The demise of the Notre Dame defense

No team in the country forced fewer field goals on red-zone penetrations than Notre Dame. Just three of 34 red-zone appearances (8.8 percent) resulted in three points.

Ultimately, it’s the head coach’s responsibility – particularly a head coach whose specialty is on the opposite side of the football – to make sure the team is complete.

But when Brian Kelly entrusted the Notre Dame defense to his long-time associate, Brian VanGorder, he thought he was turning it over to a coach who would maximize his talent through an aggressive approach that VanGorder had honed on the highest levels of the game.

Instead, two years and a never-ending stream of big plays, long touchdown drives, trick plays and disastrous results in the red zone later, Notre Dame has a defense with the talent to be among the better ones in the country, but was bogged down by theories difficult to implement and a unit lacking in basic fundamental play.

A defensive coordinator’s job is to meld the talent he’s been given, develop individual pieces to add to it, and come up with a scheme that turns opposing offenses into hit-and-miss attacks via sound principles and consistency.

The 2014-15 Notre Dame defenses will go down in history as two of the worst in terms of limiting the opposition and providing the consistency necessary to give the team its best chance to win.

Instead, future NFL talent – the Irish had at least three such players in their front seven in Jaylon Smith, Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochell – was, to a large degree, squandered, and now Smith is expected to enter his name in the draft while Day is out of eligibility. Romeo Okwara’s second-half-of-the-season performance likely earned him a shot to play on Sundays as well.

The 22.4 points allowed per game – which ranks 26th nationally – is a misleading statistic as it relates to Notre Dame’s defense since it played against some of the worst offenses in the country, including the No. 122 scoring offense (Boston College), No. 121 (Wake Forest), No. 109 (UMass), No. 89 (Virginia) and No. 83 (Texas).

Even against those foes, UMass scored 27 points, Virginia tallied 27, and Boston College scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns that made a one-sided game close (and ultimately cost the Irish two spots in the College Football Playoff rankings).

Notre Dame gave up 23 touchdown drives of 75 yards or more and 26 touchdown drives of 70 yards or more. Late scoring flurries by Virginia, Georgia Tech, Temple, Pittsburgh, Boston College and Stanford were the norm.

All this with a once-in-a-generation player like Smith, a relentlessly impactful Day, a wall against the run with a vastly improved pass rush by Rochell, a heady director of operations in Joe Schmidt, two active young players on the edge in James Onwualu and Greer Martini, and two young, promising interior defensive linemen (Jerry Tillery and Daniel Cage).

The issues on the back end of the defense are a bit more complex. The Irish had a first-time, full-time secondary coach in Todd Lyght, who was expected to instruct 36.3 percent of the positions on the field. Cole Luke regressed, KeiVarae Russell was solid, but more was expected, Elijah Shumate was vastly improved yet still inconsistent, and Max Redfield looks the part much better than he plays the part.

Injuries? Injuries impacted the 2015 Notre Dame football team, but it’s hardly a legitimate crutch for VanGorder’s defense beyond the loss of Jarron Jones at nose tackle in the pre-season. The Irish didn’t get the productivity from the position it would have with a healthy Jones, but a defense could do much worse than a mammoth Cage and gifted Tillery tag-teaming the position with the flexibility to move Rochell inside.

The loss of Drue Tranquill, Onwualu and projected nickel back Shaun Crawford to injury didn’t help, but it wasn’t like the Irish lost one of the aforementioned standouts up front.

Personnel was not the issue with the 2015 Notre Dame defense; it was the inability to execute a scheme with any degree of consistency, which falls on the defensive coordinator.

Yes, the Irish were among the nation’s leaders in three-and-outs (11th) and third-down defense (19th). But those were offset by the allowance of huge plays – nine of more than 50 yards (ranking 99th) – the inability to force turnovers (13 to rank 109th nationally), and a never-ending stream of long touchdown drives and abject failure in the red zone.

