Brian Kelly couldn’t keep a straight face, though the question Tuesday was not meant in jest.
“Defensively speaking if you had to prioritize three areas that you really need to see improvement on in, [what would those areas be]?”
The Irish coach smiled.
“[Only] three areas?” he responded.
Kelly’s initial self-deprecating answer was valid. The Notre Dame defense struggled across the board last year, most notably in the season’s first month. Improvement must begin somewhere, though, and when pushed, Kelly offered three areas.
“To play great defense, the basic tenets are not going to change,” he said. “You have to be great against the run. There’s nobody in here that follows football that would say you’re going to be a defense that’s successful if you can’t stop the run.
“… Component number two for us is the back end of our defense not giving up those big plays down the field. We gave up too many of them early in the season and it put us behind.
“… Then the third, ball disruptions. We have to be able to take away the football.”
Even only a quick look at the 2016 Irish defense shows the struggles in those areas. When adjusting to remove the 14 sacks from rush totals, Notre Dame allowed 189.7 rushing yards per game with an average carry of 4.4 yards allowed. The Irish forced only 14 turnovers courtesy of eight interceptions and six fumble recoveries.
(In reviewing last year’s statistics, the fumbles recovered compared to the fumbles forced warrants notice. Notre Dame forced 20 fumbles, but managed to land on only six of them. This ratio is commonly held up as the quickest indicator of how [un]lucky a team was in a given season, as those recoveries often quite literally come down to how a ball bounced.)
When it comes to the big plays allowed, rather than go through each game’s play-by-play, just a brief look at the first month’s box scores reveals how prevalent those mishaps were in opening the season 1-3. For this piece’s sake, let’s define a “big play allowed” as 20 yards or more.
Four different Texas receivers had gains of that size as their long play of the day. Three Nevada receivers did. Two Michigan State running backs broke off long runs exceeding 20 yards while four Spartan receivers caught passes of at least that length. Finishing that stretch, two Duke backs had rushes of at least 20 yards and three Blue Devil receivers matched that, as well.
Again, those 18 plays can be found without even going through all of those games’ plays. More are there. It was a primary symptom of the dismal beginning to a disappointing season.
For the last six months, Kelly has praised new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s emphasis on those pillars of defending, perhaps most notably the forcing of turnovers aspect.
“If you just came to our practice, you would see those three things being drilled ad nauseam,” Kelly said. “… You’d see guys mirroring the off-hand of the quarterback, working on stripping the football, run support lanes, tackling, run fits. All of the things that I just mentioned, you can talk about them, they sound great, they’re great sound bites, but you better do something every single day to develop that.”
Elko’s track record shows Notre Dame should improve in all three areas. His Wake Forest teams generally did so from year-to-year during his three-year stretch with the Demon Deacons. The encouraging trend is most distinct in rushing yards allowed per game, which not surprisingly dropped the furthest in last year’s 7-6 campaign, a significant uptick from consecutive 3-9 seasons.
The theoretical moral of today’s second look at an Irish coordinator: Don’t use Saturday’s final score to assess Notre Dame’s defensive success. Look at these metrics. Was Temple able to rush at will? Did the Owls enjoy big plays? Did Notre Dame take away the ball, or at least get its hands on it only to be deprived by bounces?
2016 Wake Forest:
165.6 rushing yards allowed per game.
4.9 yards allowed per rush when adjusting to remove sack totals from rush statistics.
27 turnovers via 15 fumbles recovered and 12 interceptions. 25 total fumbles forced.
2015 Wake Forest:
173.9 rushing yards allowed per game.
4.3 yards allowed per rush.
11 turnovers via five fumbles recovered and six interceptions. 14 total fumbles forced.
2014 Wake Forest:
197.5 rushing yards allowed per game.
4.5 yards allowed per rush.
19 turnovers via 13 fumbles recovered and six interceptions. 22 total fumbles forced.