Analysis: How Notre Dame arrived at a defensive milestone and what it means for the offense

Eric Hansen | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — Two and a half seasons after parting ways with defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder in season, a Notre Dame defense that was trending toward its worst total defense rating (103rd) in school history on Sunday hit a transcending milestone.

The most reliable thread among the 20 college football national champions in the BCS/Playoff Era is a top 25 ranking in total defense. Nineteen of the 20 have that distinction. and now, finally, so do the 2018 Irish.

After smothering Northwestern to the tune of 249 total yards and 3.6 per play in Saturday night’s 31-21 ND victory in Evanston, Ill., coordinator Clark Lea’s defense stands right at No. 25 heading into the week, yielding an average of 331 total yards per game.

And Notre Dame’s 4.56 yards-per-play yield is even more impressive — tied with Alabama for 10th-best nationally.

How the Irish got there, how it positively affects the ND offense, and how VanGorder’s own aftermath has unfolded are all fascinating subplots as AP No. 3 Notre Dame on Saturday night looks to join the 2012, 1993, 1989, 1988, 1973, 1949, 1930 and 1924 Irish teams as the only ones that stood 10-0 after 10 games.

Florida State (4-5) brings the nation’s 106th-ranked total offense to town along with a relatively new offensive play-caller (offensive coordinator Walt Bell), a presumably relatively new starting quarterback (James Blackman), and a need for some new gameday accessories.

WSBT meteorologist Ed Russo has this early prediction for Saturday’s weather in South Bend: “Highs barely reach freezing; breezy northwest winds at 15-20 mph, 25+mph gusts; AND snow showers.”

• As for the defensive transformation, certainly the continuity in message and the meshing philosophies of interim coordinator Mike Elston, successor Mike Elko and current coordinator Lea is an obvious cornerstone.

Not so obvious has been Notre Dame’s aggressive recruiting: Among ND’s starting defenders or key rotation pieces, Khalid Kareem (Alabama), Jordan Genmark Heath (Cal), Troy Pride Jr. (Virginia Tech), Drue Tranquill (Purdue), Daelin Hayes (USC), Ade Ogundeji (Western Michigan) and Houston Griffith (Florida State) all had to be nudged out of someone else’s recruiting class.

Injured nickel man Shaun Crawford (Michigan), and promising freshman cornerbacks DJ Brown (Virginia) and Noah Boykin (Maryland) all are part of that trend that includes even more defensive players further down the depth chart.

Subtle position switches have also been a key, specifically defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, buck linebacker Tranquill, nose guard Jonathan Bonner and middle linebacker Te’von Coney — all four players who initially strongly considered not returning for this season.

• One of the ways ND’s offense benefits from elite defense is that Notre Dame (13-for-19) is on pace to set coach Brian Kelly Era highs in fourth-down conversion attempts and actual conversions. and the defense — the Irish head coach says — gives him the confidence to do so.

“I think we’ve seen them, even these last couple of games, where we’ve unfortunately turned the football over,” Kelly said, “and they’ve gotten us out of both of those jams.”

The Irish were 3-of-3 on fourth-down conversions Saturday against Northwestern, and all three were aggressive — as opposed to desperation attempts. The first, fourth-and-2 at the Wildcat 42, ended up extending a drive that led to the first TD of the game and a 7-0 Irish lead.

The second, a fourth-and-1 at the NU 30, allowed the Irish to drive inside the Wildcat 10, before penalties and a blown-up running play coaxed a long Justin Yoon field goal that missed.

The third was a fourth-and-two from the Northwestern 29 that ended up as the points that gave ND the lead for good, at 14-7.

Notre Dame’s .684 conversion rate is 14th nationally and the best of the Kelly Era except for the 6-for-6 (100 percent) in 2011. The 19 tries through nine games project to 27 over a 13-game season. The Kelly Era high-water mark is 20 in 2016. The 2012 and 2011 teams share the fewest attempts with six each.

“I think it’s confidence in our quarterback to execute in those fourth-down situations,” Kelly said. “And then I think we look at the use of analytics, as well.

“I don’t subscribe to just strictly analytic use of fourth-down situations. I’ve got a sense and a feel, as well, as to when to use it.”

On a national scale, Air Force and Florida Atlantic — the latter with Charlie Weis Jr. pushing the offensive buttons — share the FBS lead with 33 fourth-down conversion attempts each.

