Joe Schmidt

High stakes struggles: Irish D failing when it counts

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Heading into the season, questions surrounded Notre Dame’s defense. With key starters gone at every position, the strength of Brian Kelly’s previous four teams would need to replace a cast of characters that played a lot of really good football.

Add to that the departure of Bob Diaco, and new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was not only taking over a depth chart with really limited experience, he’d be teaching that group an entirely new system, a complex scheme that developed over the past 10 years, mostly in the NFL.

Through nine games, the results have been a mixed bag. There have been high-water marks: The first-ever shutout of Michigan.

[WATCH LIVE: Notre Dame vs. Northwestern, 3 pm ET on NBC and online via Live Extra]

There have been struggles: North Carolina’s up-tempo attack and Navy’s triple option. But for the most part, the play of the defense — a group that lost key starters Ishaq Williams and KeiVarae Russell in training camp — has been impressive.

That Notre Dame’s rush defense would rank 38th in the country after losing Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix from the front four (from a defense that finished 71st in the same category in 2013) should have just about every Irish fan jumping for joy. Especially when you look at the youth up front — only Sheldon Day and Justin Utupo are the only upperclassmen (from an eligibility perspective) in the regular rotation.

Even the Irish secondary is holding its own. Playing a man-heavy coverage scheme that’s put in high-leverage situations as VanGorder utilizes multiple blitz looks to get pressure on the quarterback, the secondary has held up. The loss of Russell, expected to be an All-American-caliber player, crushed the depth at cornerback.

Injuries to captain Austin Collinsworth, safety Nicky Baratti, and most recently cornerback Cody Riggs, haven’t helped either. (Also add in the suspension of Eilar Hardy until last week and the likely redshirts of Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown, two seniors who’ll probably finish their football careers elsewhere in 2015.) Ranked a respectable 61st in the nation, the Irish are giving up 226 yards a game through the air, with their 13 interceptions nearly matching the 14 touchdown catches they’ve allowed.

So what’s been the problem exactly? Why did a team that gave up just 12 points a game through the first five Saturdays of the season turn into a group that’s given up 42 points a game in the next four?

Two critical areas: Sudden Change Defense and Red Zone Defense.

To be clear, this isn’t just a defensive problem. And all the focus on Everett Golson and his turnover struggles have made that abundantly clear. Those turnovers have forced a young group into some high-leverage situations, and when the stakes have been at their highest, VanGorder’s defense just hasn’t been able to get the stops.

Let’s take a closer look at two reasons why the Irish have been giving up more points. After being stout in these two critical areas the past two seasons, Notre Dame’s opponents are cashing in at a far better rate.

 

SUDDEN CHANGE DEFENSE

Our measurement of sudden change defense looks at the drives coming right after a turnover. For simplicity of statistics, we’re counting interception and fumble returns for touchdowns as sudden change scores, another indicator of the shared blame between the offense and defense.

A quick look at the last three seasons shows just how far the Irish are lagging behind in this critical measurement. Through nine games, the Irish have already turned the ball over 19 times, that’s more than last season’s total of 17 and more than the 15 turnovers the Irish had during their 2012 run to the BCS title game.

Just as critically, the Irish’s response to those turnovers has been far worse than the previous two seasons. Notre Dame has given up scores on 12 of those turnovers, with 11 of those coming as touchdowns. In no game has this stat played more prominently than against Arizona State. The 28 points the Irish gave up off of turnovers is the main reason Notre Dame won’t be competing for a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Reaching a conclusion on why this change has occurred would be a lot of guess work. Young personnel could be playing tighter in critical situations. An abundance of scheme might make it difficult to play-call in the immediate aftermath of a turnover.

Practice priorities for VanGorder, who is still likely installing and coaching up the basics, might limit the time this group has for these moments during the week. Or it could just be rotten luck and good execution by the opponent. (That, and there is no defense for a pick six.)

In the moments following the loss to Arizona State, I asked Kelly what the change has been in Sudden Change situations.

