Analysis: Troubling stagnation for Notre Dame's defense

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The most haunting image staring down the 11th-ranked Notre Dame football team heading into Bye-Week Land isn’t 22nd-ranked Temple’s inclusion in the AP poll for the first time since Brian Kelly was a high school senior (1979).

It’s the one in the mirror.

Well, technically only a section of the reflection — but a significant one — qualifies as startling.

Quarterback DeShone Kizer is enough of a pleasant distraction to shroud what’s going on in Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s world.

The redshirt freshman’s performance in ND’s 41-31 outlasting of USC on Saturday night (15-of-24, 277 yards, 2 TDs, no ints.) nudged him up three spots in the national passing efficiency rankings to 16th overall and second among freshmen or redshirt freshmen.

In the historical perspective, if he can perpetuate his 156.9 rating over the balance of the season, it would be the best mark ever for a Notre Dame first-year starting quarterback (minimum 100 completions), nudging out 1964 Heisman Trophy winner John Huarte’s first and only season as a starter (155.1).

Only two quarterbacks in ND history have had better single-season ratings, both as third-year starters: Jimmy Clausen in 2009 (161.4) and Brady Quinn in 2005 (158.4).

For comparison’s sake, their first-year ratings were 103.85 and 93.53, respectively. Everett Golson in 2012 was at 131.01. Tommy Rees in his first full season (2011) finished at 133.37, Dayne Crist (2010) at 129.34.

And Ron Powlus in 1994, the year then ESPN analyst Beano Cook predicted multiple Heismans for the now Irish director of player development, recorded a 139.18.

Some of the best pass defenses in the nation are ahead of Kizer and the nation’s No. 16-ranked offense after the bye, starting with Temple (6-0) and its seventh-ranked pass-efficiency defense on Halloween in Philly. Pitt (5-1), which also popped into the AP poll this week, ranks 11th against the pass and hosts the Irish Nov. 7.

Boston College (3-4), which ND plays at Fenway Park in Boston on Nov. 21, is fifth against the pass, No. 1 against the run and No. 1 in total defense.

The most incongruous part of Notre Dame’s season to date is that the Irish defense isn’t mentioned in the same glowing terms — and it’s not even close.

It’s one thing to give up 577 yards to a USC offense, as the Irish did on the road in 2014, when a barrage of injuries, a first-half suspension for targeting for Nyles Morgan and mass inexperience with the intricacies of an NFL-style defense seemed like reasonable justification for a big backward step last November.

It's quite another that an experienced, largely healthy, NFL talent-laden team with the best singular prospect of a generation — linebacker Jaylon Smith — ceded 13 more yards than that Saturday night, for a Kelly Era high.

“It's happened at times, right?” Kelly said Sunday when pressed about progress for a defense that ranks 79th nationally (out of 127) against the run, 53rd against the pass, 51st in total defense and 41st in scoring defense. “I think it happened in the second half of Clemson. It happened again here in the second half against a very talented USC team.

“We play at different times really, really good football. We saw it against Georgia Tech, where we were dominating at times. We just haven't put together four quarters of football defensively, and then there are simply issues of fundamentals and tackling and doing your job and not somebody else's job.”

But 20 games into his time at Notre Dame, isn’t this ultimately VanGorder’s job?

For all the Bush Push Game questions, references and retrospectives the week leading up to Saturday night’s 87th rendition of ND-USC, this Irish team does have the statistical feel of the 2005 team that fell short of toppling the No. 1-ranked Trojans a decade ago this month.

Charlie Weis’ 9-3 Irish leaned heavily on its offense and held its breath on defense, finishing 34th against the run, 69th against the pass, 75th in total defense and 53rd in scoring defense.

Its defense failed it in all three losses that season, with its comeuppance coming in the 34-20 Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State in which it gave up a school-record 617 yards — yes, just 27 more than USC’s total Saturday night.

“I like the mentality of this team,” Kelly said. “It finishes strong, there's no question about that.”

And the Irish did do that in the fourth quarter against the Trojans, punctuated by interceptions from KeiVarae Russell and Max Redfield. But teams that play for national championships do it for four quarters and do so consistently.

Facing four offensively flawed teams its next four games — Temple (103rd in total offense), Pitt (105), Wake Forest (93) and BC (121) — may create the illusion of real improvement. But it won’t fool the College Football Playoff Committee, which releases its first ratings of the season on Nov. 3 at 7:30 p.m. EST.

And it won’t fool rapidly improving, 10th-ranked Stanford, which has distanced itself from a 16-6 season-opening loss to Northwestern in much the way the Irish need to evolve away from their defensive lapses.

The two teams meet Nov. 28 in Palo Alto, Calif., in what is looking more and more like a de facto conference championship game. Stanford, incidentally, has ascended to the No. 33 spot in total offense and 17th in scoring offense after pancaking UCLA Thursday night.

So how does ND reverse its dodgy defensive trend? Kelly is convinced it’s about staying the course — that is once he gives the players most of the coming week off to go home and he and his staff come back from a recruiting/evaluation blitz.

“There's no need for big, structural changes,” he said. “Our attention to detail has got to be better relative to run fits. How many times have we been hit with trick plays?

“Sooner or later, you've got to do your job and take care of that. That's not a scheme thing. That's a discipline thing. So attention to detail is the area that we've got to continue to work on.”

Freshman focus

• Freshman Equanimeous St. Brown blocked a punt Saturday night that fellow wide receiver Amir Carlisle cashed in for a touchdown against his former team.

That gives him as many blocked punts as receptions (1) so far in his fledgling Irish career, but it’s the kind of athleticism Kelly sees from the 6-foot-4, 205-pound freshman routinely in practice.

“I think he would start for a number of Power 5 teams,” Kelly said of St. Brown. “He's ready to play right now. I'm just not taking Will off the field unless I have to.”

That would be junior Will Fuller, who stands 14th nationally in receiving yards per game (100.3) and eighth in TD receptions (8).

“(St. Brown) is a really good football player and capable of playing right now. Again, I'm going to get everything I can get out of Will Fuller.”

• C.J. Prosise moved back into the top 10 this week in rushing yards per game (131.7, 922 overall), at No. 9, as he barrels toward Vagas Ferguson’s single-season Irish record (1,437 rushing yards).

He’s also 10th nationally in yards per carry (7.15), tied for sixth in rushing TDs (11) and 10th in all-purpose yards (163.0), a lofty standing considering he’s not involved in the return games.

Somewhat eye-catching in its own right is what freshman Josh Adams is accomplishing as Prosise’s backup.

In 2014 Greg Bryant, now at a Florida junior college, was ND’s second-leading rusher, with 289 yards on 54 carries, three TDs and a 5.2 per carry average over the entire season. Adams is currently ND’s second-leading rusher.

And with five regular-season games and presumably a postseason game (or two) to go, he has amassed 265 yards on 34 carries, three TDs and a 7.8 per carry average.


Twitter: @EHansenNDI

USC's Cody Kessler (6) passes while scrambling Saturday, October 17, 2015, during the USC-Notre Dame football game at Notre Dame Stadium. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