SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Brian Kelly said he “absolutely” believes defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder is the right man for the job. The seventh-year Irish coach interested in big-picture critiques after one game, and his message is that his team’s defense will ultimately be fine.
But this is the territory you enter at Notre Dame, where championships are the goal and playoff berths are expected. If your defense gives up 50 points after two years of inconsistency and ineffectiveness, it’s going to be criticized.
For Kelly, it would’ve been counter-productive to publicly lambast his coordinator (or worse, his players) after one game given the emergent need for a defensive turnaround. It’s rare, too, for a big-time college program to change coordinators so early in the season, and doing so may not be a panacea — Texas did it back in 2013, when Mack Brown fired defensive coordinator Manny Diaz after the Longhorns gave up 40 points in a road loss to BYU. Texas’ defense went out the next week and gave up 44 points to Ole Miss and ranked 44th in defensive S&P+ that 8-5 season.
So all Kelly was asking for with his comments Monday and Tuesday is a chance for Notre Dame’s defense to prove itself in 2016.
“It's great conversation for everybody to have, but it's so short-sighted of what really happened in the Texas game,” Kelly said. “What really happened in the Texas game was you had the offense that had a chance to win the game — you're going to have to play some games where you outscore people. If we're 10 or 11 games into the season and we have to outscore everybody, I'll take the questions, you know? And I would say fair enough.”
Kelly added: “We're in game one of a brand new defense that we saw for the first time,” noting the departures of a number of NFL players from last year’s team (Sheldon Day, Romeo Okwara, Jaylon Smith, KeiVarae Russell, Matthias Farley).
But the problems with VanGorder’s defense aren’t confined to the single-game vacuum of Notre Dame’s 50-47 double-overtime loss at Texas on Sunday. The issues with depth, explosive plays, red zone, pressure and turnovers lurked in 2014 and 2015, and came forward again Sunday night in Austin.
Texas converted six of its seven red zone attempts into touchdowns — thanks largely to the Tyrone Swoopes-led “18-wheeler” package that plowed through the Irish defense — Sunday night. In 2015, Notre Dame’s defense allowed a red zone touchdown rate of 65.85 (95th), which actually was an improvement off 2014’s rate of 70 percent (116th).
The Longhorns ripped off plays of 68 and 72 yards, and could’ve had a third explosive gain if receiver John Burt didn’t drop an on-the-money throw after beating cornerback Nick Coleman in single coverage in the first half. Notre Dame was one of three teams to have allowed multiple plays of 60 or more yards in Week 1, joining USC and, oddly enough, Houston.
Texas had five touchdown drives of 70 or more yards on Sunday (and another that rolled 68 yards late in the fourth quarter after Notre Dame took the lead), which fits with this trend:
In last 22 games, dating back to UNC in Oct. of '14, #NotreDame defense has allowed 56 TD drives of 70+ yards, an average of 2.54 per game.— Irish Illustrated (@timprister) September 6, 2016
Kelly said Notre Dame was still figuring out how to best use its personnel against Texas, and it should be noted there were some positive changes made. Freshman Devin Studstill looked solid after he subbed in for junior Drue Tranquill. Moving redshirt freshman Shaun Crawford from a nickel to outside corner position (where Coleman was) took away Texas’ ability to stretch the field, too, and freshman Julian Love held his own in the nickel. Notre Dame’s defense forced a turnover and then three consecutive punts after the Crawford-Love-Coleman substitutions were made.
The Irish defense was more effective when it played with four defensive linemen instead of three, though consistently going with four down linemen might’ve made a difference against the Swoopes package.
“I think if we had to do anything differently we probably would have added a little bit more personnel to the two tight end run game packages with Swoopes, in retrospect,” Kelly said. “Other than that, we had the right defensive structure out there.”
And it’s not like this defense was bereft of positive individual impacts. Middle linebacker Nyles Morgan was excellent, while defensive end Isaac Rochell, defensive tackle Jerry Tillery and linebacker James Onwualu all put in long, effective evenings. Crawford and Cole Luke looked strong at cornerback, too.
“Primarily, if we just do the ordinary things ordinarily well we're in good shape,” Kelly said. “We have to do those better. We have to coach better. If we're not playing cover three well we're not coaching well enough, so we've got to do those things better. I know if we're coaching better and getting that from our players we will be a better defense moving forward.”
Notre Dame doesn’t have any margin for error if it still fancies itself a College Football Playoff contender. To do enough to impress the selection committee, the Irish not only have to win their next 11 games, but do so in impressive fashion. And it’s tough to look impressive without a consistently effective defense.
VanGorder & Co. have a chance to prove it can be just that over these next 11 games. If they don’t, it’ll be another year of leaning on the offense — and most likely missing the College Football Playoff.
“I just think we're jumping the gun,” Kelly said. “If we're ten games into this and we're giving up 50 points a game, I'll have to answer your questions. Right now, as I said yesterday, I think y'all should relax a little bit. I think our defense is going to be fine.”