“Couldn’t tell you,” the coach replied.

 

Sudden Change Opportunities

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RED ZONE DEFENSE

Where the struggles have been the most obvious are in the red zone. Put simply, once an opponent gets inside Notre Dame’s 20-yard line, they’ve scored far more often than in years past. After being among the best defenses in the country the past two seasons in the scoring areas, the exact opposite has taken place this season.

Notre Dame is an awful 97th in traditional red zone defense. That number gets even worse when you look at touchdowns, where the Irish rank 114th in the country.

Again, the reasons for these difficulties are puzzling. Notre Dame’s rush defense is better on whole than it was in 2013, yet that certainly turns inside the 20. And while Bob Diaco’s 3-4 base scheme often gave opponents a little to prevent giving them a lot, once the field shrunk, Diaco’s defense stiffened considerably.

In the red zone, the margin for error drastically drops. Perhaps this is where the learning curve is most distinct. With young players along the defensive front, attacking linebackers still understanding the fundamentals of their responsibilities, and a secondary playing new starters across the board, it doesn’t take long for a mistake to turn into a touchdown.

We’ve heard Kelly continually talk about the need for communication. There’s no doubt that this is one of those places where communication is key. It’s also worth looking at the personnel construct of this unit. After playing large, big-bodied defenders all across the front seven, the 2014 defense is the opposite. Joe Schmidt (and now Nyles Morgan) and Jaylon Smith give up quite a bit of heft to Dan Fox, Carlo Calabrese and Jarrett Grace. The freshmen playing along the defensive line won’t be mistaken for Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix.

Drawing too many conclusions about scheme change or coaching mistakes without taking into full consideration just how different the personnel is between this year and last isn’t necessarily fair. But regardless of the reason, the drop off in the red zone has been startling.

 

Red Zone Defense

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Reaching Conclusions

If anything, looking at the numbers from the past few years should give you greater appreciation of the units the Irish have featured. When put into difficult situations, the defense carried this team — and no time more obvious than in 2012.

Notre Dame’s sudden change defense was as outstanding as their success in the red zone. While limiting their turnovers to just 15 with a first-year quarterback behind center, what the defense did once the offense turned the ball over was nothing short of astounding.

Against Navy, Everett Golson’s first interception was immediately followed by Stephon Tuitt’s fumble-return for a touchdown. Against Michigan, the Irish pushed the Wolverines back 15 yards in three plays before Brendan Gibbons missed a field goal. Golson’s second interception was negated when Manti Te’o picked off Denard Robinson.

You can go on and on.Somehow, Notre Dame’s defense continuously took an opponent’s opportunity at a momentum swing and turned it into one for the Irish. Bennett Jackson picked off a pass after Golson fumbled against Stanford. The Irish forced a punt on another Golson fumble against the Cardinal, only allowing a score because Stanford’s defense put up the seven points after sacking and stripping Golson in the end zone.

That special season continued in the red zone. It was a product of great personnel playing a scheme that demanded — and received — assignment correct football.

Even with Alabama going five-for-five in red zone touchdowns, the Irish finished third in the country in touchdowns allowed in the red zone. Their final regular season numbers were incredible, just eight touchdown in 33 red zone appearances. Numbers like those are a large reason why that defense will go down among the best in school history.

***

There are still four more games in 2014, giving the depleted Irish defense plenty of opportunities to improve in the season’s final quarter. That gives VanGorder and Kelly not just the next three weeks to get better, but the month of bowl preparations, a huge developmental time for a team looking to do even bigger things in 2015.

Next season can wait. For this young group to make progress, they’ll need to do a better job of coming up big in the critical moments.

 

 

And in that corner… The Syracuse Orange

SYRACUSE, NY - SEPTEMBER 02: Head coach of the Syracuse Orange Dino Babers speaks with quarterback Eric Dungey #2 and running back Dontae Strickland #4 during the first half against the Colgate Raiders on September 2, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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With the season at a tipping point, the Irish hit the road. Outside the friendly (or not so friendly, of late) confines of Notre Dame Stadium, Brian Kelly’s team hits the road and travels to New York, where Syracuse awaits.