Opponents made 34 penetrations into the red zone in 12 games, scoring touchdowns 23 times (67.6 percent, 103rd in the country). No team in the country forced fewer field goals after red zone penetration than Notre Dame with three. (And no team forced more than Stanford with 19, and that was with an undersized, depleted defensive line.)

When Notre Dame had to have a defensive stop with the game on the line, you could count on one thing: the Irish would need DeShone Kizer and the offense to bail out the defense. Unfortunately, Conrad Ukropina’s 45-yard field goal left no time on the clock.

VanGorder’s defense was an overloaded bag of concepts that didn’t build upon one another, but rather, detracted from one another. You’ve heard the expression less is more? With VanGorder, more is less, way less.

Eye discipline under former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco meant something much different than eye discipline under VanGorder. Under Diaco, it was a 20-piece jigsaw puzzle. It was about being in the right place at the right time, especially as it related to not allowing plays to occur behind the backs of the defenders.

It was a sound, fundamental, rarely-make-a-mistake defense that only really faltered in his final season at Notre Dame (2013) when the transition after losing NFL personnel made it difficult to approach the great defense of 2012.

Under VanGorder, defense and eye discipline is a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, a math problem of Good Will Hunting difficulty.

On one hand, it was an ultra-aggressive, attacking defense designed to put pressure on the opposing quarterback. And yet it also was a defense that stressed picture-perfect eye discipline while in an aggressive mode.

Notre Dame’s defense was expected to attack but adjust to every nuance on the run. You can’t have it both ways. Thus, what the Irish had was a wildly inconsistent defense that could overwhelm with a three-and-out on one series, and then allow an 83-yard run on the next.

The problem was portrayed as a personnel problem on the back end of the defense, and to be sure, Shumate and Redfield are anything but quick studies. (It should be noted that Shumate and Redfield struggled to adapt in Diaco’s defense, too, although they were much younger players then.)

But a coaching staff has the responsibility to maximize the talent, and in Shumate and Redfield, Notre Dame was not lacking physical ability. On a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 full maximization of their talent, the number would fall somewhere around 5 or 6.
The constant movement of the Irish defense pre-snap – particularly with an in-the-box linebacker like Joe Schmidt – ultimately led to more big plays and huge expanses of undefended land. What Schmidt’s movement did in terms of taking away 30-yard pass plays opened up opportunities for 20-yard quarterback runs. 

Notre Dame allowed 59 plays of 20 yards or more, ranking 83rd in the country.

In a year when the Irish just needed sound, fundamental defense to land a spot in the College Football Playoffs, what they got was the opposite. With an offense averaging 34.8 points per game, the Irish needed a Diaco-type defense that almost always limited points below the opposition’s average. What they got was a defense that almost always failed in the red zone and with the game on the line.

Notre Dame will not be participating in a playoff game because the defense could not be relied upon. Despite the rash of injuries – almost all of which were compensated for on offense – Notre Dame had the talent/personnel to finish 11-1 during the 2015 regular season. What they didn’t have was a sound defensive plan that a capable group of players could execute.

Over 60 minutes, Notre Dame was the better football team in the trenches against Stanford. And yet with the game on the line, the defense opened the door for Stanford’s game-winning field goal.

On the game-winning drive, Notre Dame allowed an uncontested 27-yard pass to Devon Cajuste to set up the Ukropina field goal. The Irish rushed three, used a spy on Kevin Hogan that no longer was necessary due to the time and location of the football, dropped deep in their secondary coverage, and then stood flat-footed as Cajuste ran the route from the slot that the entire free world knew he would run.

At this stage of the season, you can’t fault the players anymore. Sure, Matthias Farley should have executed his coverage from the inside-out. But considering how frequently the Irish defense found itself out of position and vulnerable to the big play, it’s difficult to criticize the players at this point. The defensive coaching staff never fully taught the message.

This was a poorly-coordinated defense, and the result is a very good but not great season that could have been even more had the defense been given a workable plan for success. Top Stories