Since so much attention has been heaped on Notre Dame’s offense—and rightfully so—I figured I’d get this game week started by examining how the Irish defense has developed into a top-20 unit. The Irish have been able to erase some of the problems plaguing them last season. Oh, and uh, they have yet to allow an opponent to score more than 20 points in a game. That helps.
Last season the Irish defense was unremarkable in a lot of ways, but absolutely terrible on passing plays. That group ranked 86th in passing S&P+, 116th in success rate (efficiency), and 59th in isolated points per play allowed. Their rankings in those categories this season: 4th, 6th, and 25th.
They have considerably improved their sack rate on pass plays, which is one of the benefits of an improved rush defense: opponents more frequently pushed behind schedule or thrown into a one-dimensional mode of attack are easier to exploit.
And Notre Dame has been playing from ahead a lot this season, too. The Irish haven’t won by fewer than 20 points in any of their six victories, so they’ve had a bunch of teams forced to throw the ball a lot in catch-up mode. Opponents are averaging 39 pass attempts per game and have 273 total attempts through seven games; opponents threw the ball 331 times all of last season.
Overall, the Irish defense has been significantly more efficient, moving into the top 10 in success rate this year after finishing 71st a year ago. They have also been far better at closing out opposing drives, allowing a meager 3.4 points per opponent drive inside the Irish 40. The national average on drives inside the 40 is 4.4 points.
Notre Dame has managed to make opponents more predictable this season and it has been opportunistic about that, no only in terms of overall performance down-to-down, but in terms of takeaways: the Irish rank eighth nationally with 17 turnovers forced. (NC State, as you may know, has committed only three turnovers all year.)
The Irish have a stacked, productive group at linebacker, including the team’s top four tacklers, to go with their fast-maturing secondary. This ain’t gonna be easy.
NC State’s offense has enough balance and an offensive line skilled enough to give the Irish problems; State’s strengths are overall efficiency and finishing inside the 40—no doubt the latter will be a little extra important this weekend.