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.
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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
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
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.