Brian VanGorder saw the same things you did this year—except the Showtime series.
VanGorder didn’t watch the 13-part documentary (extended for an extra episode to cover the Fiesta Bowl), but he did see his defense play frustratingly inconsistent football. At times dominant, the Irish defense forced three-and-outs at one of the best clips in the country. But at other times, the group was inept, prone to giving up big plays and struggling in the red zone, two key ingredients to turning a promising group into an underwhelming unit.
VanGorder talked about those struggles on Tuesday, when asked to evaluate the team’s performance this season.
“Inconsistent, I guess, is probably the best word,” VanGorder said. “We’ve played a lot of good football. We’ve had some plays that you just shake your head, both player and coach, when it’s all said and done.”
VanGorder pinned some of those struggles on youth. That may be tough when you consider the veterans in this group, but even Joe Schmidt, Sheldon Day and Elijah Shumate are in just year two of VanGorder’s system.
“These are young players. You’re constantly pushing on the idea of developing. They all develop at a different rate, a different process for all of them,” VanGorder said.
“A lot of those things come down to also focus. That’s, again, part of the development, part of the process, for somebody to focus through some 65 to 85 plays, for some it’s a challenge. That’s player responsibility, coach responsibility through a game to make sure we maintain a great concentration and a great focus. To be quite frank about it, it hasn’t been always where any of us want it to be.”
We’ve seen those lapses—whether they be garbage time touchdowns like Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh scored, or in crucial situations against Temple or Stanford. But before the Irish coaching staff takes a step back and considers whether VanGorder’s scheme and its complexities are part of the problem, the focus will be confined to another healthy challenge—slowing down Ohio State and Urban Meyer’s offense.
VanGorder talked about the skill players that’ll challenge an Irish group that’s often times its own biggest opponent. With Ezekiel Elliott playing through legal citations and J.T. Barrett coming off a big performance against Michigan, the defense has its hands full.
“They’re difficult to defend. The whole offensive philosophy and makeup of it makes you defend a lot of players,” VanGorder explained.
While the scheme isn’t too far removed from what the Irish show in practice every day, the personnel the Irish will face will likely be the best that they’ll play all season. True, the Buckeyes have struggled to play up to their potential this season. But they had a breakthrough against the Wolverines, scoring 42 points and running for 369 yards against one of the Big Ten’s best defenses.
“A lot of people have good scheme, maybe not the good players. They have a bunch of great players that are going to play in the NFL.”