New head coach Dino Babers has installed his up-tempo offense and the system is already taking hold. The defense hasn’t caught up, helping to launch Lamar Jackson’s Heisman campaign on the way to a very uneven start.

So before we get to this weekend’s shootout, let’s dig into the challenge that’s ahead. To get us ready, we’re joined by the Daily Orange’s Chris Libonati. He’s an assistant sports editor and football beat writer for one of the country’s premier student newspapers.

In addition to juggling his studies on magazine journalism and public policy, Chris breaks down what Notre Dame should expect from the Orange this weekend in the Meadowlands.

 

Dino Babers is four games into his tenure at Syracuse. The offense seems to have taken to his up-tempo attack. The defense… feels like a work in progress. Can you give us a progress report on the program since Babers took over?

I think the offense has clearly improved from last season, and the defense has regressed. The problem right now is going to be cycling through Scott Shafer’s players that don’t really fit Babers’ systems or creating spots where they can fit. Although that seems a bit unfair, that’s the reality of coaching changes. It’s easy to see that the program could improve after this season, but it’s just speculation for the time being.

 

Notre Dame relieved defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder of his duties on Sunday following another poor performance. Syracuse is actually ranked BELOW Notre Dame in scoring defense, rushing defense and passing defense. Brian Ward came with Babers from Bowling Green. Is he overmatched? Or is the personnel just that bad?

I don’t necessarily think all of the defensive problems fall on Ward. Scott Shafer ran a high risk-high reward system that required players to be more aggressive in chasing big plays, big hits, etc. The Tampa 2 is almost a 180 for players that are used to that type of a system. For the most part, the Tampa 2 is a bend-don’t-break system, but it appears that the transition is going to take a little while.

One of the best examples is the very first Louisville touchdown. A ball fake easily made the safeties bite and Lamar Jackson threw a long touchdown over the top of the defense. Right now, it’s big plays that have affected Syracuse. Teams really haven’t put together consistent drives. It’s more three-minute drives and under that are killing SU.

 

Now the offense should terrify Irish fans. Specifically what Amba Etta-Tawo is doing. The Maryland transfer put up pedestrian numbers before coming to Syracuse, where he’s coming off of a historic game against UConn. How is he doing this? And how big of a surprise has his emergence been?

It’s kind of amazing to watch. You ask yourself if he can top a performance, and he just did it last week. That said, some of that is the system taking advantage of his best skills. He’s been very good in space, and he’s even better on deep throws. Several times, he’s been adjusted on the boundaries of the field, out-jumped corners or come back to an underthrown ball. And when he doesn’t do that, he burns the corner.

I haven’t seen him really run a crossing route or anything over the short-middle of the field (he has run a few screens and is good in open space), but he hasn’t really needed to. What defenses could try to do is shade a safety over the top, but the Baylor-style spread has its outside receivers almost out to the sidelines, which means safeties have to shade way over. That’ll open up the middle of the field for guys like Brisly Estime and Ervin Philips or potentially expose defenses in the run game.

 

Babers was candid about saying he’d have rather Brian Kelly didn’t fire VanGorder before they traveled to New York, and that he’d prefer the game be played at home in the Carrier Dome rather than the Meadowlands. Let’s talk about this neutral site game? Is it strictly economics? Or what’s the purpose of taking this game to the New York Metro area?

I think just talking about this probably reveals this project as a bit of a failure. Playing this game in the New York Metro area was supposed to expand Syracuse’s brand as “New York’s College Team.” Syracuse scheduled high-profile games against USC (2012), Penn State (2013) and Notre Dame (2014) at MetLife, but hasn’t won any of those games. When it comes down to it, SU put its brand against a national brand and the fan splits at those games were not in the Orange’s favor. This crowd will almost certainly be pro-UND and it’s considered a “home game” for SU.

