Analysis: Beyond the spin cycle of Notre Dame's defensive woes

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — In the light of day, the numbers looked just as alarming coming out of the spin cycle Sunday as they did when they and the emotions of the night were still fresh and raw.

When pressed during his weekly Sunday tele-review of Saturday night’s 36-28 bullying from Michigan State on whether he was confident that besieged defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and his scheme were still the right fit for his suddenly unranked Notre Dame football team (1-2), head coach Brian Kelly never flinched.

“Oh, absolutely,” he responded. “Yeah, without question. That's not even part of the conversation.”

What is central to the conversation in Kelly’s mind, or at least in his public rhetoric, is a disconnect when it comes to teaching and retention of basic fundamentals.

Some late offensive pyrotechnics from quarterback DeShone Kizer, and a surrounding cast that returned just two other starters on that side of the ball, may have softened the glare of the defensive growing pains, but not the reality of them or the possibility they might actually bw terminal.

The rancor directed at third-year coordinator VanGorder on social media Saturday night and into Sunday was as persistent as a Michigan State offense that gashed the Irish for 260 rushing yards and 501 yards in total offense.

And together they created an embarrassing gaffe for Kelly. A tweet from @Kevin_Coughlan, that read as follows: "@CoachBrianKelly time to shake up the staff, Coach. Clearly it's not working. #FireVangorder" gleaned a “like” from Kelly’s Twitter account.

"I have a number of people that manage my Twitter account," Kelly said Sunday. "Obviously, going through it somebody unfortunately made a mistake as they were scrolling through, inadvertently hit it. Just a mistake, an unfortunate mistake, that was made by one of my staff members."

ND’s national standing on defense looks like a series of inadvertencies, too.

The statistical snapshot, one fourth of the way into the regular season, features a high-water mark of 89th nationally out of 128 in any significant defensive category.

The Irish are 103rd in pass-efficiency defense, 102nd in total defense, 94th in scoring defense, 100th in tackles for loss, 89th in third-down defense, 104th in fourth-down defense, 93rd in red zone defense, 89th in turnovers gained, and — most alarming — 99th in rush defense (198.7 yards allowed per game).

Five of ND’s nine yet-to-be-played opponents are averaging more than 200 yards rushing per game, with two — Army and Navy — well over a 300-yards-per-game clip.

Nevada, ND’s Sept. 10 opponent, and the Irish share the statistical bottom in the team sacks category. Neither one of them has recorded a single one yet.

“The more that we can get in a number of these younger players, the quicker we're going to evolve to the kind of consistent defensive performances that we all need here,” Kelly countered. “That's why, from my perspective, I look at it a little bit differently than maybe everybody else in our fan base, that the sky is falling.”

Perhaps the most intriguing, and ultimately pivotal, perspective, though, belongs to the 50-plus recruits — 2017s and 2018s, officials and unofficials — who took in the latest referendum on VanGorder Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium.

Seven of the 10 uncommitted 2017 prospects taking official (paid for) visits to ND this past weekend were defensive players. Cornerback Shaun Wade — currently committed to second-ranked Ohio State, linebacker Jacob Phillips and defensive end Donovan Jeter headlined that group.

So what does Kelly tell them when they ask about the future and direction of the Irish defense?

“I didn't have one defensive player recruit ask us about the defense,” Kelly insisted Sunday.

Then again, maybe nothing needed to be said.

The standard “this is why we need you” pitch generally resonates in years 1 and 2 of a regime. But year 7? And with VanGorder, there’s now a 29-game track record that can’t all be attributed to injuries, inexperience and schematic shock.

Saturday night marked the sixth time in the VanGorder Era than an opponent surpassed 500 yards in total offense and the 12th time it blew past the 200-yard rushing mark.

To put that in perspective, that’s 41.4 percent of the games VanGorder has presided over have 200 or more rushing yards recorded by the opponent, and 20.7 percent in which 500 total yards were reached.

Under Bob Diaco, VanGorder’s predecessor under Kelly, those percentages were 23.1 and 5.8, respectively. In former head coach Charlie Weis’ five seasons, they were 25.8 and 6.5 percent, respectively, 10.8 and 8.1 in Tyrone Willingham’s three seasons and 18.3 and 1.7 in Bob Davie’s five-year run.

Offensive production nationally has been escalating over the years, but the difference in total yards per game from Davie’s final season (381.6) to 2015 (405.6) and rushing yards (158.9 to 178.2) isn’t significant enough to account for the frequency in VanGorder statistical regressions.

Even Kelly himself in June set the bar of what would be deemed unacceptable in run defense, a key metric that national champions and other New Year’s Day Six Bowl-type teams excel in with consistent regularity.

The Irish, under VanGorder have ranked 72nd at the end of the season each of the past two years and are on a trajectory to fall short of even that modest standard.

“There’s a task that has to be completed and that has to be communicated by the defensive coordinator,” Kelly told the South Bend Tribune in June. “That’s being communicated by the defensive coordinator. I like how it’s being taught. I like how it’s being communicated.

“The task then has to be accomplished. So how do you get that task accomplished? That’s the bridge. And we’re starting to see it, and I think we saw a little bit of that in the spring, that we’re moving more toward that.

“If I saw that the task couldn’t be completed because it was not being communicated effectively or there was a resistance of wanting to do it, we’d be having a different discussion right now. We’re getting to where we want to be, but 70-something in run defense is not going to fly after this year.”

Kelly identified weakside linebacker — former All-American Jaylon Smith’s old position — and the safety spots as the areas that need the most correction at the moment. The more persistent question, though, is will he have to make a coaching correction in December?

The currency for a buy-in on VanGorder apparently are freshmen, some of who are only dabbling in their roles at the moment. Daelin Hayes. Julian Okwara. Julian Love. Perhaps Jalen Elliott and Jamir Jones, too.

“I'm not happy,” Kelly said. “Nobody is happy with losing football games. But I know there's guys on the horizon here that are going to play really good football for us in the foreseeable future. They're coming on. It's just going to take a little time.”


Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder on the sideline during the Notre Dame-Michigan State NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN