Opponent outlook: Defensive woes should continue for Bowling Green, Brian VanGorder

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Even Kent State’s offense looked prolific against Bowling Green last week.

Brian VanGorder, the former Notre Dame football defensive coordinator now in the same role with Bowling Green, had his hands full against a KSU roster without any former four-star recruits. The Golden Flashes amassed a school record 750 total yards en route to their 62-20 victory.

Slowing down No. 9 Notre Dame (3-1) and quarterback Ian Book becomes the next challenge for VanGorder and first-year head coach Scot Loeffler. The Falcons (1-3) will look to improve on their ranking of No. 111 in total defense, No. 117 in run defense, No. 129 in pass efficiency defense and tied for No. 120 in scoring defense.

VanGorder makes his return to Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday (3:30 p.m. EDT on NBC) for the first time since being fired midway through the 2016 Irish season. That Notre Dame defense had ranked No. 103 in total defense and allowed 149 points through its first four games.

Book and the Irish offense is in need of a complete performance. Scoring droughts and stalled possessions have been the primary issue. In last week’s win over Virginia, Notre Dame had five three-and-outs in a span of six possessions.

A complete game looks possible against Bowling Green. But how much has changed with VanGorder and his complex defensive scheme since he was discharged? We caught up with Nick Piotrowicz of the Toledo Blade for more insight on VanGorder and the Falcons.

How do you feel VanGorder has been received by the fan base, media and players? How has his philosophy changed, if at all, since his days at Notre Dame?

Piotrowicz: The players and fans are itching to be winners again, but I think everybody associated understands the reality of a total rebuild and has given Scot Loeffler (and VanGorder by association) the benefit of the doubt. VanGorder told me shortly before the season that Bowling Green was running about half of his defense, which is guided by the same principles as his previous stops.

What has been the biggest weakness with the defense over these past few games?

Piotrowicz: Bowling Green has so little overall depth that it’s staggering. Nearly half the roster has freshman eligibility, and they only have 75 scholarship players. There’s no wiggle room, and this defense hasn’t had much help from the offense. The players are on their third coordinator in three years, so, to put it lightly, the whole operation has been under construction.

It’s interesting that Loeffler has coached quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Tim Tebow, Chad Henne and others. He has played and coached against Notre Dame as well. How do you feel Loeffler’s experience has prepared him for this job, and how do you assess his coaching so far?

Piotrowicz: I’ve been around the MAC my entire life, and the league is interesting because it probably has the least distance between the top and the bottom than any other FBS league. In the MAC, you pretty simply win or lose based on recruiting and development. Loeffler has two decades of recruiting in the Great Lakes region, and he’s done very well in that regard so far. But this roster is in rough shape.

The reality is that Bowling Green is several years away from having the type of roster it wants. You can’t really judge this season until you see what they look like in November to see how much the younger players have grown with playing time.

What will be Bowling Green’s strategy on Saturday? Who are some players to watch on both sides of the ball?

Piotrowicz: I believe their biggest concern is Notre Dame’s pass rush, so I would bet they will look to throw quickly and try to be deceptive in the running game. They’re asking for a blowout if they’re in third-and-long all day, and they know it.

On defense, watch No. 1 Brandon Perce, the middle linebacker who likely will be tasked with trying to keep Ian Book from gaining first downs with his feet. On offense, watch for No. 17 Julian Ortega-Jones, the receiver and biggest deep threat in this offense.

If Bowling Green makes this closer than expected, why would that be? If Notre Dame covers the spread (45.5 points) and more, what do you think would have gone wrong for Bowling Green?

Piotrowicz: Turnovers are the only way this would be closer than expected. They’re a great equalizer when the talent discrepancy is as big as it is here, and Bowling Green could start to make things interesting with non-offensive touchdowns and a few short fields.

If it gets out of hand, Bowling Green will have lost both lines of scrimmage convincingly and been totally unable to move the ball. That’s what happened at Kansas State, and they’d definitely like to keep it interesting for longer than that 52-0 loss in Manhattan.

Prediction: Notre Dame 56, Bowling Green 7.

Piotrowicz: There are years when Bowling Green can at least threaten ranked teams, but this probably isn’t one of them. Notre Dame has a top-10 roster, and Bowling Green hasn’t beaten an FBS team at home in three years. That’s a pretty tough sell.

Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder (left) now serves in the same role for Bowling Green, which plays at Notre Dame Stadium Saturday.