Analysis: Optimism for Notre Dame football in 2018 starts with the Irish defense

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

History won’t likely remember the 56-second stretch that followed Notre Dame’s seismic splash of offensive guts and guile that capsized 16th-ranked LSU’s happy ending in Monday’s Citrus Bowl at Orlando, Fla.

It’s worth revisiting, though, considering how much it resembles a snapshot of ND’s football future. Or at least what an ascending future should look like.

The immediate aftermath of 14th-ranked Notre Dame’s 21-17 bowl triumph — its first in the month of January in its last 10 tries and first victory of any kind in the state of Florida in 15 seasons — justifiably gravitates to the Brandon Wimbush/Ian Book/Phil Jurkovec quarterback conjecture for 2018.

The good news there is if it’s managed correctly — and that admittedly is not necessarily a given — there are real options, rather than having to choose among lesser evils.

It was one thing for Book to fill in against North Carolina and the nation’s No. 80 pass-efficiency defense, and fashion a 92.1 passer rating against them. It’s quite another to put up a 170.4 against a top 10 pass-efficiency defense, in LSU.

The better news is, whoever emerges is likely to be complemented by a defense that continues to evolve toward the kind that can advance Notre Dame’s playoff aspirations past the conversation phase.

The presence of Georgia (13-1) and Alabama (12-1) — No. 6 and No. 1, respectively, nationally in total defense — in Monday night’s national championship game is a not-so-subtle reminder of what title teams tend to look like.

Whichever team prevails in the All-SEC clash, for the 19th time in the 20-year BCS/Playoff Era the national champion will be ranked among the top 25 in total defense at season’s end (and the 11th time in the top 10).

There remains no more reliable statistical common thread.

Auburn (60th in total defense in 2010) is the lone outlier, but the Tigers were extremely strong in three of the other four key metrics common among teams that play for and win national titles — pass efficiency (No. 1), rush defense (No. 9) and rush offense (No. 5) — and were more than adequate in the fourth — turnover margin (33rd).

Notre Dame (10-3) will finish a respectable 46th in total defense in Mike Elko’s first go-round as defensive coordinator.

And the Irish improved at least 20 spots in the national rankings in rush defense (72nd to 51st), pass-efficiency defense (79th to 46th), scoring defense (62nd to 31), third-down defense (60 to 37th), turnovers gained (104th to 50th), sacks (117th to 82nd) and tackles for loss (102nd to 58th).

The defensive sequence that followed wide receiver Miles Boykin’s one-hand swipe of a Book pass Monday, followed by a get-out-of-my-way jaunt to the end zone with 1:28 left, hinted at how much better those defensive numbers could get in 2018.

LSU had 77 yards to go, and two timeouts to play with, after the ensuing kickoff. Seven plays, a benign six net yards and 56 seconds later, an aggressive, pressuring Irish defense turned the ball over on downs to its own offense with 32 seconds left.

“I think year two really allows you to really attack the details of what you're trying to get accomplished,” Elko said the Friday before the bowl game of the defense’s next step, in 2018.

“You get to a point where so much year one is broad stroke, because you've got to get it all in and you've got to be able to run, and that clock is coming to start the first game.

“Now that the kids have a really solid base, you can really go back and refine everything you're trying to do. And I think you'll see a group that understands the details of what we want to accomplish a lot better.”

The impending early-entry NFL draft decisions in the coming days of junior nose guard Jerry Tillery and junior linebacker Te’von Coney are the two biggest dangling details. They and fellow juniors, wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and running back Josh Adams, each have until Jan. 15 to declare.

The NFL Draft Advisory Board offers only three types of grades — first round, second round, or go back to school. All four juniors received the “go back to school” grade, which doesn’t necessarily mean all or any of them will.

Among ND’s 15 seniors-to-be with fifth-year options, eight are expected to return, including three on defense. Those players are defensive end Jay Hayes, rover Drue Tranquill and cornerback Nick Watkins.

The other five are offensive linemen Alex Bars and Sam Mustipher, wide receiver Freddy Canteen, tight end Nic Weishar and punter Tyler Newsome.

Holder/backup quarterback Montgomery VanGorder on Wednesday, incidentally, became the latest of the seven fifth-years not returning to outline his 2018 plans. He’s transferring to FCS school Youngstown State, he announced on Twitter.

If Tillery and/or Coney don’t return, at least there appears to be a bit of a grace period for the Irish defense to start the 2018 season. ND’s first three opponents — Michigan, Ball State and Vanderbilt (all at home) — all ranked lower than 100th nationally last season in total offense.