What the series has done is take a home game away from the Carrier Dome and it pits SU against a top-level program when its still trying to make bowl games on a consistent basis. A smarter series would have been to play Rutgers, but Kyle Flood reportedly nixed that when he was RU’s coach.

 

We’ve seen just about every offense score points on Notre Dame. How many do you think Syracuse needs to score to beat the Irish this weekend?

A lot. I know that’s not specific, but SU’s defense has really struggled against good offenses. DeShone Kizer may have struggled at times this year, but I’d bet he has a decent game against Syracuse. I think the Orange would have to hang at least 40 points on UND to win on Saturday. That’ll be tough if Eric Dungey can’t play for some reason. He didn’t come out for interviews on Tuesday because he was getting treatment for an undisclosed injury. Dino Babers declined to talk about the injury on Wednesday. My guess is that Dungey plays, but if he can’t Zack Mahoney will have to step in for him. Mahoney’s deep ball isn’t quite as good as Dungey’s, which could limit Etta-Tawo’s deep-play ability.

Kelly goes back to basics with defense

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 10: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish reacts in the first half of the game against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly met with the media on Tuesday, revealing a few details about the defensive changes he plans to implement. And while he kept any specific schematic or personnel tweaks to himself, his comments helped clarify why he made the decision to relieve Brian VanGorder of his duties Sunday morning.

At the second inflection point of his tenure in South Bend, Kelly is once again betting on himself. We saw him do this to great success after he made the unconventional decision to name Chuck Martin his offensive coordinator after the 2011 season—betting on his protege instead of Ed Warinner, who then left to go to Ohio State after being passed up.

That’s not to say this move has the ceiling of Kelly’s last great pivot—an undefeated regular season that ended with a date in the national title game. You could just as easily argue it’s a survival play.

So perhaps that’s why Kelly was less interested in defining what Greg Hudson’s new job title means, and more resolute on clarifying that this defense will operate the way the head coach sees fit.

“He’s going to adapt to what I want to run. His style is going to be Coach Kelly’s style,” Kelly explained.

“I’ll worry about the implementation, the scheme. I’ll take care of that for him right now. As he gets more comfortable with what we have and what our system is about, then he will be much more involved in what we do.

“But right now, we’ll write the music and he’ll be the lead singer. I don’t know if that’s a great analogy, if that makes any sense. He’s going to be out front, but he just got here. In terms of assuming this role, he’s learning everything as well.”

For those worried that the Irish head coach was shirking responsibility for his team’s 1-3 start, Kelly certainly is acting like a coach who is doing the opposite. He’s doubling down, and in doing so, acknowledging some of the fatal flaws that became exposed each and every game Brian VanGorder continued to coach.

The head coach will simplify game plans, asking his young team to do less but do it better. The staff will learn from the opening night debacle in Texas, a game plan that stressed scheme over personnel, a decision that was largely emblematic of how VanGorder handled his time in South Bend.

“We can’t defend everything. We can’t defend everything, but we have to be sound,” Kelly said. “I’ll leave it at that.”

Kelly’s other major move will be developing a better rotation. After seven recruiting cycles, the roster has a deeper talent pool than VanGorder was willing to access. And for all the talk of sub-packages and defensive specialization, Kelly sounded like a coach who knew he needed to take things back to the basics.

“I can’t have 15 different personnel packages. We’ve got a couple personal packages. That’s it,” Kelly said. “There can’t be cross-training into three different personnel packages. We’ve streamlined that to the point where the guys are going to know by hopefully Thursday exactly where they fit in each group.”

With just days to prepare a defense that’s already at rock bottom, implementing any gigantic scheme change was always out of the question. But in looking for a new identity, Kelly also acknowledged some of the breaking points that forced him to make the change.

 

Even in transition, Babers expects Notre Dame’s best

SYRACUSE, NY - SEPTEMBER 02: Amba Etta-Tawo #7 of the Syracuse Orange pulls in a touchdown reception as Cortney Mimms #26 of the Colgate Raiders defends during the first quarter on September 2, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s defense is starting fresh with Greg Hudson, at least temporarily, at the helm. But Syracuse head coach Dino Babers doesn’t expect the instability to lead to a weakened opponent.

