AP

How we got here: The Defense

36 Comments

The first of a multi-part series as we look at the 2-5 Irish at the bye week. 

 

Notre Dame’s season was sunk by Brian VanGorder’s defense. That sentence is much easier to write after seeing the unit without its former coordinator. But it was just as clear after watching the Irish play their first four games of 2016 that Brian Kelly needed to make a change. The Irish gave up a combined 124 points in their three September defeats, a season-high for either yards or points (against FBS competition) for Texas, Michigan State and Duke.

For many VanGorder detractors, the move came four games too late. The Irish were plagued by big plays and schematic breakdowns throughout 2015 (and before), a fatal flaw of a defense filled with talented personnel that too often underperformed.

How did the Irish get here? Any why did Kelly make the decision to hire VanGorder—a decision that has already impacted his legacy in South Bend?

Let’s look back.

 

HIRING VANGORDER

When Brian Kelly tapped VanGorder to replace Bob Diaco, he was hiring a coach who seemed like an evolutionary next step. While Diaco’s 3-4 base and point prevention philosophies were the perfect tonic for improving a team that was wrecked by the Tenuta era, Alabama undressed the Irish at the end of the 2012 season, a simplicity in Notre Dame’s scheme that received a few comments from Alabama players in the postgame glow that likely had Kelly wondering if they’d hit their ceiling.

That’s an important factor to remember when Kelly was hiring Diaco’s replacement. Because the foundation of the defense was well established. Kelly needed someone to build on top of it.

That likely made VanGorder’s pitch music to Kelly’s ears. Because while Diaco relied heavily on his base set, VanGorder’s DNA included sub-packages, complementary parts, Rex Ryan-inspired blitzes, and a philosophy that no throw would be conceded— underneath or otherwise.

Add to that Kelly’s personal relationship with VanGorder. Kelly had watched his former Grand Valley State colleague from the beginning of his career. He had seen him work with young players and believed in him as a teacher (something he referenced multiple times when he introduced VanGorder to the local media) before blazing his own trail, earning a head coaching opportunity at Wayne State, a high-profile coordinator position at Georgia and eventually making his way to the NFL—for a long time, farther up the food chain than Kelly.

Perhaps that was enough to dismiss his chaotic year at Auburn, when the Tigers season—and defense—went up in smoke as Gene Chizik was fired and VanGorder’s defense gave up 63 to No. 20 Texas A&M, 38 to No. 5 Georgia, and were blown out 49-0 to Alabama—after after mid-October.

But for a variety of reasons, likely his success turning to coaches with a personal connection, Kelly once again did so, hiring an NFL position coach who was a few years removed from being an elite-level coaching target for a vacancy that was a high-profile national opening.

 

HINTS OF CHAOS

The challenge with VanGorder’s struggles always seemed to be the caveats. Injuries decimated his first defense, a group that shutout Michigan and stymied Stanford, but crumbled by the end of the season, with USC naming a number and the Irish tumbling after giving up big, ugly scores to Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville and USC.

The 2015 defense had strong moments—dominating Texas, holding Clemson to 24 points and nice wins over option opponents Georgia Tech and Navy—but obviously imploded late against Stanford and never stood a chance against Ohio State, with injuries once again leveling the depth chart.

But there were improvements. Between 2014 and 2015 VanGorder’s unit got a better handle on up-tempo attacks. An offseason committed to stopping the option saw those goals achieved with successful defensive performances against Georgia Tech and Navy. And even if VanGorder’s veteran-heavy 2015 unit was mostly moving on (the talent exodus is staggering now that you look at it), most had talked themselves into believing that Year Three would have better institutional knowledge for all, a depth chart ready to step in and perform.

[A necessary footnote: Luck certainly wasn’t on VanGorder’s side. Injuries, transfers and suspensions certainly didn’t do him any favors, either. Whether it was the disappearance of edge rushers—Kolin Hill, Jhonny Williams, Bo Wallace—or the loss of KeiVarae Russell and Max Redfield, injuries to Jarron Jones, Shaun Crawford, Nick Watkins and Drue Tranquill, there was always the defense VanGorder hoped to put on the field… and then the one that he actually did.]

 

WHERE IT WENT WRONG

Austin, Texas. Opening night, 2016.

The Irish defense was exposed against the Longhorns, shredded by both the power running attack and freshman Shane Buechele’s passing. It was an all-systems failure: Scheme, blown assignments, questionable personnel decisions—all pointing back to a game plan that required a bunch of assumptions (new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert was difficult to scout), but nonetheless was a disastrous start.

