Notebook: Can Notre Dame defense continue its early run of success?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Somewhat lost in Notre Dame's quarterback intrigue this week are the strides Mike Elko's defense has made in his return to Atlantic Coast Conference country.

The 21st-ranked Irish (4-1) head to Chapel Hill, N.C., to face North Carolina (1-4) Saturday with a five-game streak of holding its opponents to 20 points or fewer under first-year defensive coordinator. The last two times the Irish started the season in such fashion, though, wasn’t as long ago as one might think and had dramatically different outcomes in game 6.

In 2012, the Irish outlasted Stanford, 20-13, in overtime in game 6. The first team to get into the 20s against ND that season was Pitt in game 9, but it took the Panthers multiple overtimes to get there in an eventual 29-26 triple-OT victory for the Irish.

The only other team to get past 20 that season, did so by the second quarter. Alabama knocked the Irish from their No. 1 perch down to a final AP ranking of No. 4 with a 42-14 rout in the BCS National Championship Game.

In 2014, the first five games of the Brian VanGorder Era, the opposing point totals went as follows in games 1-5: 17, 0, 14, 15, and 14.

Game 6 was against North Carolina. The Tar Heels made the Irish defense play in space and confounded their substitution patterns on defense with their uptempo offense.

UNC led 36-35 going into the fourth quarter before the Irish rallied for a 50-43 win. North Carolina ran 84 plays and racked up 510 yards in offense, with quarterback Marquise Williams accounting for 432 of them.

It was the beginning of a very slow end to the VanGorder Era. The rest of the ND schedule took pieces from North Carolina’s success. The point totals for the balance of the 2014 season — for an admittedly bang-up defense — went: 31, 39, 55, 43, 31, 49, 28.

Over the final 25 games of VanGorder’s 30-game run as ND’s defensive coordinator, the Irish held their opponents to 20 points or fewer just five times.

As for Elko’s history with North Carolina, even though his former school — Wake Forest — and the Tar Heels are in the same conference (ACC), they only played once in his three years with the Demon Deacons, because the teams are in different divisions.

In 2015, North Carolina hung 50 on Elko’s defense in a game so lopsided, Marquise Williams’ backup, Mitch Trubisky, actually got to mop up at QB in the 50-14 romp. Yes, that Mitch Trubisky.

In 14 seasons as a defensive coordinator Elko’s defenses have yielded 50 or more points just four other times: twice at Bowling Green (West Virginia 55 in 2011 and Michigan 65 in 2010) and twice at Hofstra (56 to James Madison in 2008 and 54 to Marshall in 2006).

That North Carolina team, incidentally, finished ninth in scoring offense in 2015 at 40.7 points a game. The current rendition checks in at No. 75 in scoring offense (28.4).

Adams update

Starting running back Josh Adams gave a positive health report Wednesday, four days after coming out of the Miami (Ohio) game early, as a precaution, with some ankle soreness.

With one caveat.

“Allergies are acting up a little bit this morning, so that's never too good,” Adams said Wednesday, “but took some Vitamin C. Other than that, body is feeling very well.”

The 6-foot-2, 225-pound junior was limited to eight carries in the 52-17 romp last Saturday. Still, he amassed 159 rushing yards and two TDs, and heads to North Carolina as the nation’s No. 7 rusher (131.6 yards per game).

“You've always got that after-the-game bruises, so it's kind of normal,” Adams said. “Just going through the week progressing, trying to get ready for the next game.”

He’s also running into the ND history books. Adams enters the North Carolina game with 2,426 career rushing yards, 21 behind Cierre Wood for No. 7 on the Irish career list. Jerome Heavens is 256 ahead of him at No. 6 (2,682).

Adams’ position coach, Autry Denson, tops the Irish career list with 4,318 yards.

Notre Dame's William Fuller, right, gets brought down by North Carolina's Travis Hughes during the last game between ND and the Tar Heels on Oct. 11, 2014. The teams combined for 93 points in that game at Notre Dame Stadium. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)