Irish run defense prepared for toughest challenge yet

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Irish run defense prepared for toughest challenge yet

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.

RELATED: Alabama offense holds Irish 'D' in high esteem

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."

Saturday on CSN: Bradley vs. Nevada; Illinois State vs. New Mexico

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USA TODAY

Saturday on CSN: Bradley vs. Nevada; Illinois State vs. New Mexico

CSN will have two quality college basketball matchups on Saturday as two Mountain West/Missouri Valley Challenge games will be featured live.

Bradley (4-3) has Nevada (6-2) in town for a 7 p.m. game Saturday on CSN while Illinois State (3-2) will host New Mexico (5-2) at 7 p.m. Saturday on CSN+.

The Braves have alternated wins and losses all season as they hope to build momentum off of a road win over Eastern Illinois.

Freshman guard Darrell Brown paces Bradley at 15.3 points per game on 48 percent three-point shooting while junior guard JoJo McGlaston is putting up 12.7 points and 4.6 rebounds per contest.

Nevada enters this one winning four of their last five games as senior guard Marcus Marshall is averaging 20.0 points and 3.9 assists per game. Sophomore forward Cameron Oliver has been generating some pro buzz as he's averaging 16.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game while shooting 44 percent from three-point range.

In the second contest, Illinois State is hoping for a key non-conference win against a quality opponent. Senior forward Deontae Hawkins is doing some solid damage as he's averaging 16.0 points and 7.6 rebounds per game while junior forward MiKyle McIntosh is at 14.2 points and 7.2 rebounds a game.

Proviso East product Paris Lee is also having a good year at guard for Illinois State.

New Mexico is led by a former area product as Homewood-Flossmoor graduate Tim Williams is averaging 19.0 points and 6.9 rebounds per game for the Lobos. Junior guard Elijah Brown, the son of former NBA coach Mike Brown, is also playing well for New Mexico as he's putting up 15.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game.

Preview: Northern Iowa takes on George Mason tonight on CSN+

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USA TODAY

Preview: Northern Iowa takes on George Mason tonight on CSN+

Northern Iowa looks to snap a two-game losing streak as they host George Mason tonight. You can catch this game live on CSN+ at 7 p.m.

The Panthers (3-2) have lost both games to Xavier as Northern Iowa matched up with the top-25 team for the title in the Tire Pros Invitational in Orlando before losing to them on the road less than a week later.

Northern Iowa does own some solid wins over Oklahoma and Arizona State as they're led by senior Jeremy Morgan, who is averaging 16.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game -- which all lead the team. 

Junior forward Klint Carlson has also been strong for the Panthers as he's put up 12.2 points per game while shooting 44 percent from three-point range.

George Mason (3-2) has won three consecutive games -- with two of those wins coming by four points or less. The Patriots haven't played anyone as good as Northern Iowa yet as they beat Kent State, Bradley and James Madison.