SO HOLLOW IT ECHOES
Brian Kelly defended defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder Sunday in the wake of Notre Dame’s 36-28 loss to Michigan State in which the Irish surrendered four touchdowns in an 11: 38 span as the Spartans were accumulating 334 yards total offense in the second and third quarters combined.
Asked for the second time in two weeks whether VanGorder is the right man for the defensive coordinator’s role, Kelly responded: “Oh, absolutely. Yeah, without question. That’s not even part of the conversation.”
Kelly said it’s about the fundamentals of defense, including tackling and proper run fits. Those are two of the most critical elements of a defensive coordinator’s job. A poor fundamental team, particularly one that emphasizes an abundance of scheme, is directly attributable to the coordinator.
“There’s not a question about scheme,” Kelly added. “There’s not a question about who’s leading it with Brian. This is about coaching, communicating, teaching fundamentals and getting our young players better at execution.”
As it turns out, it’s also about getting the older players to execute the scheme better, including the 3rd-and-7 pass to Donnie Corley that ended Notre Dame’s chances for victory. Cole Luke pealed off Corley and made a move toward tight end Josiah Price on the seam route. Corley easily hauled in the pass and the Irish were done.
The first play that came to mind was the pass that set up Stanford’s game-winning field goal last year when another veteran, Matthias Farley, was uncertain about his pass-coverage responsibility.
With the game on the line, the most veteran player on Notre Dame’s defensive back seven did not provide the proper coverage. As Kelly said, it truly is about communicating, teaching fundamentals and getting the young players better at execution, none of which VanGorder has accomplished.
Kelly also used his “10 pros” line Sunday, which rings just as hollow. It would apply to the offense if it were struggling because a productive 2015 Notre Dame offense lost Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller in the first round, Nick Martin in the second and C.J. Prosise in the third. But the 2016 offense is still averaging 38 points per game.
The “10 pros” line is an incongruous argument for the defensive woes because the Irish had an inconsistent, porous defense in ’15 with first-round talent/second-round Jaylon Smith, third-rounder KeiVarae Russell, fourth-rounder Sheldon Day, free-agent signee Romeo Okwara, and late cut Matthias Farley.
The “10 pros” line may explain why you are bad this year, but it does nothing to allow for last year’s poor defense.
Notre Dame’s effort to match Michigan State’s physical nature was a valiant one. But it ultimately gave way to an older (but not veteran) offensive line that piece by piece took the Irish apart in the second and third quarters when the Spartans reeled off 36 straight points.
“If they sense what we sense, the Irish are on the ropes a bit,” said a prophetic Mike Tirico on the NBC broadcast.
During a 20:53 span – from the 9:30 mark of the second quarter through the 3:45 mark of the third – Michigan State scored 36 points and gained 327 yards on 33 snaps. Notre Dame’s offensive response to the touchdowns were:
• One play, 19 yards, fumble.
• Three plays, 25 yards, end of first half.
• Two plays, 0 yards, interception.
• Three plays, 4 yards, punt.
• Four plays, 65 yards, touchdown.
Notre Dame then made a run at the Spartans by scoring touchdowns on three straight possessions. But the offensive failures as the first few Michigan State offensive salvos were fired not only didn’t stem the tide, they exposed the physical nature by which the Spartans manhandled Notre Dame during the turning point of the game.
Notre Dame began losing control of the line of scrimmage in Michigan State’s last drive of the first half when the Spartans marched 92 yards on 11 plays with a 13-yard run by L.J. Scott, a 23-yard pass to Josiah Price on an assignment screw up (likely by Devin Studstill), and a 3rd-and-5 conversion run for six yards by Tyler O’Connor.
Notre Dame’s defense couldn’t reverse the trend, but neither could the Irish offense as the deficit increased. The Irish offensive line caved in when a response was needed to stem the tide. As good as the offense was in the rally and as one-sided as the culprits for Notre Dame’s woes are, the offense remains inconsistent when it comes to responding to the opposition’s score.
Notre Dame’s Scoring Drive Response (SDR) was just 20-24 last year, 2-3 against Texas in the ’16 season-opener, and 1-3 against Michigan State. (Note: It was 1-0 in a non-pressure environment against Nevada.)
During Michigan State’s surge, the Irish offense ran 20 plays for 83 yards.
Notre Dame actually made strides in its physicality since the Texas game. At yet at the end of the day, the result was five touchdowns yielded, 501 yards total offense, 260 yards rushing, 5.0 yards per carry and no sacks.
