Brian VanGorder haunted Stanford last October.
With his aggressive scheme still new to Notre Dame and virtually every team it faced, the Irish defense unleashed the power of zone blitzes. The results knocked out Stanford’s offense with brutal efficiency.
When Notre Dame employed a zone blitz concept against the Cardinal last year, meaning one of the Irish defensive linemen dropped into coverage and was replaced on the rush by a linebacker, defensive back or both, Hogan finished 2-of-12 for 21 yards with an interception. On top of that, Notre Dame produced four sacks out of that concept against an offensive line that included a first-round pick at left tackle.
The zone blitz beating Hogan took included the game’s final play when Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt and Elijah Shumate burst up the middle and forced an intentional grounding penalty.
It was a different story last weekend in Notre Dame’s 38-36 loss that eliminated the Irish from College Football Playoff contention. Despite starting virtually the same defensive lineup, the zone blitz never got to Hogan. He finished 7-of-8 for 96 yards against the concept, which also forced one scramble that turned into a zero-yard rush.
By the end of the first quarter it was clear Stanford had a handle on VanGorder’s zone blitzes. The Irish went there (or at least dropped a defensive lineman into coverage) on each of the Cardinal’s first three third down attempts. Stanford converted all three.
On the first, a 3rd-and-5 at the Stanford 49-yard line, Isaac Rochell – lined up at nose guard – dropped into coverage to pick up tight end Austin Hooper with Matthias Farley. Romeo Okwara also dropped, leaving the pass rush to Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Andrew Trumbetti and Joe Schmidt. Trumbetti got into Hogan’s face, but not before he hit Hooper for a five-yard gain (that looked more like a four-year completion).
Three plays later Stanford faced 3rd-and-3 from the Notre Dame 39-yard line and used the same personnel group. This time the Irish rushed only Rochell, Day and Trumbetti. Again, Okwara dropped into the flat, where he ably took away Michael Rector. But with no pass on Hogan – Stanford kept in six blockers to cancel out Notre Dame’s three rushers – the quarterback slipped out of the pocket, sucked in Smith and Schmidt, then dropped a 16-yarder to Trent Irwin.
Stanford’s next third down attempt came on its second series, a 3rd-and-9 at the Cardinal 33-yard line. Notre Dame stuck with the same nickel personnel with Rochell again lined up at nose guard. This time Okwara and Smith, both lined up outside Stanford’s offensive tackles, dropped into coverage. That left Schmidt charging up the middle, where he was picked up by Christian McCaffrey. That gave Hogan a clean pocket and he hit Rector for a 31-yard gain that Cole Luke almost broke up.
Notre Dame tried three more zone blitz concepts in the second quarter, and Hogan went 3-of-3 for 38 yards. The Irish didn’t get pressure on him in any of those attempts.
The third zone blitz of the second quarter highlighted one of the criticisms of VanGorder’s defense, mainly that it can put players in losing situations. On that play, a 1st-and-10 from the Cardinal 36-yard line (the drive following Will Fuller’s 73-yard touchdown), the Irish had standard nickel personnel on the field, which included Day and Smith.
But instead of rushing Notre Dame’s biggest threats, both players dropped. Instead, Farley blitzed alongside Okwara, Tillery and Rochell. Because Farley came on the rush, Shumate was forced to pick up Devon Cajuste in the slot while Schmidt scurried to get to Hooper. The scheme had Schmidt in a losing position before the snap, giving Hogan a pitch-and-catch with Hooper for a 12-yard gain.
Notre Dame tried just two zone blitzes in the second half as Hogan attempted only six more passes.
There’s no question VanGorder’s scheme has its complexities and those can often be a good thing for Notre Dame’s defense. But Stanford offered some evidence that a veteran quarterback and a capable offensive line can take an Irish strength and turn it into a weakness.