Defense helps boost Notre Dame football in the polls to No. 3

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

In a wonky season so far, when most of the college football world resembles the normally defenseless Big 12, Clark Lea is a big reason Notre Dame continues to climb in the national polls.

After leading the Irish to a No. 13 national standing in scoring defense in 2018 and No. 12 last season, Lea has Notre Dame sitting at No. 4 (11.5 ppg) in this third year as ND’s defensive coordinator, after a 12-7 victory over Louisville on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

Only three Irish teams in the past 50 years have finished in the top four nationally in scoring defense, and those three teams (3rd in 1973, 3rd in 1988 and 2nd in 2012) combined for two national titles and one total loss among them.

The current Notre Dame squad (4-0, 3-0 ACC) moved up one spot in both major polls Sunday, to No. 3 after its 13th successive regular-season victory against ACC competition.

But now things get a little more interesting when it comes to poll math. On Saturday, the Big Ten and Mountain West conferences join the 77 FBS teams that have already played at least one game.

Ohio State (0-0) is the highest ranked among those teams at No. 5 in the AP poll. But eight of the 62 members of the nationwide voting panel are omitting teams from their ballot that have not yet opened their seasons.

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Thus, if the Buckeyes beat Nebraska impressively Saturday in their opener, OSU will overtake the Irish if all eight previous abstainers put Ohio State No. 8 or higher on their ballots and the voting trends for Notre Dame remain the same.

Admittedly ND’s stiffest challenges for its highly rated defense are ahead of it on the schedule, but not necessarily this week. Pitt (3-3, 2-3 ACC) particularly struggles in the running game, ranking 70th among the 77 FBS teams in rush offense (107.0) and 72nd in yards per carry (2.89).

The Panthers rushed for 22 yards on 26 carries Saturday as they lost their third straight game, 31-19 at Miami, playing without senior starting QB Kenny Pickett (ankle injury). Arizona State transfer Joey Yellen, a redshirt freshman, filled in.

Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi was non-committal after the game as to whether Pickett would play against the Irish.

It will be Notre Dame’s first road game of the season in a stretch of four away from Notre Dame Stadium in a five-game stretch. Since Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf recently lifted gathering restrictions, it won't be the first game the Irish have played this season with no fans due to COVID-19 restrictions. The Pittsburgh athletic department announced Tuesday that 5,500 fans will be allowed to take in the game at Heinz Field after Pitt's first four home game were played in an empty stadium.

Pitt’s strength is its run defense, No. 1 in the nation at 61.5 yards per game allowed. Notre Dame features the nation’s sixth-leading rusher in sophomore Kyren Williams (121.5 ypg) and No. 7 rushing attack as a team (261.0).

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea has the Irish among the nation's leaders in scoring defense.

No. 3 NOTRE DAME (4-0) vs. PITTSBURGH (3-3)

Kickoff: Saturday at 3:30 p.m. EDT

Where: Heinz Field; Pittsburgh


Radio: WSBT (AM 960, FM 96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)

Line: Notre Dame by 9 1/2