In fact, he thinks it’ll have the opposite effect.

“What normally happens in those situations is just like in a cowboy movies you circle the wagons and you find out who wants to fight and who doesn’t want to fight,” Babers said Monday. “So we’re going to get an angry mama bear that’s been wounded, that’s going to be fighting and clawing and coming out with all they have, and really wish they wouldn’t had done anything and wish they would have won the game last week.”

But the Irish didn’t win against Duke. And Brian Kelly’s decision to remove Brian VanGorder of his duties after just four games leads Notre Dame’s young defense into some uncharted territory.

Because the Irish will have to find a way to slow down a Syracuse offense that might not have as good of personnel as Texas, but is better at running the up-tempo, spread attack that the Longhorns installed this offseason. And Babers comes from the same Art Briles coaching tree that Sterlin Gilbert.

So Notre Dame will need to find a way to tackle receivers in space. And they’ll need to find a way to get an offense off the field that’s run more plays than every team in college football but three.

While Kelly promised both personnel and scheme changes, what can be done in a week remains to be seen. But with the Irish offense going up against a defense that’s actually worse statistically in every major category than Notre Dame’s, finding any success on the defensive side of the ball will be key.

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Duke

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 24:  Anthony Nash #83 of the Duke Blue Devils runs for a touchdown during the second half of a game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 24, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Sunday’s move was emphatic. Brian VanGorder’s departure confirms that a 1-3 record is unacceptable. And the demise of this team was as swift as the departure of a colleague Brian Kelly has known for the bulk of his 25-plus year coaching career.

But that’s the job. And the move likely wasn’t easy for a head coach who saw himself as close to tenured as any man this side of Lou Holtz had been, and is now clearly in uncharted territory.

“I’m under review, as well,” Kelly acknowledged on Sunday afternoon. “We’re all in this together: All the players, coaches, everybody. So players’ jobs are on the line. Every job is being evaluated as the players. All coaches’ jobs are on the line as well.”

With Greg Hudson now directing the defense, and Syracuse having run more offensive plays than every program but three, the challenge this weekend is stark. So let’s move forward ourselves and finish off the good, the bad and the ugly.

 

THE GOOD

Dexter WilliamsBrian Kelly gave him credit, so let’s start there. Williams ran hard, looked explosive and flashed on special teams.

It’s time for Williams to get some more reps, even if it means taking away from Josh Adams’ leading load as well as Tarean Folston‘s.

 

Donte Vaughn. Notre Dame’s freshman cornerback wasn’t perfect—he got beat inside a few times on slant routes that everybody in the building saw coming. But he came up big and made a play, something Notre Dame’s defensive backs haven’t done since Shaun Crawford went down for the season.

His length and cover skills should be put to the test again next weekend when Syracuse’s Amba Etta-Tawo looks to replicate his monster 270-yard performance against UConn. The focus will be on Cole Luke, Vaughn, Julian Love and Nick Coleman.

 

Kevin Stepherson. The freshman only caught three balls, but all of them were big gainers,  including his beautiful 44-yard touchdown catch. With Torii Hunter unable to push the lid off opponents, Stepherson might be a better fit for the X moving forward, assuming he continues to learn the playbook and run precise routes.

 

The Weather. Looked like a heckuva day in South Bend, at least from a weather perspective.

 

THE BAD

The tackling. That was one of the worst tackling performances I can remember. Especially against a team that was anemic on offense heading into the weekend. Name a defender and you’ll recall a missed tackle.

Drue Tranquill held on to a few early, then had some ugly whiffs. Cole Luke, a guy Brian Kelly called the team’s smartest football player last week, sure looked lost a few times, too. And with hopes that Devin Studstill is the answer at free safety, Studstill did his best to make us wonder about that, too. He took some horrific routes to footballs, a difficult day at the office for a young kid who needs to learn quickly.