 

THE END

Even if Kelly gave the staff’s performance a passing grade, by noon after the loss to Duke, the decision was made to relieve VanGorder of his duties.

“This is a difficult decision,” Kelly said in a statement. “I have the utmost respect for Brian as both a person and football coach, but our defense simply isn’t it where it should be and I believe this change is necessary for the best interest of our program and our student-athletes.”

 

THE AFTERMATH

While Kelly won’t likely go any deeper into the decision to make the change than he’s done in a few media sessions, it’s telling just how different the defense is organized with VanGorder out the door.

Full-unit meetings have been turned into position group teaching sessions. Depth chart’s have been reshuffled, resulting in major personnel changes. A base three-man front has taken over as the status quo. And the defense has stopped giving up points and big plays, especially after they found their footing against Syracuse.

Where Kelly goes from here is anyone’s guess—especially considering he’s still trying his best to get this season under control. But after tapping into his personal coaching network to fill a premium vacancy, don’t expect Kelly to settle on the familiar—or for Swarbrick to allow it—when his roster is loaded with young talent and in need of a fundamentally sound plan.

Notre Dame relies on QB Brandon Wimbush to keep drives alive despite passing struggles

Getty Images
30 Comments

Irish coach Brian Kelly declared Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush healthy for this weekend’s top-15 matchup with USC. Of course, anytime facing the No. 11 team in the country, Kelly wants to have his starting quarterback at his disposal, even if Wimbush is entering only his sixth collegiate start.

Kelly alluded to Wimbush’s inexperience and continued struggles in the passing game while also pointing out his broader successes.

“[Wimbush is] developing at the quarterback position,” Kelly said Tuesday. “In these bye weeks, we evaluate and self-scout. He’s been really productive in a number of areas for us: moving the chains, fourth down conversions, third downs, big plays. He’s done a lot of really good things to get us to where we are today.

“There has to be some improvement in some other areas, but from a productivity standpoint, he’s done some really good things and he’s only going to get better.”

In other words, the Irish coaching staff sees Wimbush as still developing, yet offering drive-sustaining and points-creating production.

The need for growth and development is obvious. Wimbush has completed only 52.3 percent of his passes this season and averages 5.92 yards per pass attempt. Both those figures fall below expectations, even for a first-year starter.

RELATED READING: A Notre Dame Bye Week Mailbag: On passing game struggles

Most are pretty familiar with those shout-inducing moments often yielding points. Wimbush has accounted for 11 of Notre Dame’s 23 plays of more than 30 yards. (Seven passes, four rushes.) Aside from the big plays, though, the positives take a little more time to measure. How pivotal has he been to the offense otherwise?

Wimbush has accounted for 59.0 percent of Irish first downs and 63.6 percent of successful third down conversions. (These rates factor in only the first five games of the season, considering Wimbush missed the 33-10 victory at North Carolina due to a grade one right foot strain.)

Put into other words, despite Notre Dame’s rampant rushing success, its most-consistent method of moving the ball downfield involves Wimbush, be it his arm or his legs.

First downs:

Game Notre Dame Wimbush
Temple 26 13
Georgia 18 11
Boston College 19 12
Michigan State 21 14
Miami (OH) 21 12
North Carolina 27

Third down conversions:

Game Notre Dame Wimbush
Temple 6-of-13 2-of-9
Georgia 5-of-18 5-of-17, including two first downs gained from drawing pass interference penalties.
Boston College 9-of-18 5-of-11
Michigan State 8-of-14 8-of-10
Miami (OH) 5-of-13 1-of-6
North Carolina 5-of-16

Notre Dame has converted a total of 41.3 percent of its third downs, while Wimbush is at 39.6 percent. (That team total does include the victory over the Tar Heels.)

As for fourth downs the Irish are 7-of-10 and Wimbush is 1-of-2, successfully converting a fourth-and-11 in the first quarter against Miami (OH) by connecting with sophomore receiver Chase Claypool for 21 yards to get Notre Dame into the red zone. Three plays later, Wimbush rushed for a one-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead.

With Wimbush, Notre Dame has a dynamic playmaker capable of turning nothing into something, although he also sometimes turns a something (perhaps an open receiver) into a nothing (overthrown).

Facing the Trojans defense, that former aspect will be needed. USC ranks No. 36 in the country in passing efficiency defense, allows only 35.5 percent of third downs to be converted (No. 50) and has given up touchdowns on a mere 41.4 percent of opponents trips to the red zone (12 of 29).

