking around the field; hoping to break a big one. Rather, the real area of opportunity is through pushing the ball downfield.
Make Zeke Motta and Matthias Farley have to get off the hash, out of playing the run game, and into covering deep halves and thirds of the football field. Test Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell down the field with 50-50 balls that let your receivers make plays.
Are 50-50 balls high percentage plays? No. But, they have the big-play ability—when combined with a punishing running game—that can put points on the board and put the pressure on the Irish offense.
Much like the mobile quarterback with the vertical passing game to beat Alabama, this recipe of power running and field-stretching passes to beat Notre Dame is not a common mix in the college football world. Some teams run with power, yet lack the quarterback play or the threats to move the ball down the field through the air. Other teams have the vertical threats but no dedication to the run game from a power standpoint.
The point is, it's not going to be easy to beat Notre Dame. Many folks, myself included, thought a focused passing attack could do the trick. That was very far from the truth and the Irish secondary stepped up to prove everyone wrong.
Now, we know it is going to take a mix of run and pass. More importantly, it is going to take a rushing effort that is similar to Notre Dame's and a commitment to beating Notre Dame at their own game.