Unraveling Notre Dame's defensive issues
GLENDALE, Ariz. — Brian VanGorder leaned forward in his chair, seated at a table crowded with no less than 17 digital recorders, and considered the inevitable question.
How would you evaluate, as a whole, how your defense performed in 2015?
“Inconsistent,” Notre Dame’s second-year defensive coordinator said, and he nodded to himself, silently reaffirming his answer. “Inconsistent.”
“Because that’s really what the season shows," he said. "For the most part they’ve been really good, but there’s four or five or six plays a game that are hard to explain. We don’t like that, and these are young players.
"They’re all developing. They’re all involved in a process of developing. The process is different for all of them. We’ve just had some inconsistencies. That’s a player and that’s a coach’s responsibility. We’ve got to coach it better. Players have got to play it better consistently.”
Regardless of who’s to blame, or why, the numbers are indisputable. Despite returning a wealth of experience and talent — including Butkus Award winner Jaylon Smith, 2014 team MVP Joe Schmidt and standout defensive tackle Sheldon Day — Notre Dame’s defense was mired in unexpected mediocrity in 2015.
The Irish surrendered nine plays of 50 yards or more, which ranked 91st nationally among the 127 FBS teams. They finished 64th in rushing defense (allowing 166.8 yards per game) and 60th in pass-efficiency defense, most recently allowing an 81 percent completion percentage and four passing touchdowns in a soul-crushing, playoff-extinguishing, 38-36 loss to Pac-12 champion Stanford.
The big play bit them. The statistics provide the proof.
“Players and coaches share the responsibility of staying focused, concentrating,” said VanGorder, who spoke to the media for the first time since the preseason. “Sometimes it’s a tempo issue; sometimes it’s a motion, it’s a change of formation. It’s all the things that require great concentration.
"There’s scheme stress at times that each player needs to understand. There’s stress of a particular look. We’ve got to do better with it. We’ve got to do better as coaches through a game.
“It’s kind of a cheap shot for me to say five or six plays (per game were the reason the defense struggled), because that’s ball. If you compiled every game and you looked at explosive plays, they play a big part in a football game.
“In losing, that’s usually the reference respective to, ‘Well, we were really good except for those five or six plays.’ Ultimately that’s not good defense.”
That defense managed just eight interceptions (98th nationally) and 15 forced fumbles (91st), meaning that VanGorder’s group A.) surrendered big plays, and B.) provided very few of them.
Leaning backwards in the chair situated on an elevated platform, with the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl logo checkered at his back, VanGorder consistently wore out the magic word. Inconsistent. Inconsistent. Inconsistent.
But might the complexity of his scheme have played a part in the result?
“I would say that you’ve got to be pretty smart to play in our defense,” he said. “We’re multiple in what we do, but if I looked at those plays that bring about that term ‘inconsistency,’ they wouldn’t involve anything that was complicated or should have been really an issue.
“So again, that’s player and coach responsibility to solve it.”
The Notre Dame fan base, unyieldingly vocal in its unease, would certainly have preferred the issue to be solved sooner. But through two seasons, has the Notre Dame defense matched VanGorder’s expectations?
“I would have liked to have been, again, more consistent this year. Better,” he said, echoing the overwhelming theme. “There’s times we’ve been a really good defense and there’s times it just hasn’t looked good. I thought we’d be ahead (of where we are).
“We have smart guys, great culture. We have a very good room. Our guys can do a lot. But we still have to achieve.”
That achievement will be difficult to ascertain on Friday, when CFP/AP No. 8 Notre Dame meets CFP/AP No. 7 Ohio State ion the Fiesta Bowl without injured corners KeiVarae Russell (broken right tibia) and Devin Butler (broken left foot) and starting free safety Max Redfield, who was sent home on Tuesday because of a violation of team rules.
Unfortunately for the Irish, Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott — who has chugged for 1,672 yards, 6.4 yards per carry and 19 touchdowns this season — is still scheduled to attend.
“He’s a great blocking back, very explosive when the ball is in his hands,” Irish senior defensive tackle Sheldon Day said. “He seems to draw a lot of attention. They can run a fake to him and be running with the quarterback. Everybody thinks he has the ball. He just does everything right. He’s a complete back.”
Against perhaps the most complete running back it has seen this season, plus dual-threat quarterback J.T. Barrett and speedster wide receiver Michael Thomas, VanGorder’s defense will look to achieve an elusive complete performance.
And while his defense may be inconsistent, VanGorder’s message never wavered.
“We’ve got to become consistent. I’m looking for consistency,” he said again. “We say all the time the mark of greatness is consistency. Players’ play that is inconsistent leads to big plays, explosive plays. It just doesn’t work. This is the greatest team sport there is. You can have 10 guys out there doing everything right and if one guy doesn’t do it well, it can be a disaster.”
Fifteen minutes and countless consistents after he first sat down, VanGorder stepped off the stage, took a sip of his black coffee and bellowed, “All right, back to work.”
Late Friday afternoon, it’ll be clear whether all the work paid off.