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Miami’s biggest weakness (run defense) is Notre Dame’s biggest strength (Josh Adams)

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The Canes run defense has been shaky. And now a Heisman contender comes to town.

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday’s Podcast, Ain’t Played Nobody, guest host Richard Johnson and I were talking about how much Hard Rock Stadium appeared to be rocking last Saturday night during Miami’s 28-10 win over Virginia Tech.

The crowd was kinetic — every shot captured almost frenetic movement — and very loud. And fans were rewarded with maybe the Hurricanes’ best performance of 2017, a surprisingly easy defeat of a good squad. It was a scene that you couldn’t help but compare to the legendary Orange Bowl crowds of Miami’s “The U” heyday.

And that was merely Virginia Tech. Notre Dame comes to town this Saturday night for what could be a College Football Playoff eliminator. Does Hard Rock have one more level to hit?

Richard: Miami is an event town. You have to put on an event. People will show up, and it will be whatever you want it to be. Notre Dame-Miami, 8 [p.m. ET], under the lights, and Miami’s undefeated? That’s an event, folks. That place is going to be beside itself on Saturday night.

The way that stadium was renovated, with the canopies, it’s gonna trap some sound, it’s gonna be really, really loud. ... You can say the atmosphere of The U — and the Orange Bowl and the things that made Miami so special — is back. It will be back on Saturday night against Notre Dame.

Bill: The crowd’s gonna be amazing. Until Josh Adams runs for two 70-yard touchdowns in the first quarter.

Josh Adams: your Saturday night trump card.

The Fighting Irish and Hurricanes are similar in a lot of ways.

  • Offensive profile: Both have semi-inefficient offenses capable of huge gains. Notre Dame ranks 55th in success rate but fifth in explosiveness (per my IsoPPP measure), and Miami ranks 53rd and sixth, respectively.
  • Finishing drives: Miami averages 4.8 points per scoring opportunity (first downs inside the opponent’s 40) and allowed 3.2, a plus-1.6 point margin that requires its opponents to create 50 percent more scoring chances to score the same number of points. Notre Dame’s margin: plus-1.5 (5.2 on offense, 3.7 on defense).
  • Hit-and-miss passing: Miami’s Malik Rosier is completing 56 percent of his passes, while Notre Dame’s Brandon Wimbush is completing just 52. The Hurricanes have an edge once you adjust for quality of defense — Miami ranks 16th in Passing S&P+, and ND ranks 44th — but Rosier also makes more mistakes. He threw three picks against Virginia Tech, and his INT rate is 2.6 percent to Wimbush’s 1 percent.
  • Stellar pass defenses. Notre Dame’s defense ranks second in Passing S&P+, and Miami’s ranks 27th. The defenses appear to have the advantage any time the QB drops to pass.

Notre Dame has Adams, though. And while the Miami defense has taken clear strides since Manny Diaz took over as Mark Richt’s defensive coordinator in 2016 — they were 52nd in Def. S&P+ in 2015, before this staff’s arrival, but were 13th last year and are 27th so far in 2017 — the Canes don’t quite have all the pieces for a sturdy run front.

It’s possible that nothing else matters. Not the crowd, not Rosier vs. Wimbush, not red-zone execution. The biggest advantage in this game is Adams vs. Miami’s run front.

Notre Dame-Miami rushing advanced stats

Category Notre Dame offense Miami defense
Category Notre Dame offense Miami defense
Rushing S&P+ Second 82nd
Rushing Success Rate 17th 58th
Rushing IsoPPP Third 65th
Adj. Line Yards Fourth 69th
Opportunity Rate 23rd 73rd
Power Success Rate 30th 68th
Stuff Rate 31st 24th

Diaz’s defensive philosophy isn’t all that unique: Play physically, tackle well, and make the offense play left-handed.

Force them to beat you with Plan B.

Once the Canes leverage you into obvious passing situations, your quarterback is going to be in some trouble. Miami ranks 11th in overall havoc rate (tackles for loss, forced fumbles, and passes defensed divided by total plays) and fourth in defensive line havoc. Four Miami linemen have at least 3.5 sacks, and while Wimbush is reasonably elusive, he still takes sacks on one of every 16 pass attempts (one in 10.6 on passing downs).

But leveraging the Irish into must-pass situations could be difficult.

Adams was a low-four-star recruit from Warrington, Pa. He chose Brian Kelly's Irish over offers from Penn State, Pitt, and BC, among others, and as C.J. Prosise's backup in 2015, he made waves with nearly his first opportunity. He rushed 13 times for 133 yards in a blowout win over UMass that September, then finished with 147 yards against Pitt, 141 against Wake Forest, and 168 against a tremendous Stanford.

Notre Dame's 4-8 collapse in 2016 wasn't due to anything Adams did. His average slipped to 5.9 yards per carry as he became the full-time back, but he still had four 100-yard games and finished carrying 30 combined times for 280 yards against Virginia Tech and USC.

Everything has clicked for Adams this year.

With one of the best, most seasoned offensive lines blocking for him and new coordinator Chip Long bringing a few wrinkles to the table, Adams has been absurd since Week 1.

He rushed for 161 yards against Temple and 229 against Boston College, and it took him just eight carries to gain 159 yards against Miami (Ohio) in a late-September blowout.

In statement wins against USC and NC State in late-October, Adams was Heisman-worthy: 19 carries for 191 yards against the Trojans, 27 for 202 against the Wolfpack. He is averaging 8.7 yards per carry for the season and has 12 carries of 30-plus yards, more than most entire offenses.

He rushed only five times in last week's win over Wake Forest. He was evidently dealing with headaches heading in, and they were aggravated early against the Deacs. Signs point to him being fine on Saturday night, but it’s a red flag at least.

Assuming full health, though, Adams gets another chance in primetime. He looks like an old-school back — 225 pounds and an old-school running back’s number, 33 — and Long’s schemes bring an extra dose of heft and power to the equation:

This run game is a throwback to the old days, with its minimal reliance on zone blocking and heavy use of pulling guards and tackles. It’s not a fun offense for opponents, given how many angles it creates even before you add in the option elements with Wimbush or the play-action shots to St. Brown.


This is a terrifying run game. Not including the Wake Forest game, Adams has been averaging about 17 carries per game, and not including sacks, Wimbush averages 11 per game (he also averages over eight yards per carry).

S&P+ likes Miami just enough that it gives the Canes a 30-29 advantage once home-field advantage is factored in.

From a win probability standpoint, this is almost exactly a toss-up — S&P+ says Miami wins 52 percent of the time.

The matchups are tricky, though. If Miami can hem in this ground attack, then sure, the Canes will likely win. It's that simple. The Canes should create enough chances for their own explosive back (Travis Homer, who rushed for 170 yards against Georgia Tech and 95 against Virginia Tech in the injured Mark Walton's absence), and their passing game should produce just enough big plays to get the score into the 20s or low-30s.

The problem is that only Georgia has hemmed in this run game. Nobody else has come close, and Miami's mediocre run defense hasn't yet proved capable.