That isn’t even mentioning the Trojans penchant for forcing turnovers. They have taken away the ball 16 times in seven games, including 10 interceptions.

QB Wimbush & Notre Dame RBs healthy; LB Martini not

Getty Images
30 Comments

After a week off from most football activities last week and a week off from schoolwork due to fall break this week, No. 13 Notre Dame is near full health for its primetime matchup with No. 11 USC on Saturday.

“We had six days of not being in contact situations after the North Carolina game,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “You get the physical rest and then you get the mental rest this week, without having to be in the classroom. It’s clearly a benefit, not only for this game, but the next five games after this.”

Most notably, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush has recovered from a grade one right foot strain.

“There are no questions about his health so we can put that to rest,” Kelly said. “He’s 100 percent.”

All of the Irish running backs should be past any ankle concerns, as well. Junior Josh Adams was battling two “cranky” ankles as Notre Dame finished the first half of its season, while junior Dexter Williams missed the victory at North Carolina due to a sprained ankle, just as sophomore Tony Jones did a week earlier against Miami (OH).

The bye week brought one new injury, though. Senior linebacker and captain Greer Martini injured his knee in practice, a status Kelly deemed “day-to-day.” Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated reports the meniscus injury could sideline Martini into November.

Martini and junior Te’von Coney have split time to date, complementing seniors Nyles Morgan and Drue Tranquill in the linebacker unit. With Martini potentially missing time, Coney will naturally receive more. He has already made 42 tackles this season, trailing only Morgan (by two) and ahead of Martini by three.

Kelly also ruled out an in-season return from Elijah Taylor. The junior tackle suffered a Lisfranc fracture during spring practice.

On Kevin Stepherson
The bye week may have benefited sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson the most. He missed the season’s first four games and had not contributed much in the subsequent two, catching just one pass for a loss of three yards. A year ago, Stepherson caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five touchdowns.

Kelly attributed some of Stepherson’s struggles upon his return to a version of rust from inactivity.

“What we saw was somebody that needed to get reintroduced into the game and get back up to game speed, game conditioning,” Kelly said. “It was preseason for him in a lot of ways.”

With more time focused on those aspects, Kelly said he expects Stepherson’s role to increase in the season’s second half.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Navy falls, dropping undefeateds to only Georgia and Miami (FL)

Getty Images
6 Comments

One of the three heretofore remaining undefeated opponents on Notre Dame’s schedule fell this weekend, largely due to its own mistakes. All in all, Irish opponents went 7-4 but are expected to go 3-5 this coming weekend, not counting Notre Dame’s matchup with USC.

Temple (3-4): The Owls were favored by 9.5 points, but gifted a 28-24 win to Connecticut. Two separate Temple turnovers provided half of the Huskies scoring. A fumble set up a two-play, nine-yard Connecticut touchdown drive, and an interception courtesy of Owls junior quarterback Logan Marchi was returned for a touchdown. Interceptions continue to plague Marchi’s debut campaign as a starter. He has now thrown nine in the last four games.

If he can avoid such a mistake at Army this weekend (12 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network), perhaps Temple can overcome its six-point underdog status. A combined point total over/under of 49.5 indicates an expected final of 28-21.

Georgia (7-0): The Bulldogs ran right by Missouri, to the tune of a 53-28 score and 370 rushing yards on 51 attempts, part of an offensive explosion of 696 total yards. No Georgia rusher gained more than 100 yards, while six ran for at least 30, and freshman quarterback Jake Fromm completed 18 of 26 passes for 326 yards and three touchdowns. All in all, the Bulldogs had possession for a whopping 39:36.

Georgia certainly does not need a break, but it gets one this weekend, anyway.

Boston College (3-4): The Eagles finally came out ahead in a tough game against one of the ACC’s better teams, topping Louisville 45-42. The shootout was certainly unexpected: The over/under was a mere 57 points.

Boston College’s record does not do its season justice. The Eagles played Notre Dame close into the second half, hung with Clemson into the fourth quarter and were never phased by Virginia Tech. They just could not put together a complete performance.

Thanks largely to running back AJ Dillon, that changed this weekend. Dillon ran for 272 yards and four touchdowns on 39 carries, most notably including this piece of disrespect:

A quietly-solid Virginia awaits Boston College (12:30 p.m. ET, ACC Network). The Cavaliers are favored by seven with an over/under of 48.5. Quick math hints at a 28-21 conclusion. It is awfully tempting to put some faith in the Eagles in that situation.

