SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The changes Brian Kelly, Greg Hudson and Mike Elston made to Notre Dame’s defense after the firing of ex-coordinator Brian VanGorder Sept. 25 were meant to be akin to a spare tire that could merely get the Irish safely to the end of the season.
Unfortunately for that analogy, a few other things have gone wrong over the last month and a half that could conspire to keep the Irish out of a bowl game for the first time since 2009. But Notre Dame’s defense is allowing 4.7 yards per play since the start of October, a significant improvement over the average of 6.2 yards per play it allowed in those four miserable games under VanGorder to begin the season (for reference, an average of 4.70 yards per play would rank 11th among FBS teams this year; Notre Dame allowed 4.78 yards per play in that magnificent defensive year of 2012).
“I think (it’s been) just a coordinated effort that has seen this defense get better and better,” Kelly said. “I think the utilization of some more of the freshmen that have really matured and have gotten better by obviously later in the season, you know, they've gotten more and more playing time, but I think all of that has come together through really good preparation, great morale, and at the end of the day, kids executing the game plan.”'
There are three glaring caveats here, of course. First, that Notre Dame even needed this kind of a defensive turnaround is one of the major failures of 2016 and opens Kelly up to criticism for not considering a coordinator change after the 2015 season.
The second: That Oct. 8 game against N.C. State played in the wrath of Hurricane Matthew that barely resembled football. Thanks to the ACC’s mind-numbing decision to let the game be played, Notre Dame allowed only three yards per play while the Wolfpack fumbled six times in the swampy, windy mess that was Carter-Finley Stadium. In short, that game skewed Notre Dame’s defensive stats toward being more positive than they actually are.
And third: Notre Dame played two triple option teams in back-to-back weeks, which doesn’t necessarily skew the team’s average yards per play allowed (Navy is averaging 6.5 yards per play; Army is averaging 5.7 yards per play) but does mean we weren’t provided with much of an opportunity to progression from a young Irish secondary.
So let’s not just settle for the “Notre Dame’s defense has been better” narrative just yet. There are two stern tests awaiting this group before the end of the regular season, starting with this weekend’s senior day clash against Virginia Tech and ending with that post-Thanksgiving trip to USC, which has played like one of the best five or six teams in the country over the last month and a half.
Virginia Tech’s efficient air attack leads the first of those challenges, powered by quarterback Jerod Evans (2,519 yards, 22 TDs, 4 INTs) and a trio of excellent pass catchers in receivers Isaiah Ford (58 receptions, 795 yards, 7 TDs) and Cam Phillips (46 receptions, 633 yards, 2 TDs) along with tight end Bucky Hodges (36 receptions, 514 yards, 5 TDs). This isn’t a necessarily explosive bunch — the Hokies’ 14 passing plays of 30 or more yards ranks 70th in FBS, and they don’t have a passing play of 60 or more yards. But that hasn’t been an issue, given Virginia Tech’s offense has generally done a good job picking up efficient yards through the air to pick up first downs or generate easy-to-convert third down tries.
But oddly enough, Virginia Tech is among the nation’s least effective offenses on standard downs — i.e., those in which a run or a pass can be reasonably expected. They’re relatively effective when a passing play is obvious, though, so Cole Luke, Drue Tranquill, Julian Love, Donte Vaughn, Troy Pride Jr., Devin Studstill and Jalen Elliott can be expected to be tested quite a bit as the Irish front seven should be set up to succeed on first and second down.
Virginia Tech struggles to do much on the ground, averaging a shade over four yards per carry (93rd) despite running the ball an average of 46.1 times per game (17th). So the battle on Saturday may not be to force third-and-longs, but moreso for Notre Dame to win on those obvious passing downs to get off the field.
This is where Virginia Tech is a different kind of test: Notre Dame’s secondary has done a good job limiting explosive plays since the Kelly-Hudson-Elston takeover, but those aren’t a staple of the Virginia Tech offense.
“I think Cole and Drue and some of those guys have done a really, really, really good job of taking some of the new coaching and really implementing it into our game and doing a much better job of containing the ball and keeping it in front of them and playing some routes that are difficult to play,” linebacker James Onwualu said. “… The DBs have really stepped up, they've gone to work the past couple of weeks and I think we'll see that this weekend.”
On the whole, Virginia Tech’s offense is middle of the pack — 45th in points per game, 70th in yards per play, 65th in S&P+ — but this is just the kind of semi-efficient, unremarkable offense that gave VanGorder’s 2016 defense problems this year (see: Michigan State and Duke). A solid defensive performance on Saturday would clear another hurdle for this defense with its most difficult one looming a week later in Los Angeles.
"It works," linebacker Nyles Morgan said. "If (the defense) works, the players are going to like. Players like it, coaches like it, everybody’s happy. The things that they’ve done, they’ve taken the defense to where guys understand it, can grow from it and can learn and can play."