Through three games, Notre Dame is: 94th in scoring defense, 99th in rush defense, 84th in pass defense, 102nd in total defense, 89th in third-down defense, and 107th in red-zone TDs allowed.
Big plays continue to haunt the Notre Dame defense, as they did a year ago. Look at the progression: 72nd in 10-yard plays, 82nd in 20-yard plays, 84th in 30-yard plays, 111th in 40-yard plays, 117th in 50-yard plays, 127th in 60-yard plays and 112th in 70-yard plays.
If you’re looking for a silver lining on the defensive side of the ball, the linebacker unit is encouraging, although Kelly said Sunday that the inconsistency at Will linebacker has led to the alternating of Greer Martini against Texas, Te’von Coney versus Nevada, and Coney as the starter against Michigan State with the switch to Martini for most of the game.
“We’ve got to be more consistent at the Will linebacker position, whether it’s in pass coverage or run fits,” Kelly said. “Both Te’von and Greer have got to play more consistent football for us. We’ve got to coach them better. Those are great kids. They want to do it, but they’re not doing it consistently enough.”
Senior Sam linebacker James Onwualu has consistently forced the issue on the edge at the line of scrimmage. He has four tackles for loss in three games and has impacted numerous short-yardage gains by the way he presses off the edge.
Nyles Morgan has been about as good as could be expected in the first three starts of his junior season. He’s been plowed a few times by offensive linemen and/or some of the powerful running backs the Irish have faced. But he’s been a stout performer. Eight of his 10 stops against Michigan State were solo tackles, which gives him 19 solo stops of his 27 tackles. That’s a lot for a Mike linebacker.
COLD HAND LUKE
What a disastrous game for veteran cornerback Cole Luke, who was making his 29th start in a Notre Dame uniform the week after wearing the No. 1 and playing an outstanding game against Nevada.
It began with the 38-yard touchdown pass to Donnie Corley in which Luke did so many things right. He fell behind initially, and then caught up with Corley. Luke turned and looked for the football in plenty of time, creating a sense among those watching from the press box that it was going to be an easy interception. He gathered his weight and leaped for the football.
Luke’s mistake was that he opened up his right shoulder and lunged backwards instead of vertically. This diminished his verticality. He drifted, which allowed Corley – who got vertical – to not only rise above Luke’s outstretched hands, but to be in a much stronger position to use his hands to make a play.
That wasn’t Luke’s worst series. Early in the third quarter, Luke was beaten on a slant on 3rd-and-3 (tough play to make). Luke also was called for interference on a deep ball to R.J. Shelton as Luke mugged him. And on 2nd-and-10 from the Irish 17, Luke flew past a tackle attempt of Shelton, who took it to the three. The Spartans scored on the next play.
Luke capped the night with a blown coverage of Corley on 3rd-and-7.
If there was a game in which the Irish could not afford to have a bad one from their most experienced and best defensive back, this was one of them.
DEFENSIVE LINE PERSONNEL
Notre Dame allowed 260 yards rushing to Michigan State. The front wall began to cave during Michigan State’s 36-0 run.
Individually, however, there is reason for encouragement, if for no other reason than an indication that a pattern of depth is being developed.
Jerry Tillery played his best game in a Notre Dame uniform – by far. His two tackles for loss doubled his career total. Tillery flat-out de-cleated right tackle Miguel Machado on a one-yard loss. He penetrated, he battled, he influenced the game between the tackles.
Jarron Jones’ motor stalled at times in the second half, but he battled into the fourth quarter, which is a significant improvement to his work volume. Isaac Rochell had his least impactful game of the first three of the season, but his strength positively impacts virtually every snap.
Michigan State is a bad matchup for Andrew Trumbetti. Jay Hayes brings some physicality to the equation. He brings much-needed energy . The move of Jonathan Bonner from end to tackle is one that Brian VanGorder did not want to make at the end of spring, but he had no choice with Elijah Taylor failing to emerge. Bonner made a positive impact, if for no other reason, he’s a try-hard, quick-off-the-snap player that can give Tillery a break.
Freshman Daelin Hayes and Julian Okwara were used as edge rushers in passing situations. Hayes made a play downfield that you just don't see linebackers make, let alone defensive ends. He's still trying to find his niche as a pass rusher.
