Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.
With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.
The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.
Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.
Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.
If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.
Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order:
2016 Army topped Wake Forest 21-13. The Knights gained 21 first downs, 383 total yards (238 rush; 145 pass) and averaged 5.2 yards per play.
Notre Dame blew out Army, 44-6, holding the Knights to 10 first downs and 242 total yards (229 rush, 13 pass). Army averaged 4.8 yards per play.
Again, the 2016 North Carolina State games are not included here. Comparing a game played in a hurricane to a game, well, not played in a hurricane yields nothing of intellectual worth.
2016 Syracuse fell to the Deacons, 28-9, and two of those nine points came from a safety. Try as one may, it is hard to fault a defensive coordinator for his offense suffering a safety. The Orange gained 14 first downs, 326 yards (158 rush; 168 pass) and averaged 4.9 yards per play.
Notre Dame outlasted Syracuse 50-33, allowing 25 first downs and 489 total yards (126 rush; 363 pass) with an average of 5.6 yards per play.
Wake Forest beat 2016 Duke, 24-14. The Blue Devils gained 21 first downs, 369 total yards (37 rush; 332 pass) and averaged 4.7 yards per play.
In the only 2016 game on this listing with VanGorder actually on the sideline, Notre Dame lost to Duke in a 38-35 shootout, though one of the Blue Devils’ touchdowns came on a 96-yard kickoff return. There is at least a discussion to be had how much blame a defensive coordinator deserves for a special teams lapse like that, but it is a discussion for another day. The Irish defense allowed 24 first downs, 498 total yards (208 rush; 290 pass) and an average of 6.7 yards per play.
2015 Clemson breezed past the Deacons, 33-13, thanks to 24 first downs, 552 total yards (171 rush; 381 pass) and a list-worst average of 6.7 yards per play, matched only by Notre Dame’s opponent in the preceding entry.
Notre Dame and Clemson played in another game dotted with talk of a hurricane, but by no means did the weather prevent a recognizable evening of football. Clemson prevailed 24-22 with 15 first downs, 296 total yards (199 rush; 97 pass) and an average of 4.6 yards per play.
In one of the 21st century’s true classics, Wake Forest beat 2015 Boston College, 3-0. The offensive statistics imply it should never have ended in the Deacons’ favor. The Eagles finished with 18 first downs, 270 total yards (196 rush; 74 pass) and an average of 3.6 yards per play. Wake Forest’s offensive statistics have no bearing on this article’s intent, but one would be remiss not to acknowledge the artistry needed to win a game when gaining only five first downs on 142 total yards with 33 rushing yards gained on 28 attempts.
Notre Dame and Boston College trended toward a more conventional outcome, with the Irish winning 19-16. The Eagles gained 13 first downs, 302 total yards (214 rush; 88 pass) and averaged 5.2 yards per play.
2014 Louisville topped Wake Forest 20-10, finishing with 21 first downs, 421 total yards (215 rush; 206 pass) and an average of 5.2 yards per play.
The Cardinals needed a stronger offensive day to beat Notre Dame, 31-28, but they got it with 23 first downs, 409 total yards (229 rush; 180 pass) and an average of 5.8 yards per play.
2014 Florida State beat Wake Forest 43-3, but of those 43 points, seven came from a 31-yard fumble return and 15 came off field goals. Yes, those latter 15 points should be attributed to the defense, but it is always notable when a kicker is forced into such action five times in one game. The Seminoles gained 23 first downs, 475 total yards (171 rush; 304 pass) and averaged 6.4 yards per play.
The odds are, anyone reading this far down this article on this site remembers how the 2014 Notre Dame at Florida State game ended. For the three of you who do not remember: The Seminoles won 31-27 in a game completely devoid of any controversy. They gained 18 first downs, 323 total yards (50 rush; 273 pass) and averaged 5.7 yards per play.
2014 Syracuse beat Wake Forest 30-7, though the Orange defense provided two of those scores, so Elko’s unit actually gave up only 16 points. Syracuse gained 17 first downs, 370 total yards (199 rush; 171 pass) and averaged 5.3 yards per play.
Notre Dame beat Syracuse 31-15 that year, with one of those scores coming off an interception return, meaning the Irish defense allowed nine points. Syracuse gained 17 first downs, 429 total yards (135 rush; 294 pass) and averaged 6.3 yards per play.
Against the elite common opponents, Elko and Wake Forest struggled to provide much defensive resistance. VanGorder and Notre Dame may not have presented shutdown stops against Florida State and Clemson, but they did keep them honest. For that matter, holding 2014 Florida State—featuring running backs Karlos Williams and Dalvin Cook, and quarterback Jameis Winston—to only 50 rushing yards and 323 total yards should not be undersold. It was and is quite a performance.
Against the rest—excluding the uniqueness of Army’s attack—Elko and the Deacons did not blink, holding those five to a total of 57 points, compared to Notre Dame’s 117.
It will certainly be worth watching what Elko can do with more talent at his disposal. He will first get his hands on it in 15 days. Spring practice begins March 8.