Michigan State (5-1): The Spartans’ 30-27 win at Minnesota was not as close as the field-goal margin implies. The Gophers put together two touchdown drives in the final six minutes to turn a blowout into a paper’s version of a tight contest.

Michigan State running back LJ Scott finally broke loose, taking 25 carries for 194 yards and two touchdowns. The Spartans needed his solid performance to help cover up three turnovers. They got away with those mistakes against Minnesota, and may be able to this weekend against Indiana (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC) and next week at Northwestern, but such mishaps would likely prove crippling vs. Penn St or at Ohio State in November.

Michigan State is favored by seven against the Hoosiers, with an over/under of 44 pointing toward a 25-19 result. It should not be that close, unless Indiana follows the Gophers’ example with late, meaningless scores.

Miami (OH) (2-5): This is not the season Chuck Martin expected. Without starting quarterback Gus Ragland, the RedHawks fell 17-14 to Kent State, one of the MAC’s two bottom-dwellers. Miami already lost to the other, Bowling Green, just a week ago.

Junior backup quarterback Billy Bahl completed 12 of 29 passes for 174 yards, throwing two touchdowns along with two interceptions.

Martin and the RedHawks will look to save this escaping season against Buffalo (2:30 p.m. ET, Watch ESPN). Favored by three, they would be grateful to be on the right side of a 26-23 afternoon.

North Carolina (1-6): The Tar Heels lost 2017 continued with a 20-14 defeat to Virginia. In this week’s illustration of just how dismal the day was for North Carolina, it managed all of 46 passing yards. The Tar Heels’ next viable hope of a win comes after a trip to Virginia Tech (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2) and a weekend with Miami (FL). A bye will then precede a Thursday journey to Pittsburgh. That may also be their last legitimate chance of an FBS-level victory this season.

The Hokies are favored by 21 points and will likely exceed that and a hypothetical 36-15 margin.

Junior quarterback Sam Darnold leads a talented USC offense into Notre Dame this coming weekend. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

USC (6-1): The Trojans slipped past Utah 28-27, stopping a Utes’ two-point conversion attempt in the final minute. The win should set up USC to cruise to the Pac-12 title game. Junior quarterback Sam Darnold threw for 358 yards and three touchdowns on 27-of-50 passing. Perhaps more importantly, he did not throw any interceptions, though the Trojans did lose three fumbles.

Running back Ronald Jones took 17 carries for 111 yards and a score.

USC visits Notre Dame (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC) as a 3.5-point underdog. A 31-28 Saturday night would hardly leave anyone lamenting a lack of entertainment.

North Carolina State (6-1): The Wolfpack made it six victories in a row after its season opening one-possession loss to South Carolina. North Carolina State’s defense led the way in the 35-17 win at Pittsburgh, holding the Panthers to 95 rushing yards on 32 attempts. Pittsburgh managed only 5.1 yards per pass attempt and converted just four of 15 third down attempts.

The Wolfpack now enjoys a bye before traveling to South Bend for what could be a top-15 matchup filled with national implications.

Wake Forest (4-2): The Demon Deacons had the week off and undoubtedly used it to prepare for Georgia Tech’s triple-option attack (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU). The Yellow Jackets enjoy nearly a touchdown’s advantage per bookmakers’ projections, prevailing in those views by something akin to 27-21.

Miami kicker Michael Badgley hit the winning field goal in the Hurricanes 25-24 victory over Georgia Tech. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Miami (FL) (5-0): The good news: The Hurricanes again used a last-minute, drama-filled drive to notch a winning score.

The obvious news: Beating Georgia Tech should never be taken for granted.

The forward-looking news: Miami has only one genuine ACC challenge left, Nov. 4 vs. Virginia Tech, meaning an undefeated conference slate and a regular season as a whole are both distinct possibilities. That contest will also likely determine if the Hurricanes bring an unblemished record into their matchup with Notre Dame a week later.

The bad news: This week’s opponent, Syracuse, could not be much more confident after beating No. 2 Clemson on Friday. Nonetheless, Miami is favored by 15 with an over/under of 57.5. Here’s an eye on more points than a 36-21 result includes.

Navy (5-1): The Midshipmen rushed for 314 yards on 68 carries against Memphis. That can cover up most anything, but not, apparently, five turnovers. Maybe four, but not five, as the Tigers topped Navy 30-27 thanks to those repeated giveaways.