Elko’s old team, Wake Forest, in week four on the road, is a potential steep upgrade, ranked 17th in total offense in 2017. Then five of the next six Irish foes ranked no higher than No. 53 in that category.

Speaking of Michigan, the Wolverines (8-5) showed this season how you can squander an elite defense (third in total defense in 2017) if you don’t get your quarterback problems sorted out.

The Wolverines visit Notre Dame Stadium Sept. 1 in prime time and with a historical footnote in play — that is if the NCAA grants Notre Dame's appeal regarding vacated wins or is still prolonging a decision. (It's already 13 months and counting.)

ND’s Citrus Bowl win and Michigan’s Outback Bowl loss to South Carolina, played 87 miles apart from each other on Monday, narrowed the Wolverines’ gap for best all-time winning percentage in the FBS history to .729135 to .728773 for the No. 2 Irish.

An Irish victory on Sept. 1 would flip Notre Dame back on top, .728987 to .728582.

There is some poetic symmetry, probably more methodological than incidental, to the last couple of times that distinction flipped, both under Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s watch.

ND had trailed Michigan since the Tyrone Willingham Era (2002-04), when Notre Dame surrendered the all-time lead.

On Dec, 28, 2013, Notre Dame dispatched Rutgers, 29-16, in the Pinstripe Bowl on an unseasonably warm afternoon in Yankee Stadium. Later that night, as word was leaking out that Brian VanGorder (yes, Montgomery’s father) was Kelly’s choice to replace departed Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, Michigan was crushed by Kansas State, 31-14, at the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl at Tempe, Ariz.

The Irish ended the night in the historical first place spot.

Fast forward to Sept. 24, 2016. With Notre Dame’s 38-35 home loss to Duke and Michigan’s 28-16 triumph over Penn State, the Wolverines surged back into the lead in all-time winning percentage. The next day VanGorder was fired.

VanGorder’s numbers as a play caller over 30 games were as follows: 53 percent of those games Notre Dame held its opponents under their end-of-the-season average for points. And 43.3 percent of the time, the Irish held their opponents under their end-of-the-season average for total yards.

A total of 26.7 percent of ND’s opponents in the VanGorder Era ranked among the top 43 nationally in total offense.

Elko, in an admittedly smaller sample size, held opposing defenses under their averages 76.9 percent of the time for both points and yardage — and with 38.5 percent of his opposing offenses ranked among the top 43.

Elko’s percentage for yardage is the best among the seven men who have called defensive plays (for more than a single game) since 2005 (Rick Minter, Corwin Brown, Jon Tenuta, Bob Diaco, VanGorder, interim Mike Elston and Elko).

His percentage for points allowed is second only to Diaco’s 82.4.

The worst numbers across the board, though, weren’t VanGorder’s. They were Tenuta’s. In 2009, the same year head coach Charlie Weis exceeded his opponents defensive averages in 11 of 12 games in points and every single game in yardage, Tenuta’s defense negated all that.

His defenses held opposing offenses under their averages 41.7 percent of the time on points, 33.3 percent on yardage and facing only 25 percent of the top 43 offenses — the lowest figure among the seven defensive play-callers.

Weis was fired at season’s end.

Incidentally. Wake Forest, without Elko but running a similar scheme, nosedived from 23rd to 76th in scoring defense, 40th to 112th in total defense.

Theoretically, Elko’s numbers at ND will climb next season — because the safety play figures to be better, because the pass rush should be more relentless, because cornerback Julian Love should be playing at an All-America level, because of more depth at most positions and more nuanced understanding of how to be really good on defense throughout.

The one head start Elko already has on 2018 is the attitude. Kelly noticed it, not just in that pivotal, 56-second stretch Monday, but throughout the game.

“We fought for every inch,” Kelly said. “Quite frankly, it became a game of inches down there, where we were able to hold them to the field goals. And that was the difference in the game.

“It's a mentality that we've developed within our football program. It's a mentality that we lacked, quite frankly, last year that we didn't fight for every inch. And playing the kind of schedule we did this year with 11 bowl teams, you have to fight for everything.

“I think our kids developed that toughness and that mindset, and today it was absolutely necessary against LSU.”

Cornerback Julian Love (27), here running with an interception against Wake Forest on Nov. 4, is one of the rising stars on a Notre Dame defense that is expected to surge in 2018. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)