Analysis: Which Notre Dame defense is for real?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — In Brian VanGorder we trust?

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly still does, even with the kind of offensive pyrotechnics from a 2-4 North Carolina Saturday at ND Stadium that ransacked perhaps college football’s greatest story line of 2014 outside of the euphoric state of Mississippi.

At least for a week.

Notre Dame (6-0) is one of the remaining six FBS undefeated teams this week because it had enough offensive firepower of its own to overcome three Everett Golson turnovers and gouge the nation’s No. 117 defense (out of 125) in a 50-43 head-scratching victory.

So which was the mirage — the first five weeks of shockingly impressive 2012-esque numbers under the first-pumping, no-nonsense first-year defensive coordinator VanGorder?

Or the most points ever given up in a Notre Dame victory and the most total yards ceded to an opposing offense (510) since the Alabama strafing (529 in a 42-14 Tide-al wave) in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game?

That’s one of the central threads in a matchup teeming with intriguing ones Saturday night in Tallahassee, Fla., between the fifth-ranked Irish and recently demoted No. 2 Florida State (6-0), more the collateral victim of Mississippi State mania than its lack of style points in a ho-hum 38-20 dispatching of Syracuse on Saturday.

FSU, with surging but besieged reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, is unbalanced offensively, but still presents ND with the best passing offense (13th in yards, 28th in efficiency), total offense (32nd) and scoring offense (20th) the Irish have seen this season.

Its rushing offense, diluted even more lately by injuries, is the worst the Irish have faced (95) in 2014 or will face over the balance of the season, save Northwestern (104th).

And they’ll face it without safety Austin Collinsworth, whose first start of the season and second game overall, truncated in the first quarter with a dislocated shoulder.

An MRI was scheduled for Sunday, but Kelly said whatever the results showed, Collinsworth would miss his fifth game of the season Saturday night against the Seminoles. The grad student missed the first four of 2014 with a knee injury.

Collinsworth’s early exit against North Carolina was one of a perfect storm of factors Kelly said unraveled a defense that now stands 19th against the run, 41st against the pass, 34th in total defense and eighth in scoring defense.

The combination of North Carolina’s uptempo offense and ND’s turnovers put the Irish defense on the field for 84 plays. That’s the second-most of the Kelly Era at ND (2010-present) and 16 more than their previous high this season.

That, in turn, led to mental and physical fatigue, which translated into missed assignments and uncharacteristically sloppy tackling late in the game.

North Carolina was a sparkling 9-of-17 on third down in part because the Irish couldn’t shuttle their niche packages and personnel onto the field at times. At other times, ND got caught in specialty personnel when it needed to be in base defense.

“There's a lot of things that we'll take from the game,” Kelly said. “First of all, I think it still starts with how we managed this game, because we know where our inexperience is, and what you can't do is put our defense in a hole like we did.

“I think I started off this year talking specifically about protecting our defense. We did not protect our defense (Saturday) by putting them down, 14‑0. We really put ourselves in a hole, and so that exposed them, exposed them to more plays, exposed them to more challenging situations.

“It's not as much about what they learned, it's about how we play the game, and we can't continue to do that on offense. We're young and inexperienced, and if we put ourselves in bad situations as a team, we can have some tough moments out there.”

Florida State averages 70.2 plays per game, about eight fewer than North Carolina’s average. The team on the Irish schedule that runs the most offensive plays per game is USC (Nov. 29) at 79.8. The Irish offense averages 73.8.

North Carolina made six trips Saturday into ND’s red zone, some either aided or gifted by Irish turnovers, after the first five Irish opponents reached ND’s 20-yard line or beyond a combined eight times.

“There's no question there will be some carryover that will help us,” Kelly said, “but I think the overriding point here is that we still have to do a better job of not putting our defense in vulnerable positions like we did on Saturday. We can't put them out there for (84) plays. We don't have the depth.”

Whither Winston?

Florida State’s 6-foot-4, 227-pound redshirt sophomore quarterback did receive a scholarship offer from Brian Kelly and the Irish in the recruiting cycle (2012) that followed ND landing Everett Golson, but the relationship never got serious enough to engender an official recruiting visit.

Instead of landing the nation’s No. 1 dual-threat QB prospect in that class in Winston, the Irish ended up with the No. 1 pro-style signal-caller in Gunner Kiel after he decommitted from both Indiana and LSU. Kiel’s stay at ND lasted 16 months before he bolted for Cincinnati.

“I've seen him quite a bit,” Kelly said of Winston when asked for an updated scouting report. “He's a very accurate thrower of the football, doesn't rattle, is an extremely confident player.