Navy travels to Central Florida (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network) staring a two-game losing streak in the face as eight-point underdogs. An over/under of 66 points to a 37-29 final.

Stanford (5-2): Oregon was missing its starting quarterback, and it showed. The Ducks threw for only 33 passing yards in a 49-7 loss to the Cardinal. Stanford quarterback Keller Chryst threw for 181 yards and three touchdowns on 15-of-21 passing while junior running back Bryce Love ran for only 147 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries.

Stanford takes its second bye of the year this weekend, since it started the season a week early overseas.

Questions for the Week: Wimbush’s health & the unpredictability of college football

Getty Images
46 Comments

How was your weekend off? Did you catch up on some sleep? Perhaps rake those leaves you had been ignoring?

Of course you didn’t, but let’s pretend you did. And as you did, you kept asking yourself …

Will Brandon Wimbush be healthy enough to start against USC? Actually, skip the enough. Will he be back to 100 percent?
No one in this space should play doctor, so offering insights on the recovery time from a grade one foot strain would be duplicitous and likely inaccurate. Rather, let’s turn to the most trustworthy of sources … Twitter.

The Notre Dame football account (@NDFootball) posted a video Thursday morning opening with Wimbush rolling a few steps and throwing a pass. Presumably, the footage was from a Wednesday afternoon practice.

To say the clip is brief is to say bacon tastes good. Nonetheless, the Irish administrators even allowing the inclusion of the junior quarterback in the video is noteworthy. If he was distinctly limited, there is no chance that would have been showcased.

For now, presume Wimbush to be healthy. By the time kickoff comes Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC), he will have had nearly exactly three full weeks of recovery time. If Wimbush is not at 100 percent, he should be close to it. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly will inevitably discuss as much during his Tuesday press conference.

Wimbush will be needed against the Trojans. Sophomore quarterback Ian Book played well — or at least well enough, and there’s that pesky e-word again — to lead the Irish past North Carolina, but Wimbush’s playmaking could be the key to getting past USC. The difference between the two is that simple.

During the bye week, was there any depth chart movement?
If there is a time for more-than-minimal reshuffling of the depth chart, it is during the midseason week off. When a team is 5-1 courtesy of a plus-139 scoring margin, moving things around may seem counterintuitive. On some level it is. On another, though, finding a way to get junior cornerback Shaun Crawford on the field even more often would seem a wise decision. Conceivably, moving sophomore Julian Love to safety alongside junior Nick Coleman would create that opening for Crawford.

Two disclaimers here: One, this is mere speculation. Two, the answer to this may actually wait until after kickoff, running contrary to this piece’s weekly theme, but it is also possible it could show up in the depth chart before then.

Will high-flying Syracuse hand Miami (FL) its first loss two weeks before Notre Dame gets the chance to?
It is still a touch difficult to believe. Underdogs by 23.5 points, the Orange beat No. 2 Clemson on Friday, 27-24. Anyone claiming to have seen that coming can go ahead and check the mirror to see how much their nose just grew.

This space certainly did not expect it. In retrospect, this pondering of Clemson’s fate in the College Football Playoff published Friday morning rings particularly prescient now, even if unwittingly so: “A still-proving-himself quarterback (Clemson’s Kelly Bryant) doubts himself and makes another mistake …”

For that matter, only a few paragraphs later, this space predicted Washington State would cruise past Cal on Friday night. Care to guess what did not happen?

With all that in mind, Syracuse overcoming a 14-point spread to beat Miami (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) is a possibility to be recognized. The Orange have the momentum, if nothing else. The Hurricanes, meanwhile, are getting by with nothing to spare, winning each of the last two weekends on last-minute drives hinging on extremely difficult catches.

Will Navy respond to its first loss with a renewed focus on the AAC title?
The Midshipmen host undefeated Central Florida at 3:30 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network. Favored by seven, the Knights are likely to thoroughly dampen any Naval hopes of winning the American Athletic Conference a year after getting routed in the title game. In falling to Memphis this past weekend, Navy obviously lost the tiebreaker in the AAC West, but knocking off Central Florida would keep the Midshipmen in the mix.

Speaking of which, how will Memphis fare Thursday night at Houston?
A three-point spread in Houston’s favor indicates Memphis could fall behind Navy in the AAC standings before the Midshipmen even face Central Florida. If nothing else, the Tigers and Cougars will fill up the scoreboard (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).