Analysis: Notre Dame defensive improvement is real, but it must also be sustainable

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — So Saturday’s football matinee versus Navy in Jacksonville, Fla., suddenly carries TaxSlayer Bowl implications for Notre Dame.

Also Belk, Pinstripe and Sun Bowl ramifications — and maybe a long shot at the Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando.

It’s all very back burner, though, both in terms of how much work is ahead of the Irish (3-5) simply to become bowl-eligible and, more importantly, the long-term view of building a defense that will help coax a dramatic turnaround in 2017 and beyond.

The snapshot of the defensive improvement Sunday morning after a 30-27 win over Miami (Fla.), though, was palpable.

In the four games since defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was purged on Sept. 25, the Irish have improved in every major statistical category on defense, including a leap from 103rd to 54th in total defense.

Even if you remove the Hurricane Matthew-affected 10-3 Irish loss at N.C. State on Oct. 8 from the equation, as if the game was never played, Notre Dame still would land at No. 70 in this week’s 128-team FBS total defense standings and 60th against the run, up from 98th under VanGorder.

Conversely, if you rated just the four post-VanGorder games on their own, ND’s national rankings would be 23rd in rush defense, 41st in pass-efficiency defense (111th under VanGorder), 15th in total defense and 27th in scoring defense (101 under VanGorder).

Also of note, ND landed in position No. 103 in total defense and trending for the worst national standing in school history under VanGorder having faced Nos. 26, 69, 82 and 102 in total offense.

The most noticeable change on defense, aesthetically and statistically, post-VanGorder involves explosive plays.

The Irish defense this season has allowed nine, defined as gains of 35 yards or more. Seven of the nine took place in the four games over which VanGorder presided.

The other two came against the highest-ranked offense on ND’s schedule, past or future, in Syracuse (25th). Both occurred in the first half of the first game under the Greg Hudson/Mike Elston/Brian Kelly defensive collaboration. Since then, over the past 14 quarters, there have been none.

Miami (4-4), which came into Notre Dame Stadium Saturday with 16 such plays in its first seven games, had a long gain of 24 yards against the Irish.

The Irish recorded five sacks against the Hurricanes, after never having more than four in any of VanGorder’s 30 games with the Irish. And the eight pass breakups were the most by the Irish in a game (matched by eight against Michigan State in 2012) since the 2011 MSU game.

Donte Vaughn, one of three freshman cornerbacks who saw extensive action Saturday, had three pass deflections himself, which matches or exceeds ND’s team total in five of the previous seven games this season.

Some of that was a product of Vaughn’s long arms and growth curve as a player, some because he was tested so often and was passing the tests.

“(Miami) had been much more of a curl/flat (short passing game) team,” Kelly said Sunday. “But that wasn't what they wanted to do against freshman corners. They wanted to push the ball down the field, and (the freshmen) were up to the challenge.”

But for all of that to be big-picture relevant, the defensive improvement must be sustainable.

And that won’t be easy, with the Irish now having to shift defensive principles for triple-option tests the next two weekends against Army and Navy, then go back to conventional offenses. There, in the regular season’s final two weeks, the Irish will face two elite passers in Virginia Tech’s Jerod Evans (8th nationally in passing efficiency) and USC’s Sam Darnold (7th).

The only personnel change Kelly is considering for the Navy game, unrelated to an injury and those dictated to deal with the triple-option offense, is at punt returner.

Sophomore C.J. Sanders stands 19th nationally in that category at 12.5 yards per return, but he fumbled one punt in the end zone Saturday for a Miami touchdown, and failed to fair-catch another that caromed off the arm of ND freshman cornerback Troy Pride Jr. for another Irish turnover. Miami cashed it in for a TD six players later.

Former walk-on Chris Finke replaced Sanders on Miami’s final punt of the day. And his 23-yard return put the Irish in great field positon for the eventual winning score, a 23-yard Justin Yoon field goal with 30 seconds left.

“We have always had confidence with Chris,” Kelly said. “It's a competitive situation. I think I'll have to make a decision on it. But certainly he bolstered his chance by having a key return late in the game for us.”

Kelly on Sunday was hopeful to get back this week all three players who left Saturday’s game with concussion symptoms — offensive guard Colin McGovern, nose guard Daniel Cage and linebacker Greer Martini.

Martini, typically a non-starter, is the most central to the Irish game plan against Navy.

The junior played in 26 games in 2014 and 2015, three against triple-option teams and 23 against more conventional offenses. In those 23 games, Martini collected a total of 35 tackles, but in the three against the option, he amassed 26.

The Midshipmen (5-2), meanwhile, fell out of the Top 25 after dropping a 52-45 decision to South Florida. QB Will Worth threw for an un-Navy-like 299 yards as the Mids tried to climb back from a 28-point halftime deficit.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame freshman Donte Vaughn (35) breaks up a pass intended for Miami's Braxton Berrios (8) Saturday at Notre Dame. Vaughn had three pass deflections in ND's 30-27 victory. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)