When your senior captain outside linebacker is getting run over by a quarterback for a first down and you’re thinking, “at least he made the tackle,” the bar has been lowered pretty significantly. But another week of “thudding” at practice might be needed—even with heavy installation coming soon.

 

The special teams. A missed field goal proved costly. So did some horrific tackling and coverage on the kickoff return that let Duke back into the game. And for the fourth time this season, Tyler Newsome flubbed his first kick of the game. (All but asking for the nickname Mulligan to emerge.)

Scott Booker has a ton of kids on his run teams. But they’ve got to get some consistency out there if they want CJ Sanders to help turn this into a positive, not another unit to hide.

 

The pass rush. Yes, the drought is over, with Nyles Morgan getting the first sack of the season for the Irish. But man—this team has a gigantic hole on it and finding any type of pass rush is critical.

Sure, Duke’s quick passing game took advantage of the Irish’s leaky secondary and didn’t let Notre Dame get to the quarterback. But at this point, every snap you’re giving Andrew Trumbetti over a kid who can get to the quarterback—Jay Hayes, Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, or anyone—feels lost.

 

The coaching. Kelly raised more than a few eyebrows when he said the following, when asked about an evaluation of his defensive coaching and game plan.

“That’s probably the one area that I feel better about today. We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today,” Kelly said.

That was likely a time-buyer until a long night of thinking, because morning brought clarity for the head man.

 

THE UGLY

The State of the Program. With the game tied 28-28 heading into the fourth quarter, one team was jumping around like they’d won the lotto. The other was all but biting their fingernails, kicking dirty and looking lethargic.

If anything set off Kelly postgame—even more so than the defense his troops were displaying—it was the lack of effort.

“There’s no passion for it. It looks like it’s hard to play. Like we’re pulling teeth,” Kelly said. “You’re playing football for Notre Dame. It looks like it’s work. Last I checked they were getting a scholarship to play this game.

“There’s no fun, there’s no enjoyment, there’s no energy. We got to look for the guys that want to have fun and play this game with passion and energy and that’s where we got to go.”

In Kelly’s first few seasons in South Bend, he was criticized for having his team celebrate victories, even the ugly ones. But somewhere this program lost track of the ultimate goal and that likely falls on the head coach to fix that problem as soon as possible.

 

Firing a staffer. Notre Dame’s head coach likely saw what many of us saw as well. But a decision like that from the cheap-seats is one thing, a decision from inside the program is another.

Follow Notre Dame long enough, and you’ll tire of thinking about the carousel that’s come and gone—Davie, O’Leary, Willingham, Weis, armies of loyal assistants who have spent years working to climb the summit. And for most, life after Notre Dame isn’t the same.

Sure, there’s Urban Meyer, Dan Mullen and Charlie Strong. But there are a few dozen others who have come to a program with noble ambitions—willing to do it right and win on and off the field—but they fail too often on Saturdays.

So as ND Nation almost united in celebration of the move, it’s worth a quick word to a fanbase that always fashions itself as possessing proper etiquette.

Few come to your office and celebrate the worst day of your professional career. Less dig into your family’s Twitter account, hoping to break a story or confirm news they celebrate jubilantly. Sure, some of that comes with the territory. And certainly VanGorder was well compensated for his time in South Bend.

But ultimately, this Sunday hopefully provided some perspective. Baseball lost one of its brightest young stars. Golf lost one of its icons. And many many more things of consequence took place—inside the sporting world and out.

But when it comes to VanGorder, a quick reminder of something that has nothing to do with sports. A man has lost his job. A family will uproot once again. And the dynamics on the current football team—where Montgomery VanGorder still plays an important role—won’t ever be the same.

“I will tell you this: Brian is as fine a defensive coach as there is out there. He knows the game. He loves Notre Dame,” Kelly said on Sunday. “He wanted to succeed as much as anybody here, but it wasn’t working.”

There should be no harm in that.