Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly stood behind his defensive coordinator Sunday, with the remains of his team's playoff hopes still smoldering following Saturday's 36-28 loss to Michigan State.
While Notre Dame’s offense and special teams both were guilty of mistakes and sloppy play at times, its defense allowed more than 500 yards of total offense and was unable to come up with a critical late stop Saturday night. The issues that cropped up — long drives, explosive plays, a lack of pressure on the quarterback — have existed since Brian VanGorder was hired to replace Bob Diaco following the 2013 season.
But after crashing out of the College Football Playoff race just three weeks into the season, Kelly continued to emphatically back his embattled defensive coordinator.
“Oh, absolutely,” Kelly said when asked if he has confidence in VanGorder and his scheme. “Yeah, without question. That's not even part of the conversation.”
Still, the results for Notre Dame’s defense bear plenty of scrutiny for a team that no longer has anything tangible to play for in 2016.
Notre Dame is one of two FBS teams without a sack this season (Nevada is the other), and is also one of two teams to have allowed four plays of 60 or more yards (along with Appalachian State). The Irish defense allowed a combined seven touchdown drives of 75 or more yards against Texas and Michigan State, negating whatever field position advantages it's been given.
And the Longhorns and Spartans drove into the red zone 10 times, scoring nine touchdowns and one field goal.
“It's really about the fundamentals of defense and getting the fundamentals to the point where simple guard pull ‘O’ play that is being fitted the right way,” Kelly said. “Making a play on the ball. Making a tackle. I mean, this is not rocket science what we're talking about here. These are plays that we've got to continue to work on and fundamentally get better at.”
So the solution for Kelly isn’t to ditch his defensive coordinator, at least not yet. But that doesn’t mean the spotlight isn’t squarely on VanGorder and Notre Dame’s defensive coaching staff going forward.
“These are the players we recruited to Notre Dame,” Kelly said, reiterating a personnel-isn’t-an-excuse point he made Saturday night. “These are the players that are going to play for us. It's our job as coaches to coach them better and get them in position to make the plays necessary for us to be successful.
“...We're going to be thumb pointers. It's on the coaches and on me to make sure we find a way to get our players to continue to improve week after week so when we get to November this is a better football team.”