Notre Dame spent the entire off-season talking up familiarity within Brian VanGorder’s scheme. The third year was supposed to be with one when prior knowledge worked in its favor.
Then VanGorder dumped his approach for that 3-3-5 set that the Texas tempo shredded in a 50-47 double overtime loss win last weekend.
Now the Irish are back to basics. And it’s a comfortable place to be.
“We’re getting back to our bead and butter,” said defensive end Isaac Rochell. “It makes it easier because a lot of guys have been in the system for a long time. Last week was a little bit different, but this week there’s a comfort being in that defense. I think it will allow people to play.”
Notre Dame will return to its 4-3 base defense against Nevada, complete with the complex pressures that VanGorder likes to bring.
The Irish rushed Texas with five or more pass rushers on just eight of the Longhorns’ 27 passing attempts last weekend. And Notre Dame put Shane Buechele under pressure just four times.
Texas quarterbacks finished 5-of-8 for 36 yards (4.5 yards per attempt) against pass rushes of five or more players. Against four-man rushes, the Longhorns went 11-of-17 for 238 yards (14 yards per attempt) and two touchdowns.
The Irish won’t blame the 3-3-5 set for all that, but there’s no question it created uncertainty with its unfamiliarity. It all makes getting back to the base defense inviting on Saturday.
“I think it wasn’t easy, but that’s no excuse,” said linebacker Greer Martini. “Just get back to the basics. They always say run, hit, have fun. I think we got away from that a little bit. First game, things might feel robotic.”
Personnel changes might help too with Jay Hayes seemingly ready to return after a high ankle sprain in mid-August. Daelin Hayes should make his college debut on defense. Linebackers Te’von Coney and Asmar Bilal may get bigger roles after combining for just 15 real defensive snaps last week.
“Those four guys right there you’ll see on the defensive side of the ball,” said head coach Brian Kelly. “We were in nickel quite a bit. We want to be in a lot more base.”
Yet a change of scheme can account for only so much as VanGorder’s base defenses struggled last season too. Maybe this week’s familiarity does improve tackling. Or maybe the Irish are simply in for a long season on defense while replacing Jaylon Smith, KeiVarae Russell, Sheldon Day, Romeo Okwara and Matthias Farley.
But it’s hard to believe the Irish run defense won’t improve by switching back to four-man fronts or even relying on 4-2-5 personnel passing situations. Notre Dame was abysmal against the run in last week’s 3-3-5 set when Texas ran it 38 times for 214 yards (5.63 yards per carry) and two touchdowns. Against the Irish base defense, the Longhorns rushed 11 times for just 38 yards (3.45 yards per carry).
“When you watch the film it’s very reflective and you can’t hide in the film room so you see everything that you made a mistake on,” Martini said. “It’s about putting it in the past and not letting it happen again. There’s definitely run plays where you think you have the right fit where you watch the plays and you had to be one gap over.”
VanGorder was predictably cross this week after that Texas performance, although it’s not like he went nuclear in meetings after just one week. VanGorder knows the Irish defense has to improve. So does everybody else. Notre Dame can get to work on that, starting Saturday afternoon.
“He’s a coach. He can’t just come in mad at everybody or else you can’t get better,” Rochell said. “This week has been really positive. It’s been a pivotal moment for our defense.”