PHILADELPHIA — What wins out Saturday night at Lincoln Financial Field, a Notre Dame offense that’s carved up a host of Power Five opponents or a Temple defense that’s suffocated Penn State and a bunch of middling Group of Five teams?
The known qualities of Temple’s defense would seem to present a daunting task for Notre Dame’s offense. The Owls are, among FBS teams, eighth in scoring defense (14.6 points per game), tenth in yards per play (4.38), eighth in sacks per game (3.29), tenth in opponent third down conversion percentage (28.7) and sixth in opponent red zone touchdown percentage (35.0).
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This is, objectively, a very good defense. It’s designed to not allow big plays, but still generates pressure on the quarterback and has forced a dozen turnovers. Coach Matt Rhule and defensive coordinator Phil Snow have built a group over the last three years that has Notre Dame’s respect.
“They just are solid in everything that they do, fundamentally sound,” coach Brian Kelly said. “They can bring pressures. They played very good zone. Two-deep, three-deep, man, combination coverages. Just really well-coached football team.”
But this is a defense that hasn’t faced a whole lot of good offenses. While the Owls’ defense ranks sixth in Football Outsiders’ S&P+, the opponents it faced in seven undefeated games have offensive S&P+ rankings of 63rd (Penn State), 46th (Cincinnati), 66th (UMass), 127th (Charlotte), 120th (Tulane), 126th (UCF) and 54th (East Carolina).
Meanwhile, Notre Dame compiled its pre-bye offensive success against a slightly tougher slate of defenses, though only Clemson’s unit ranks in the S&P+ top 40 (Brent Venables’ Tigers, which held Notre Dame to a season-low 22 points, rank 4th). The Irish have leaned on a strong offensive line, running back C.J. Prosise and wide receiver Will Fuller to make plays in clutch situations against Virginia, USC and the like. While Temple's offense doesn't inspire a ton of confidence, Notre Dame's identity is with those explosive playmakers who will have to find a way to solve an Owls' defense that hasn't been gouged much this year.
"We know we have to continue to win, and Temple is doing a real good job right now," Fuller said. "They are 7-0 and their defensive statistics are off the charts, top 25 in every category. This is a real important game for us and we know it — not just this game but all five games left. We have to win these five games, so we are just going to take it one game at a time and see what happens from there."
The idea Notre Dame-Temple would have major College Football Playoff/New Year's Six bowl implications would've seemed ludicrous before the season. But ESPN's College GameDay is here, nestled in front of Independence Hall in anticipation of a nationally-televised primetime game on Halloween. Texas, Georgia Tech and USC haven't looked like resume-building wins, with those powerful/recently successful programs all lagging this year.
A win over Temple, though, could be viewed favorably by the College Football Playoff selection committee as Notre Dame embarks on a five-game stretch that'll define its season Saturday night.
"You look at the schedule before the season this year, and you don't necessarily circle Temple," quarterback DeShone Kizer said. "But the way that things are set up and the way that Notre Dame plays football, somehow, some way, something like this ends up happening where you take a team that you didn't expect to be as good as they are, one of the most talented teams in the country, playing against an undefeated team, a sold-out crowd in an NFL environment. This is the reason you come to Notre Dame."