Notre Dame football: Bruising Irish offer Spread Age’s missing element

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — College football has eras just like the Earth itself.

You know this place was once all covered in ice. The Ice Age, they called it. The dinosaurs roamed the globe during the Jurassic Age. The Pleistocene Age came about some 300,000 years ago, when modern humans began to evolve in Africa.

But enough history, let’s get back to college football. It’s why you’re here and it’s why I’m here too. College football once had an era without passing and face guards. We’ll call it the Bloodied Age, because most players never left a game without blood somewhere—gushing from their arm, stained on their pants, matted in their hair. The sport then shifted heavily toward a specific ground-and-pound scheme: the Option Age. And don’t forget the days of the I-formation Age (one of my favorites).

For the last decade or so, college football—and football in general—has found a new system of offense, one that includes five receivers, relentless shotgun snaps, no huddles and bonanzas of points and yards.

The Spread Age has changed the game forever. It has changed defenses, too. And it has recently made the game’s greatest active coach, Nick Saban, a defensive guru himself, acknowledge that a great defense can no longer beat a great offense.

And then there’s Notre Dame. They run the ball, they play great defense and they’re undefeated.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback Ian Book (12) with the ball in the first quarter at Kenan Memorial Stadium.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback Ian Book hands off the ball at Kenan Memorial Stadium.

Here on Friday night, in the clear and cool skies of North Carolina, the Irish displayed a style of ball that we (well, me at least) long for. Bruising. Bullish. Bashing.

Coach Brian Kelly has himself a club that plays a battering ram style of football—both offensively and defensively—from a bygone era. The result, thus far, has been very good. After a 31-17 win over North Carolina, the No. 2-ranked Irish are 9-0, one win away from playing for the ACC championship and three wins away from advancing to the College Football Playoff.

I know what you’re thinking. Notre Dame. Big game. Blowout.

We’ve seen it before. The Irish, in fact, are 2-18 in their last 20 games against top-5 teams. They advanced to the 2012 national title only to get smashed, 42-14, by Alabama. In 2018, Clemson whipped them 30-3 in a CFP semifinal.

And maybe this Notre Dame team is en route to the same end result. Maybe they don’t even get there. Maybe a Trevor Lawrence-quarterbacked Clemson dominates the Irish in the ACC title game. Maybe.

Or maybe not. Maybe ND’s bruising running game (14th nationally) and salty defense (9th nationally) can, in fact, suffocate the Spread Age offenses of college football’s powerhouses.

North Carolina is no powerhouse, but the Tar Heels are one of the most explosive offenses in the nation.

What the Irish did defensively on Friday was spectacular. They slowed one of the country’s most potent offenses to its lowest yardage and points total of the season.

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