Analysis: Questions about Notre Dame defense won't rest

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — As the points and yards piled up Friday against an admittedly watered-down version of the Notre Dame defense, the most absurd notion of the Fiesta Bowl experience no longer was the Phoenix-area zoo/marine animals being asked to shed some clairvoyant light on the ND-Ohio State matchup.

Instead, it became the belief that the Irish (10-3) can get back to Glendale, Ariz. — or to Atlanta — for a national playoff semifinal next season, as the CFP rotation goes, by counting on an evolution on defense without a revolution of sorts.

For the record, Daniel the Bornean orangutan and an unnamed 1-year-old female octopus both erroneously tabbed the eighth-ranked Irish to win in what turned out to be a convincing 44-28 victory for No. 7 Ohio State (12-1).

Even more outlandishly fascinating was the assertion by Elizabeth Mathews, marketing manager of Sea Life Arizona, that the exercise of having those creatures predict the outcomes of games somehow constituted "a way to keep them healthy.”

No more bizarre, though, was hearing Irish second-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, days earlier, refer to his veteran/returnee-laden defensive unit as “young,” and the magic elixir to fix it as consistency, without actually providing the recipe for how that is or was supposed to take place.

Even if you chalk it up to VanGorder’s own rustiness with interacting with the media — his last assignment to do so coming in mid-August — both the bottom line on the field and how the Irish arrived there were equally as troubling as his public assessment of it.

In the wide-angle view of Notre Dame football’s big picture, head coach Brian Kelly’s sixth team — and the school’s 127th all time, as we were so often reminded — took some significant, sustainable transformative steps forward.

The most momentous of which was finally and convincingly distancing itself from the label “fragile” that so uncomfortably yet fittingly had defined the post-Lou Holtz Era of Notre Dame football (1997-present).

That’s not just about Kelly transcending the loss of 19 players — linebackers Jaylon Smith and Te’von Coney the latest deletions — from the 44 in the August two-deeps for at least the better part of a game and many for far longer, although that is the most tangible illustration of it.

It’s that the foundation doesn’t sway anymore when the house does.

And the house most certainly does, and always will when the winds of change blow and the spotlight gets bright enough to incinerate. That’s the nature of Notre Dame football.

The nature of Brian Kelly Era football has developed a counterpunch — resilience.

That’s the product of building program depth, player development and recruiting models that work, learning and adapting in the job to the parts of the job that are uniquely Notre Dame, not being over-reactive to criticism and not being afraid to offend traditionalists by marshaling change.

He is no longer satisfied with surviving the body blows of circumstance. The goal is to thrive through them.

And the list of challenges for 2016 is already starting to amass.

• Start with the exodus of at least four star players opting for an early run at the NFL Draft, and likely five, though largely with Kelly’s blessing.

• There’s the charge to keep the impending spring quarterback competition among incumbent DeShone Kizer, returning Malik Zaire, and freakish ball of potential Brandon Wimbush, productive rather than toxic.

• After starting last January with the prospect of returning 19 starters (plus a 20th in 2013 starter cornerback KeiVarae Russell) — the most among Power 5 schools — the Irish could open the 2016 season Sept. 3 in Austin, Texas, with as few as 10.

This past season only eight of the 127 FBS schools returned fewer starters. The number is a bit deceiving, in a good way, in that Notre Dame will return 2014 starters, nose guard Jarron Jones and running back Tarean Folston, and projected 2015 starter at nickel Shaun Crawford.

Also returning are more than a handful of others with some career starting experience, including safety Drue Tranquill, running back Josh Adams, wide receivers Torii Hunter and Corey Robinson, offensive lineman Alex Bars, cornerbacks Devin Butler and Nick Watkins, defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, defensive end Andrew Trumbetti, tight ends Alizé Jones, Nic Weishar and Tyler Luatua, and linebackers Greer Martini and Nyles Morgan.

• The most ominous offseason issue confronting Kelly is what to do about the defense/VanGorder.

Stretches of perplexing regression in Notre Dame’s road losses at Clemson and Stanford and a near upset from Boston College that rendered a damaging perceptual hit were foremost in what separated the Irish from playing at University of Phoenix Stadium on Friday and the chance to play at that same venue as a playoff team next Monday.

And until that gets fixed, it will continue to be what separates the Irish from a program on the periphery of the national title discussion and one that can get in the center of it regularly.

For all the hyperventilating from some national media over offensive pyrotechnics, an elite total defense rating is still the most reliable common thread among the 16 national champions of the BCS Era, the first of the one of the Playoff Era (Ohio State last season) and the two that will play Monday night for the title in Glendale.

Only Auburn in 2010 did not have a top 25 total defense ranking. Alabama ranks second this season. Clemson, which plays the Tide for the title, is sixth. Notre Dame is 45th.

The last ND national titlist, in 1988, ranked 13th. The only post-Holtz Era team to get to the title game, 2012, ranked seventh. The two Charlie Weis-coached teams that stumbled on the BCS stage in 2005 and 2006 ranked 75th and 65th, respectively.

Rushing defense, rushing offense, turnover margin and pass efficiency are also key metrics in which teams that play in the biggest postseason games on the college level tend to excel.

In fact, in the New Year’s Six bowls, the team that checked more of those five boxes won five of those games. The outlier, Stanford, could be explained by Iowa’s weaker schedule — specifically that the Hawkeyes’ defensive numbers were inflated by playing only three top 70 offenses prior to the Rose Bowl, while playing eight regular-season games against top 40 defenses.

Notre Dame was certainly good enough in rushing offense (28th) and pass-efficiency (23rd), but the Irish were 10th among New Year’s Six teams in total defense, 11th in rushing defense (72nd nationally) and dead last in turnover margin (102nd nationally).

Relatively speaking, the turnover margin was more a function of the defense not forcing enough than the offense committing too many.

Which brings us back to VanGorder.

Conceptually, his philosophy is easy to embrace. Unpredictable pressures, attacking style, rotating in specialists to maximize his roster. In practice, it hasn’t delivered what it’s built on, though — sacks, turnovers forced, subpar passing numbers by opponents.

More troubling is the player development success stories on defense don’t come close to matching the number or the degree on offense. In fact, there are too many cases of stagnation and/or regression.

And that triggers all kinds of questions, some fair and some not. Like how can Boston College, with its raw material, be so superior defensively? How can a defensive unit with All-Americans Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day on it not have a more impressive bottom line?

The Fiesta Bowl — particularly with the loss of Smith in the first quarter — isn’t a fair litmus test, but it should be pointed out the offense did its job. No team scored more points on the Ohio State defense than ND’s 28 since Alabama applied 35 in a seven-point national semifinal loss last season.

So is the answer a change of coordinators or a change in the coordinator? Sometimes the right response is as simple as a philosophical shift. But Kelly and VanGorder must come to terms with what that is and how to implement that this offseason.

And if they can’t find common ground, Kelly can’t be tepid about going in another direction.

The foundation can take it.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, left, and Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder need to find some new common ground where the Irish defense is concerned in 2016. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)

Sept. 3 at Texas

Sept. 10 NEVADA

Sept. 17 MICHIGAN STATE

Sept. 24 DUKE

Oct. 1 at Syracuse (at East Rutherford, N.J.)

Oct. 8 at North Carolina State

Oct. 15 STANFORD

Oct. 29 MIAMI

Nov. 5 vs. Navy (at Jacksonville, Fla.)

Nov. 12 * Army at Alamodome, San Antonio, Texas

Nov. 19 VIRGINIA TECH

Nov. 26 at USC

* Shamrock Series game