Irish run defense prepared for toughest challenge yet

Irish run defense prepared for toughest challenge yet
January 3, 2013, 7:22 pm
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Only two players scored rushing touchdowns against Notre Dame during the regular season. Alabama scored at least two rushing touchdowns in 10 of its 14 games this year.

So something's going to give when Eddie Lacy, T.J. Yeldon and a strong offensive line meet Notre Dame's front seven on Monday.

Pittsburgh's Ray Graham was one of the few running backs to have some sustained success against Notre Dame's defense this year -- and, not by coincidence, his team came closer than any other Irish opponent to winning in 2012. Graham averaged 7.2 yards per carry on Nov. 3, with a 55-yard run to open the game setting the tone for Notre Dame's worst defensive performance of the season.

"The rushes they had came off missed tackles or things like that," safety Matthias Farley said. "Just to make the tackles and be more assignment-sound across the board."

Farley was a main culprit in those missed tackles, with one on Graham's 55-yard run and another on a 16-yard touchdown run by the Pittsburgh back. But it wasn't all on Farley -- Pittsburgh's offensive line gave Notre Dame's front seven some different looks, and a lot of Graham's success was paved by keeping Manti Te'o out of the defensive equation.

"He's the leader and the heart of that defense," Lacy observed. "If you can somehow get him out of his game or something like that, I think we have a pretty good chance of being successful."

That's not to say the rest of Notre Dame's defense is populated with a bunch of slouches. In particular, the Barrett Jones-Louis Nix matchup will be key in either carving out yards for Lacy and Yeldon or allowing Notre Dame's defense to limit Alabama's ground attack.

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Against Pittsburgh, though, part of Notre Dame's problem was a lack of effort. Players thought they didn't have to play their best to beat Pittsburgh, and that's a lesson they nearly learned the hard way.

"We're not good enough to overlook a team," defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore said.

Effort won't be an issue Monday with the stakes as high as they've been in nearly a quarter century for Notre Dame. But Pittsburgh showed, at least for about 30 minutes, that there is a way to neutralize Te'o and the Irish defense. And that was done with an offensive line nowhere near as talented as the one possessed by Alabama.

"They're the finest collection tackle to tackle, group of players that we've faced so far," defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. " The backs are really the battery of that team, the battery of that offense, which is the battery of that team. But they're facilitated by the offensive line. The offensive line is really the marquee position group of that pretty marquee offense."

If Alabama's running backs are chewing up yards, it'll open up play-action passes for A.J. McCarron, who's often been lethal throwing on fakes. If Alabama can't sustain success on the ground, though, their offense is beatable against a good defense.

"This proves our biggest challenge yet," safety Zeke Motta said. "Both those running backs are great running backs, and they hit the hole with intensity and they're aggressive, and they're patient, too. It'll be a good challenge for us, and I'm looking forward to that."