“You can see that he's the leader of that offense, and he makes it happen. He's very gifted, and he's a very, very accomplished quarterback in a very, very short period of time.”

And the center of all kinds of off-the-field scrutiny.

None of it, both Winston and FSU coach Jimbo Fisher told the media Saturday, will keep the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner out of Saturday’s matchup with the Irish.

The latest, and perhaps biggest long-term worry for Winston, is an ESPN report purporting the school has informed Winston that he will face a disciplinary hearing and might be charged with as many as four violations of FSU's student code of conduct, two of which involve sexual conduct.

The latter stems from allegations that he raped a fellow Florida State student in December 2012.

An information hearing could be held this week, but a conduct hearing is unlikely before the ND game.

Sports Illustrated legal analyst Michael McCann reasons the best long-term legal strategy for Winston may be dropping out of FSU.

“Winston’s participation in the university’s disciplinary process would carry great legal risk for him,” McCann wrote. “A university disciplinary hearing would involve both fact-finding and testimony.

“Law enforcement or attorneys for Winston’s accuser could later attempt to subpoena these materials and use them against Winston. While a finding that Winston violated university rules would not mean that he broke any laws, the finding would likely be admissible evidence in a prosecution or civil litigation.

“Winston could still face criminal charges until 2017. Winston was only investigated for criminal conduct and not tried, meaning the Double Jeopardy clause of the Fifth Amendment does not protect him from being charged and tried.

“Winston thus has an incentive to prevent any new facts or testimony from emerging that might persuade a prosecutor or a grand jury to take a second look at what happened.”

Looking out for No. 2

The one advantage of playing a second-ranked Florida State team rather than No. 1, as the Seminoles had been ranked, is that historically the Irish are much better against No. 2s than No. 1s.

Notre Dame is 8-16-1 all-time against top-ranked teams in the AP poll, but 8-6-2 against the No. 2.

The Irish have faced only one No. 2 team since a 29-20 upset of Miami (Fla.) in 1990. That was the 28-point loss to Alabama in the 2012 title game.

Of the 14 games that came against no-longer active coaches, 11 of those were against coaches that are in the College Football Hall of Fame — and that includes falling to Northwestern’s Ara Parseghian in 1959, five years before he took the Notre Dame job.

Parseghian’s last game at Notre Dame, in the Orange Bowl to end the 1974 season, was an upset by the ninth-ranked Irish of Bear Bryant’s No. 2 Alabama squad, 13-11.

Other Hall-of-Famers include Fritz Crisler, Bernie Bierman, Duffy Daugherty (twice), Bud Wilkinson (twice), John McKay, Jimmy Johnson and Bo Schembechler.

The two active coaches the Irish faced in No. 2 games, Miami’s Dennis Erickson (now running backs coach at Utah) and Alabama’s Nick Saban, will likely end up in the Hall as well.

Notre Dame was ranked No. 1 in six of the games against No. 2.

More fun with numbers, courtesy of Blue and Gold Illustrated’s Lou Somogyi, Saturday night will mark the 11th time in history the Irish were involved in a game where both teams were 6-0 or better.

The Irish are 9-0-1 in their previous 10 such games, including 4-0-1 on the road. The tie, one of the most famous in all of sports, was the 10-10 standoff between the No, 1-ranked Irish and No. 2 Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich.

Squibs

• Safety Max Redfield was among the current Irish players showing support for their five suspended teammates on Saturday. The sophomore wore the No. 6 on a towel draped from his uniform, a tip of the cap to cornerback KeiVarae Russell.

“I think they're being good teammates and just recognizing their teammates in that situation,” Kelly said. “I'm generally not big on that, but they've handled themselves very well through social media.

“They have not formed opinions of such, and so I did see a towel, I did not make a big deal of it, because I thought that our team as a whole has handled the situation very well and felt that I was OK with it.”

• Despite his recent penchant for turnovers, Irish quarterback Everett Golson stands 30th in passing efficiency, ninth in points responsible for per game and 19th in total offense.

• Sophomore receiver Will Fuller ranks fifth nationally in TD receptions with seven.

• Sophomore cornerback Cole Luke, with his third interception in the past two games Saturday, stands 17th in interceptions per game.

• Sagarin’s computer view of Notre Dame and its 2014 opponents: 11. Florida State, 13. Notre Dame, 16. Stanford, 21. USC, 27. Louisville, 28. Arizona State, 52. Northwestern, 64. Syracuse, 65. North Carolina, 69. Michigan, 86. Rice, 94. Purdue, 97. Navy.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Cornerback Cole Luke (36) celebrates after picking off North Carolina QB Marquise Williams, one of a few big highlights for the Irish defense Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)