SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Everyone’s ears perked up during Brian Kelly’s Tuesday press conference when he said Texas’ offense ran at a speed that was “North Carolina fast.”
A quick refresher: Notre Dame’s defense played well in Brian VanGorder’s first five games (12 points allowed per game) coaching it in 2014 until North Carolina rolled into South Bend and ran its offense at a frenetic pace. The Tarheels’ up-tempo attack ran 84 plays and ripped off 510 yards, exposing a hole in VanGorder’s complicated, sub-package-heavy defense.
The 43 points North Carolina put up turned out to be the beginning of an ugly trend that year, as Notre Dame allowed on average 40.25 points per game in its final eight games. Of course, not every offense ran at North Carolina’s tempo, and Notre Dame’s defensive depth was severely depleted down the stretch.
But the Tarheels put a book out on VanGorder’s defense: Run at a fast enough pace, and it can lead to more mistakes and fewer sub packages.
“I remember UNC two years ago ran, like, 100 plays,” defensive end Isaac Rochell said, only slightly exaggerating that number. “Last year we faced it. So it’s something we’re used to and something we’re conditioned for. We work a lot of tempo scenarios against our offense since they’re pretty high-tempo, so it’s nothing new.”
Texas’ offense is going to try to operate as fast as it can no matter who quarterbacks it — coach Charlie Strong won’t reveal if senior Tyrone Swoopes or freshman Shane Buechele will start on Sunday. First-year Longhorns offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert ran an offense at Tulsa last year that, among teams that only played 13 games, ran the third-most plays at the FBS level behind Baylor and Texas Tech. Gilbert’s offense averaged 83 plays per game.
“This is fast, fast tempo,” Kelly said. “We've worked hard on that to prepare our defense for the kind of tempo they're going to see.”
Tempo doesn’t guarantee success, though. Tulsa’s offense was explosive (28th in IsoPPP) but inefficient (81st in success rate) and struggled to run the ball (92nd in rushing S&P+). Gilbert has completely different personnel at Texas, so that offensive profile wont necessarily be the case this year in Austin. But it’s a starting point for figuring out what kind of up-tempo offense the Longhorns will run out against VanGorder’s defense.
Notre Dame’s defense has been burned by explosive plays in the past, and a good way to create havoc in an opposing defense is to run a fast-paced offense. Communication becomes key to stopping that kind of an offense, as does trusting that your other 10 teammates will know their jobs.
“Everything has to be on point,” linebacker James Onwualu said. “Sometimes the corner’s making a call, and then has to make a call to you, and you now have to make that call so they don’t have to do double communication.
“… If they snap the ball, you gotta know, this is what the corner would’ve called, this is what Nyles (Morgan) would’ve called and let’s roll.”
Part of the problem during that North Carolina game in 2014 was that players didn’t grasp VanGorder’s complex defense yet. Now that it’s in Year 3, the hope is not only will the communication be better, but that all 11 guys will understand their assignments on every play.
If that’s the case, even if Notre Dame can’t roll in sub packages with the kind of frequency it would like, the Irish defense should find a way to get off the field.
Rochell talked about having the right mentality to face an up-tempo offense, too, which is something he and Notre Dame’s upperclassmen — plenty of whom played in that North Carolina game — have worked to instill in their teammates heading into the Texas game. Cornerback Cole Luke, who had a key interception against North Carolina, explained that mindset.
“We have a saying that’s just like, if you want to hurry up, then you can hurry up in your four downs and get off the field,” Luke said. “If they want to go fast, that’s fine. We’re used to that. We play a lot of teams who have a hurry-up offense, a tempo offense. If you want to run four plays as fast as you want, it doesn’t really matter, because after those four plays it’s going to be in the offense’s hands.”