• With each passing week, it looks less likely Notre Dame will face VanGorder in the 2019 season opener for both teams when the Irish visit Louisville Sept. 2.

VanGorder, fired by Kelly after a 30-game run in September of 2016, is his first season as Louisville’s defensive coordinator. He presides over a defense that has yielded 66, 38, 56 and 77 in its past four games.

Next up for the Cardinals (2-7), which have yet to beat a Power 5 team this season, is AP 13th-ranked Syracuse (7-2) Friday night on the road. In fact, in VanGorder’s last 12 games as a coordinator defending Power 5 offenses dating back to his ND tenure, the team that employs him is 0-12.

Louisville this season is 127th out of 129 in rushing defense, 123rd in pass-efficiency defense, 115th in total defense and 124th in scoring defense.

Personnel matters

Drue Tranquill made the second start of his career, in the 2014 season, against Northwestern when VanGorder was his coordinator.

Starting at free safety in an eventual 43-40 overtime loss in place of demoted Max Redfield, Tranquill managed seven tackles and a fumble recovery.

Four years later, he came off the bench against Northwestern. and playing with a high ankle sprain and a still-broken left hand, the now-linebacker registered five tackles in the 31-21 Irish win on Saturday night, playing primarily in third-down packages.

“I think Drue is closer to getting the cast off his hand,” Kelly said Sunday. “I think you might see that come off here if it’s not brought down to a very workable situation. But I don’t think that that’s even an issue right now with his hand.

“He’s able to use it in the fashion that he needs to, to tackle and do the things necessary. I think this is much more about being more comfortable with his ankle.

“But I think he got out of the game feeling really confident that he’ll be able to make some big strides this week in terms of playing (on) first and second down.”

An added twist was the Irish coaches got an extended look at sophomore linebacker Jordan Genmark Heath in high-leverage situations for the first time. The converted safety and Sweden native started in Tranquill’s place on Saturday night and has the inside track, but certainly not a lock on, the buck linebacker job in 2019.

“I think for a first-time starter, he did a nice job,” Kelly said of Genmark Health, who collected six tackles. “There’s certainly some run fits that he can do a better job on. But we felt when we played him in this game, that he was going to be able to do a job for us that would not put us in a deficit position defensively.

“We want more from him, but we did not think he was going to play at a level that there would be issues.”

• Starting tight end Alizé Mack, who missed the Northwestern game recovering from a concussion, has been cleared for conditioning and is expected to practice with the team on Tuesday, per Kelly.

• Key defensive line reserve Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, out with a broken foot since the season opener with Michigan on Sept. 1, is on track to return to practice USC week for the final week of the regular season.

The 6-3, 285-pound sophomore could play in that game and conceivably two playoff games and still be able to redshirt under the new rule.

Squibs

• In nursing a 24-21, fourth-quarter lead at Northwestern on Saturday night, Notre Dame wasn’t coming close on most downs to milking the play clock down to the last few seconds.

“If we were up two scores, maybe three scores, we would probably take that clock down to two or three (seconds),” Kelly said, “but we needed to score another touchdown. We needed to put more points on the board.

“It’s virtually impossible to keep the tempo of your offense and bring the clock all the way down. It’s like in any other sport when you’re running your offense, you can’t change it completely and get both accomplished; that is, take the clock all the way down and run the offense the way you want to run it.

“We did take some more time by holding the play, by not sending it in right away to eat some clock, but we still needed to score. and that meant we still needed to play at least in a similar tempo.”

• Junior QB Ian Book remained No. 1 in the FBS in completion percentage this week (.745) and moved up a spot to No. 6 in passing efficiency at 170.0. Both marks, if sustained, would break Jimmy Clausen’s single-season school records of .680 and 161.4.

Notre Dame’s Jordan Genmark Heath (2) and Julian Okwara (42) tackle Northwestern’s Isaiah Bowser (25) during ND’s 31-21 win, Saturday at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill.
Notre Dame defenders line up during the ND’s 31-21 triumph Saturday night at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill.

Who: AP No. 3 Notre Dame (9-0) vs. Florida State (4-5)

When: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. (EST)

Where: Notre Dame Stadium

TV: NBC

Radio: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN-FM (101.5)

Line: Notre Dame by 18