SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The numbers don’t add up, at least not for a defense that ranks 37th in the country in third-down percentage and 12th in the number of three-and-outs forced.
How can a defense that boasts such powerful numbers with personnel that includes a future first-round draft choice (Jaylon Smith), one of college football’s top defensive tackles (Sheldon Day), a surging senior defensive end (Romeo Okwara), and a junior defensive end sure to be drafted in 2017 (Isaac Rochell) allow 26 touchdown drives of 70 yards-plus?
“Inconsistent,” said Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder when asked to summarize his unit’s performance in 2015. “That’s really what the season shows. For the most part, we’ve been really good, but there are four, five, six plays a game that are hard to explain.”
Pressed to respond to the notion that perhaps his defensive system is perhaps too complex for his players to fully grasp, VanGorder begs to differ, particularly as it pertains to the breakdowns that have led to the unit’s inconsistent play.
“You’ve got to be pretty smart to play in our defense,” VanGorder said. “We’re multiple in what we do. But if I looked at those plays that bring about that term inconsistency, they wouldn’t involve anything that was complicated or should have been an issue.”
Ultimately, when it comes down to it, Notre Dame’s defense has been unable to come through with a stop in the last 20 yards of real estate.
“We haven’t been very good in the red zone,” said VanGorder, whose defense ranks 102nd nationally in touchdown percentage allowed in the red zone.
A different defense than the one that showed up a majority of the time during the ’15 regular season better show up Friday morning at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.
That’s when Notre Dame’s stop troops will be tasked with the responsibility of slowing down an Ohio State offense that has been inconsistent in its own right this season, but boasts plenty of weapons, starting with quarterback J.T. Barrett, running back Ezekiel Elliott, and a host of receivers, led by Michael Thomas.
VanGorder says the Irish will face one of the most innovative head coaches in the game today, one who introduced a different level of performance a few years back at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida before taking his winning ways to Columbus, Ohio.
“It’s a little heavier inventory than the other offenses that we’ve played,” said VanGorder, referring to Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer’s spread-option attack. “We got to see a little bit of it with (Steve) Addazio at Boston College.
“If you go back to (Meyer’s) years in Florida with Tim Tebow, he was way ahead of everybody in getting the quarterback more involved in the run-game scheme.
“When you take a look at the inventory, it’s pretty astonishing. Each game involves a different emphasis. You look at all those games and compile all the inventory. They can’t do it all (in one game), but which part of it is he going to use?
A big part of it undoubtedly will be the quarterback runs with Barrett, who has had a positive influence on improving the Buckeyes’ red-zone efficiency since taking over as the starting quarterback in four of the last five games of the ’15 regular season.
The Michigan State game notwithstanding, Elliott has been a central figure in Ohio State’s offensive success, rushing for 1,672 yards, including at least 100 yards rushing in 11 games. His 30-carry, 214-yard, two-touchdown performance against Michigan punctuated the significance of a fully-engaged Elliott in the Buckeye offense.
Then there’s Thomas as well as Jalin Marshall -- the former standing at 6-foot-3 and the latter a 5-foot-11, 205-pound powerhouse – who have a combined 13 touchdown receptions and 1,157 yards.
Ohio State would prefer to run the football, which plays to Notre Dame’s strength, which is its front seven. It’s the back end – particularly without injured cornerback KeiVarae Russell and suspended safety Max Redfield – that offers an enticing alternative for Ohio State’s offensive selections.
Asked if it would be accurate to conclude that the bulk of Notre Dame’s problems have come on the back end of the defense, VanGorder simply responds, “I think that’s fair to say.”
It also would be fair to say that unless a much-improved Notre Dame defense shows up on Jan. 1, Notre Dame’s 22-year drought without a major-bowl victory will spill over into the 2016 season.