Okwara is a natural pass rusher. We saw that on high school film. He's giving away a lot of strength to offensive tackles right now. But at least it’s a plan with a couple of capable freshmen.
AROUND THE GRIDIRON
• Here’s what will happen to the Notre Dame defense if a) Brian VanGorder continues as defensive coordinator and b) the defense continues to fail, struggle, collapse.
The spirit of half the team will be broken.
This is a try-hard group. Not questioning the desire and intensity of most of the players on the defensive side of the football. Their hearts are in the right place. They’re fighting to be productive and win. But everyone has a breaking point, particularly when faith in the scheme and the message dwindles along the way.
• Brian Kelly is right when he says that offense across the board is up and a lot of defenses are giving up a lot of points. The difference is that Notre Dame does it worse by not preventing long touchdown drives, giving up touchdowns in the red zone at an alarming rate, not creating turnovers, not creating sacks and now – contrary to last year – not stopping the opposition on third down.
At least last year, Notre Dame was 34th in the country in third-down defense. The Irish currently rank 89th nationally (20-of-48) at 41.6 percent. Think there’s a direct correlation to the tackling?
• You could make a yearly highlight reel of Scott Booker turning to a Notre Dame player after a special teams play and pleading with/chastising him for his mistake. Add several others to the mix: Jalen Elliott (holding on opening kickoff), Miles Boykin (inadvertent fumble on punt), Nicco Fertitta (ridiculous macho move after a crushing block), and about five guys on the two-point conversion for failing to adequately react to Michigan State’s “swinging gate.”
• Jalen Elliott clearly held Michigan State’s Grayson Miller on the opening kickoff. To his credit, he got off the ground and threw another block.
• After watching Michigan State’s physical dismantling of the Irish, it’s hard to imagine that Brian Kelly has a 3-2 mark against the Spartans while at Notre Dame. Even more difficult is the realization that Mark Dantonio is just 4-4 against Notre Dame, including a loss to Charlie Weis’ 2009 team that finished 6-6.
• With all the talk of Michigan State’s man-to-man, press-coverage secondary, the Spartans played it smart. They barely pressed Notre Dame’s receivers at the line of scrimmage. Michigan State’s cornerbacks are not on the level of Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes. Dantonio forced the Irish to play what they had not practiced all week.
• Corey Holmes has just two catches on the year, but both have been incredibly clutch: 3rd-and-14 for 15 against Nevada, 3rd-and-8 for nine versus Michigan State.
• Great play that needs to be interspersed the rest of the season: Kizer read-option left, pulls it out of the running back’s belly, wide receiver (Equanimeous St. Brown) engages in a block, and then peels off and zips up the sideline for a short catch, which he turned into a 48-yarder. That’s an extremely difficult play for the cornerback to defend, particularly without safety help over the top.
• DeShone Kizer has now scored at least one rushing touchdown in 11 of 14 starts, including all three games this year.
• Funny how a stat can be viewed from one player to the next. Irish fans hated to hear Tommy Rees’ record as a starter because they felt it was not an accurate reflection of his ability. Do you know what DeShone Kizer’s record as a starter is? It’s 9-5. He’s performed much better than that.
• One play after missing an open-field tackle and turning wide receiver Monty Madaris loose for a 33-yard gain, Nick Coleman stopped L.J. Scott for a one-yard loss. That’s resilience.
• Not sure I’ve seen that many holding penalties against an opponent that weren’t called. It’s astonishing that Michigan State had just three penalties called. Reaching, grabbing, clutching, tugging…whatever it takes.
The Spartans have a nifty little move in which the offensive lineman reaches under the armpit of a defensive player and grabs the back of the jersey, which is difficult to detect in traffic.
• If Chase Claypool catches that pass before halftime…Notre Dame probably loses 43-35. But he continues to show up every week, including his diving fourth-quarter grab for 33 yards.
• Do not see what useful purpose Andrew Trumbetti serves in a physical confrontation. He played a ton of snaps, had two tackles and did not have a quarterback hurry. He was destroyed on L.J. Scott’s 23- and nine-yard runs.
• The inadvertent fumble aside, Miles Boykin has got to make a better effort than that on the corner route in the end zone. Two hands catching a pass are much more effective than one.
• The worst of Equanimeous St. Brown’s first three games of ’16 with a pair of drops. But also had big plays: he drew an interference, had a 48-yarder up the sideline, and added an eight-yarder on 2nd-and-10 in final drive, only to have Kizer sacked on third down.