You can’t say Brian VanGorder didn’t make a strong first impression.
Forgotten amidst the 40 points per game allowed over the final eight of the 2014 season and the steady barrage of lengthy touchdown drives last season is the outstanding start by VanGorder’s defense during his first five games on the job.
Rice, Michigan, Purdue, Syracuse and Stanford scored a combined 60 points (12.0 per game) in 2014 against the Irish with turnovers aplenty and three yardage yields below 300.
It prompted many to cheer even more loudly for the departure of Bob Diaco, whose 2013 defense was considered porous when it allowed 22.3 points per game.
The early-season trend continued under VanGorder in 2015. Through six games, the Irish had limited Texas to 163 yards total offense, stymied Georgia Tech’s triple-option rushing attack, held Clemson to a whopping 218 yards under its average for the season, and bottled up Navy’s patented version of triple-option.
Notre Dame’s defenses have started out fast each of the last two years, only to succumb to injuries in November of 2014 while relinquishing big numbers with the 2015 season on the line against Stanford in the regular-season finale and Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.
“More than anything else, no big-play runs and no big-play passes,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly as to the keys to a successful defense in 2016.
“We would play really good defense last year, and then would let up a big play. Big plays are the things that we’ll obviously have an eye towards more than anything else.”
Notre Dame was 108th in the country in 70-yard-plus plays allowed (4) in 2015, 84th in 60-yarders (5), 88th in 50-yarders (9), 73rd in 40-yarders (15) and 85th in 30-yarders (30).
Those big plays ruined some otherwise strong performances, such as the Boston College game in which 166 of the Eagles’ 302 yards total offense came in the final 10:17 of the game.
In each of the past two seasons, there has been a marked decline in overall performance by the defense once the Irish were past the midway point of the season.
• In 2014, the Irish forced 14 turnovers in the first six games (2.33), but just nine through the last seven (1.28).
• In 2015, Notre Dame created nine turnovers through the first seven games (1.28), but just five through the last six (0.83).
Of Notre Dame’s 11 “winning defensive performances” the last two seasons – defined as holding an opponent to 25 yards or more below that opponent’s per-game total offense – 10 have come in September/October.
The only “winning defensive performance” in November of 2014-15 came against Arizona State in ’14 when two of the seven touchdowns allowed were scored on offensive turnovers while two more Sun Devil touchdowns came on “drives” of 13 and eight yards.
With holding opponents 25-yards or more under their season average counting as a win, surrendering 25-yards-plus over their season average counting as a loss, and everything between those two yardage figures counting as ties, Notre Dame’s “defensive performance record” in 2014-15 respectively was 6-6-1 and 5-6-2.
Before Halloween, the “defensive performance record” is 10-5; after Halloween, the mark is 1-7-3. Notre Dame’s “defensive performance record” the last two Novembers/bowl games was 1-4-1 in 2014 and 0-3-2 in 2015.
Notre Dame’s 11 “defensive wins” the last two seasons have come against opponents that ranked an average of 70th nationally in total offense whereas the 12 “defensive losses” have come against teams that ranked an average of 71st in total offense.
In the last two seasons, Notre Dame has played just nine teams (out of 26) that have finished the season among the nation’s top 50 total offenses. The average total offense ranking of the 26 opponents the last two seasons is a combined 71.5 – 73.2 in ’14 and 69.8 in ’15.
The most egregious “defensive loss” the last two Novembers came against Northwestern in 2014 when a Wildcat offense that averaged just 353.1 yards total offense put up 547 yards against the Irish.
Notre Dame did not have a “defensive win” over the final four games of 2014 (Northwestern, Louisville, USC and LSU) or the last five games of 2015 (Pittsburgh, Wake Forest, Boston College, Stanford and Ohio State).
While Notre Dame did a nice job on third down last season – ranked 34th at 35.2 percent – the long touchdown drives (28 of 70-yards-plus) haunted the Irish, which means several opponents didn’t even need to get to third down on their touchdown drives.
In the last two games alone against Stanford (when a playoff bid was on the line) and Ohio State (the Fiesta Bowl), Notre Dame surrendered five touchdown drives of 70-yards-plus to the Cardinal and five touchdown drives through two-and-a-half quarters to the Buckeyes.
The Irish defense did a good job of responding positively to scores by the Notre Dame offense. But seven of the 18 scores allowed by the defense following an offensive score (38.8 percent in 15.3 percent of the games) came in the Stanford and Ohio State games.
The last two seasons have proven that the Irish can play quality defense in September and October. The challenge now is to extend that productivity into the final month of the regular season when playoff berths/major bowl bids are on the line.