The number in itself is startling, difficult to fully fathom.
That’s how many times an opposing offense in the last 24 games has taken possession of the football at least 70 yards from the goal line and traveled the distance for a touchdown against the Notre Dame defense.
An average of twice per game, the Notre Dame defense – beginning with Rice to start the 2014 season through last week’s game at Fenway Park against Boston College – coughs up a long scoring drive. And it’s not long drives in which the defense bows its neck and forces a field goal. Of the 49 long scoring drives against the Irish, 48 have resulted in touchdowns.
“I still think it’s personnel-driven,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly when presented with the statistics of 40 touchdown drives of 75 yards or more since the start of the 2014 season.
“You’re still looking at who you’re putting on the field. We’ve had a number of times where our pressure has certainly done really big things. Ten out of 12 Boston College drives were virtually nothing.”
But it was next two drives that make this defense – which still ranks 11th in the country in three-and-out drives – a maddening combination of NFL talent, quality play, and then a breakdown or three that ultimately send the opposing team’s offense into a celebratory mode.
“It was aggravating,” admitted junior defensive lineman Isaac Rochell of Boston College’s 130 yards total offense through three quarters and another 172 in the fourth alone. “I think we had held them to 2.1 yards per play. Then at the end of the fourth quarter, we give up over 100 yards.
“It is aggravating, but we know we’re right there. When you go three quarters and play a great game, and then at the end you’re giving up yards, you know you have to focus until the end. It gives us a really good picture. We need to focus on the back end and cut out the mental errors.”
Limiting the mental errors has been something the Irish have been unable to do for the better part of two seasons under defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, who arrived at Notre Dame from successful stints in the NFL as well as the SEC dating back to the start of the 21st century.
When Kelly tabbed VanGorder to replace long-time Kelly coordinator Bob Diaco, who landed the Connecticut head-coaching job following the 2013 season, he banked on a more aggressive unit to force turnovers and create havoc for opposing offenses with multiple pressures.
From the outset, the Irish quickly offered a more elaborate pressure scheme with the hope of transitioning from a keep-the-football-in-front-of-us approach to one that would force the action. Out with the two-gap approach, in with a one-gap attack that emphasized getting off the football and upfield.
The results have been mixed. Over 24 games, the Irish have forced 28 fumbles with just 12 recovered, or one every two games. After recording 26 sacks in 13 games last year, the Irish are on a similar pace with 21 through 11 games this season. That ranks 70th nationally.
The statistics say the third-down conversion defense has improved from 81st in the country last year at 41.5 percent to ninth in the land this year at 30.5 percent.
But when the defense can’t get off the field and a vast majority of the long drives end in touchdowns, all the three-and-out stats and third-down conversion rates don’t mean very much. The hiccups that result in long touchdown drives generally offset stretches of quality play.
Several opponents along the way have put together long scoring drives in bunches. After holding four of the first five opponents in ’14 without a touchdown drive of 70 yards or more, opponents have had at least one in 16 out of 19 games. More concerning is the fact that it’s often more than one long drive in a game.
North Carolina had four last year. Florida State had two. Navy had four. Northwestern had three. Louisville had four. USC had two. LSU had three.
It’s gotten worse this year with the addition of numerous big plays. Virginia, with its No. 84-ranked total offense, had four touchdown drives of 75 yards or more. UMass added three. Navy had a pair of at least 70 yards. USC had four. Temple had two. Pittsburgh added four more.
Boston College, with its No. 127-ranked total offense, added to the list last week with an 80-yard touchdown run and a nine-play, 86-yard drive – both in the fourth quarter – that played a significant role in Notre Dame’s fall from No. 4 to No. 6 in this week’s College Football Playoff poll.
“You’ve got to win first and second down, and then try to get off the field on third down,” said fifth-year senior linebacker Joe Schmidt. “You’ve got to understand what the offense is going to do to attack you. It comes down to mental and physical focus. You’ve got to be locked in and execute your assignment.”
Big plays (see Pete Sampson’s “The Big Play Problem”) have often been at the forefront of Notre Dame’s defensive issues during the VanGorder regime, particularly this season with only 18 teams in the country allowing more 50-yard plays than Notre Dame’s nine.
From players to coaches, the Irish agree that mental breakdowns have been the cause of explosive plays as well as the inability to prevent long drives from turning into long touchdown drives.
“A lot of the issues with us have been mental errors, guys not filling where they need to fill, not being where they need to be,” Rochell said. “Sometimes it’s d-line, sometimes it’s the secondary, sometimes it’s linebackers. You have to play with 11 men on the field and everybody has to do their job. The biggest issue has been mental errors.”
“It’s just understanding that for each and every play, we have to make sure we stay focused and locked in and execute our assignment,” said linebacker Jaylon Smith. “Those two (fourth-quarter) drives (by Boston College) are great learning lessons for us. It’s about not letting that happen again. That’s been kind of our Achilles heel.”
“It’s just a focus thing,” said fifth-year nickel back/safety Matthias Farley. “Anytime there’s a long drive, you’ve got to get off the field on third down when the opportunity arises. Everybody has to be on their job because if one guy is off, then bad things are going to happen.”
Some have suggested that VanGorder’s defense is too complex, prompting Malik Zaire to refer to the Irish defensive coordinator as “a mad scientist.” Some of the most physically-talented players in the program – Elijah Shumate, Max Redfield, Nyles Morgan – have struggled picking up the scheme and/or have been unable to get on the field because of an inability to execute the defense.
Schmidt, who Kelly has described as the quintessential in-the-box Mike linebacker -- which indicates limitations in mobility and the ability to cover ground -- has been asked to sprint all over the field to help cover gaps in coverages. That requires so much physical energy on the part of Schmidt, he often arrives at the football in no position to make a football play.
Schmidt defends the scheme.
“We’re fully confident in our game plan and coaching staff and everyone on this football team that we can get the job done,” Schmidt said. “It’s just a matter of going out there and executing.”
Kelly, whose relationship with VanGorder dates back to their Grand Valley State days together (1989-91), remains publicly committed to his defensive coordinator, acknowledging the need to continue improving on what has been built over 24 games.
“Brian has brought the kind of pressure and aggressive defensive play that we’re looking for in a transition,” Kelly said. “We’re still evolving defensively. We’re still working to build our defense. We’re not there yet, clearly. It’s been the kind of transition that I expected.
“We’re going to get better as we continue to recruit and develop our defense.”
And yet the reality is that along Notre Dame’s defensive front seven, the Irish have two sure-fire, top-round NFL players in Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day. Day is out of eligibility after this season and Smith almost undoubtedly will be taking his skills to the next level upon the completion of his junior season.
Even with those two players on the field, along with Rochell, who also has NFL-level talent, the Irish have been unable to reach a level of defensive consistency commensurate with most of the teams competing for a playoff spot.
Plus, Schmidt – the brains of the defensive operation for VanGorder – will be gone after this season as well. Who will direct traffic for the defense next year?
The clock is ticking on the VanGorder defense. Stopping teams from marching up and down the field is the greatest obstacle in the way of Notre Dame playing championship-caliber football, particularly at a time of the year when everything the Irish do is scrutinized by a committee determining their post-season fate.