Vorel: Notre Dame finally delivering a defense its fans deserve

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Maybe it takes years of stale cereal to appreciate a steak.

For two and a half years, or 30 games, that’s what Notre Dame fans were fed. Every day. For every meal. The cereal — for the sake of the metaphor, choose your least favorite brand — was chewy. The milk was spoiled and lumpy, dumped unceremoniously into the bowl. It was a curdled, stinking stew, but they swallowed it all the same.

They had to. They were starving.

But after a while, they’d had enough.

The breaking point, if you care to pinpoint it, came almost exactly a year ago, on Sept. 24, 2016. The 1-3 Irish surrendered 38 points to a 20-point underdog, dropping a 38-35 decision at home to 2-2 Duke. In the immediate aftermath of that game, the Irish ranked 96th out of 128 programs nationally in rushing defense, 101st in scoring defense, 103rd in total defense and 111th in team pass efficiency defense.

Through four games, they recorded one sack and failed to recover a fumble.

As the clock ran out inside Notre Dame Stadium, a chant reverberated through the restless masses.

Fire Van-Gorder. Fire Van-Gorder. Fire Van-Gorder. Fire Van-Gorder.

Less than 24 hours later, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was fired.

The fans were sick of ordering lobster and getting stale cereal instead.

What a difference a year makes, right?

Through four games this season, No. 22 Notre Dame (3-1) ranks 12th nationally in opposing red-zone touchdown percentage (37.5 percent), 13th in turnovers gained (9), seventh in fumbles gained (5) and, most importantly, 29th in scoring defense (18.5 points per game).

With nearly all of the same players, first-year defensive coordinator Mike Elko is serving up steaks.

“There's just guys buying into their role, caring about their role,” said senior rover and captain Drue Tranquill, who leads the team with 4.5 tackles for loss to go along with 20 tackles, a sack, an interception and a fumble recovery.

“Guys are not trying to do it all, so there's not pressure on a guy to make 10 plays in a game. It's Julian Love having a pick six; it's Shaun (Crawford) punching the ball out before the end zone; it's Greer (Martini) causing a fumble and Daelin (Hayes) recovering it. It's our linebackers fitting their gaps properly, our D-line getting penetration on third-and-short, fourth-and-short, all the small things that add on themselves.”

The defense is improved, and there’s still room for improvement.

After all, these Irish still surrender plenty of yards. Specifically, they rank 71st nationally in total defense (388 yards per game), which is actually a tad worse than the 2016 season-end total (378.8 yards per game). They also rank 73rd in rushing defense (151.5 yards per game), 66th in sacks per game (2.0), 60th in tackles for loss per game (6.5) and 51st in pass efficiency defense and third down defense (34.3 percent conversions).

Plus, keep in mind the questionable quality of Notre Dame’s opposing offenses. Wipe the ND game off of each of their schedules, and they rank 125th (Temple), 118th (Boston College), 69th (Georgia) and 42nd (Michigan State) out of 128 programs nationwide in total offense.

Elko’s group may get more of a test on Saturday, when the Irish encounter one of the top opposing quarterbacks remaining on their schedule. In just seven games last season, Miami (Ohio) quarterback Gus Ragland completed 64.2 percent of his passes, throwing for 1,537 yards and 17 touchdowns with just one interception. The RedHawks, behind Ragland, closed the regular season with six consecutive wins.

Through four games this season, the redshirt junior has thrown for 881 yards and eight touchdowns with two interceptions. Miami (2-2), which is led by former Notre Dame assistant coach Chuck Martin, also ranks 25th nationally in time of possession.

The Irish will give up some yards on Saturday. They might even give up some points.

But so what? So what if these aren’t 100-dollar steaks? So what if they don’t resemble the rib eyes that get reserved for presidents and princes?

They’re warm, they’re cooked well and they’re appropriately seasoned.

For now, especially given the previous menu, that’s all Irish fans can ask for.

It sure as heck beats the alternative, after all.

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame defenders bring down Georgia’s Sony Michel (1) during the Notre Dame-Georgia NCAA college football game Saturday, September 9, 2017, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN