Hansen: Notre Dame's newer, bigger picture made Brian VanGorder reunion irrelevant

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Life after Brian VanGorder at Notre Dame feels so different and distant from the 30 games he stalked, roamed and fist-pumped on the Irish sideline, the reunion almost seemed irrelevant Saturday.

Most compelling perhaps along the lines of revisitation came in the days leading up to coach Brian Kelly and his No. 9 Irish football team steamrolling arguably one of the FBS’ 10 worst teams — Bowling Green — 52-0 Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

It was the Irish head coach’s admission Monday, amid bouquets of respect thrown VanGorder’s way, that he and his deposed defensive coordinator haven’t spoken since VanGorder was purged four games into a 2016 season that threatened to swallow Kelly with him at the time and in the weeks that ensued.

Saturday didn’t provide them with much fodder for conversation either, with VanGorder returning to Notre Dame Stadium as Bowling Green’s defensive coordinator and leaving with 573 total yards surrendered — 75 more than Duke gashed the Irish for in VanGorder’s final game as Kelly’s coordinator, a 38-35 upset loss to the Blue Devils.

The Irish, meanwhile, perpetuated an agenda of trending toward playing on some kind of a big stage in late December.

Kelly said he made it a priority Saturday to get senior receiver Javon McKinley more involved, and he responded with career-high production (five catches, 104 yards and a TD). And Kelly said he wanted to shuffle in plenty of bodies through a running back rotation, expected to add injured starter Jafar Armstrong in next week.

Left unsaid but implied, more than anything Saturday the Irish (4-1) needed to show the college football world and themselves that they were a team that was evolving, regardless of the level of resistance.

A single penalty for five yards, zero turnovers, an 8-of-11 third-down conversion rate for a team that came in ranked 114th nationally in that stat category all played well on a day where Notre Dame recalibrated and redefined itself coming out of a tough two-game stretch with Georgia and Virginia.

USC rolling in next Saturday night, and a trip to Michigan at the end of the month after a bye are two games in which the Irish can test whether Saturday’s apparent improvement is real and sustainable.

“There wasn’t perfection out there today, but there was a level and standard of play,” Kelly said. “Today went the way it should have went — and could have gone better, certainly.

“Given the fact that (the Irish) played two very good opponents in the previous two weeks and had USC on the horizon, I thought they prepared extremely well during the week and then I thought they went out and were very businesslike in the manner that they played today.”

What that looked like defensively was a season-low 233 yards allowed by the Irish, despite heavy substitutions, and the first shutout by an ND defense since the second game of the VanGorder Era at ND, a 31-0 squelching of Michigan early in the 2014 season.

Four games later, in a 50-43 Irish survival, North Carolina decoded VanGorder’s high-risk, high-pressure defense by exposing the scheme with tempo and in space. He and his X’s and O’s haven’t been the same since.

ND’s current defensive coordinator Clark Lea, meanwhile, presided over his 18th straight game without allowing more than 30 points. Combined with the final game with Mike Elko serving as ND’s defensive coordinator, the school’s active streak is 19 such games, tied with Washington as the nation’s longest before the Huskies took the field last Saturday night at Stanford.

On the flip side a VanGorder defense gave up more than 30 points for the 14th time in his last 19 games as a college defensive coordinator — including his final two games as ND — and for the 10th time 50 or more in that span.

Some of the most intriguing developments in the game were much more subtle and perhaps wouldn’t have come to light if the score hadn’t been so lopsided.

Cornerback Houston Griffith took second-team reps at safety, playing alongside freshman phenom Kyle Hamilton. Depending on senior Alohi Gilman’s thoughts about returning for a fifth year, we might have been witnessing next year’s starting safety duo.

Freshman wide receiver Cam Hart showed up at cornerback, a move Kelly confirmed was permanent.

Phil Jurkovec and Brendon Clark, QBs No. 2 and 3 respectively, got a shot at the joystick of coordinator Chip Long’s offense. Jurkovec led scoring drives in both of his possessions.

He also fashioned a 213.4 passing-efficiency rating by going 5-of-7 for 79 yards and a TD. He was ND’s second-leading rusher in the game with 42 yards on four carries.

Starter Ian Book was even better statistically, and just as importantly with the eye test. The Falcons (1-4) admittedly came in 129th out of 130 in the FBS in pass-efficiency defense, but Book’s career-high 272.1 pass-efficiency rating was stellar even by those standards.

The Irish started dubiously with a three-and-out the first time they had their hands on the ball. But he finished 16-of-20 for 261 yards and no interceptions. His five TD passes in 2 ½ quarters is one short of Brady Quinn’s school record.

Book threw deep. He threw with precision. He showed good field vision and good footwork, elements that have abandoned him intermittently in previous games this season.

“Just more studying, going out there and practicing, challenging myself every day to go through those reads, and really just trusting in my eyes,” Book said of what his week looked like. “We practice it. I know what’s going on. It’s about translating from practice to the games and going out there and doing it.”

Kelly was in such a good mood in that vein he even chuckled and joked with a reporter when he was asked whether Jurkovec may have earned a niche role.

“Yeah, let’s start a quarterback competition,” he said. “We haven’t done that — this is my first year that I haven’t had it, so I don’t know what to do.”

Actually he does. As valuable as it was to play Jurkovec and Clark, Saturday’s No. 1 priority where quarterbacks were concerned was nudging Book toward a higher ceiling.

“I liked the things he did today. Who wouldn’t?” Kelly said. “But again the competition is going to step up. USC will be a bigger challenge. Two weeks later, Michigan will be another big challenge.

“But good things to work on that we saw today from Ian, that we can show him on film, that he got a chance to feel today, which is even bigger. We’ll build off of that.”

Notre Dame’s Ian Book (12) talks with Chase Claypool (83) as they leave the field following the victory over Bowling Green in Notre Dame Stadium.
Notre Dame’s Tony Jones Jr. (6) breaks away from Bowling Green’s Antonyo Sotolongo (21) and Jamari Bozeman (13) during Saturday’s victory in Notre Dame Stadium.