Notre Dame’s Opponents: Bowling Green and a familiar defensive coordinator

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Some misguided version of Notre Dame pride, perhaps even schadenfreude, will make the week of Oct. 5 entirely about former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and his struggles since being fired four weeks into the 2016 season. If (read: when) Bowling Green gives up 40 points to either Kansas State or Louisiana Tech in September, its first-year defensive coordinator will be maligned again.

The Falcons’ troubles extend past VanGorder and first-year head coach Scot Loeffler. No matter VanGorder’s past missteps, Bowling Green’s coming struggles reflect more on the previous coaching staff than on this one.

Mike Jinks was fired seven games into last season. The Falcons were then 1-6, on pace for an even worse season than Jinks’ first two, a 4-8 effort in his debut followed by a 2-10 showing in 2017. With defensive coordinator Carl Pelini as the interim head coach, Bowling Green at least limped to a 2-3 finish, winning as touchdown underdogs at both Central Michigan and Akron in November, to finish 3-9.

Some of those issues traced to injuries, especially on a defense that gave up 40.0 points per game, No. 125 in the country. Loeffler intended to retain Pelini, clearly not attributing that dismal showing entirely to the coordinator, but Pelini opted to join his brother Bo at Youngstown State. Originally hired as the linebackers coach, VanGorder was then promoted to defensive coordinator.

Since getting fired by Notre Dame during the 2016 season, Brian VanGorder has served as an analyst at Georgia and Oklahoma State before taking the reins of the Louisville defense for one season. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

Let’s be clear, VanGorder’s defense at Louisville last year was horrendous, and the Falcons will be far from good this year, not even remotely approaching respectable. Much of the former debacle, and some of the coming collapses, should be attributed to VanGorder, just as Notre Dame puts an onus for its 2016 disaster on the defensive coordinator with convoluted schemes.

Make no mistake, VanGorder has not changed.

“Obviously, I’ve been doing it a long time,” he told The Sentinel-Tribune. “I know myself well. I know in coaching you have to be who you are, so I’m going to be who I am.”

VanGorder’s approach to coaching his defensive schemes has not changed, either.

“The mission statements are always easy in football. The methods are difficult,” he said. “If you don’t understand the methods, then the mission is never going to be accomplished.”

Irish fans enjoying VanGorder’s scuffles does no one any good, particularly because those headaches have been aplenty, well-chronicled and continuing.

Why so adamant VanGorder is not on the brink of success yet attempting to defer some of the fault for that from him? Consider what the Falcons lost from a defense that was already one of only six in the country to give up 40 points per game.

— Leading tackler middle linebacker Brandon Harris, who made 131 tackles.
— Their top three cornerbacks in Clint Stephens (50 tackles, eight pass breakups, two interceptions), Montre Gregory (39 tackles, seven pass breakups) and Robert Jackson (15 tackles, one pass break up). Two sophomores will replace them with even less depth behind them.
— Starting defensive tackle Kyle Junior (48 tackles with six for loss including two sacks) transferred to Oklahoma State and starting defensive end Josh Croslen (21 tackles) transferred to UTSA.

Will all that defensive attrition, from a defense already struggling, produce gaudy stats for a veteran quarterback keeping pace in shootouts? It could have, until junior quarterback Jarrett Doege opted to transfer after spring practices, heading to West Virginia.

And as a cherry on top of this roster-depleting sundae, leading receiver Scott Miller (71 catches for 1,148 yards and nine touchdowns) was drafted in the sixth round by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but at least that departure was expected.

Defensively, no one new of note joined the Falcons roster, but two names will return to action. Defensive end David Konowalski, who had 8.5 tackles for loss in 2017, was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA after tearing his Achilles last preseason, and junior college linebacker transfer Brandon Perce can return to the middle of the defense where he began 2018 before an injury sidelined him in week two.

On the other side of the ball, reinforcements arrived via graduate transfer. Receiver Isaiah Johnson-Mack came from Washington State, and tight end Austin Dorris jumped from Indiana. Boston College quarterback Darius Wade also followed his former offensive coordinator, Loeffler, not that Wade was the only one to do so. Eagles quarterback Matt McDonald took a traditional transfer, though the NCAA is still pondering his appeal for immediate eligibility.

Thanks to firing head coach Mike Jinks in October, Bowling Green was ready to introduce Boston College offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler as its new head coach by the end of November. (Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Loeffler spent the last three seasons as Boston College’s offensive coordinator, the last two of which were dominated by star running back A.J. Dillon. But even with Dillon, the Eagles offense was never all that good under Loeffler, peaking at 32.0 points per game last year, highlighted by opening the season with tallies of 55, 62 and 41. In the ensuing nine games, Boston College averaged 25.3 points.

That middling success, or lack thereof, will not change Loeffler’s approach. He intends to bring a running-focused offense, and running back is the only offensive skill position with its leader returning. Junior Andrew Clair (pictured at top) took 135 carries for 702 yards, a 5.2 average per rush, and five touchdowns last year. He has seven career 100-yard games and is genuinely a good running back.

Clair has not broken out because the offensive line ahead of him has been lackluster. Bowling Green averaged just 117 rushing yards per game last season. The Falcons do return four linemen with starting experience, splitting 64 starts between them, meaning that output should uptick, especially with Loeffler’s emphasis, but perhaps not distinctly.

The two former Boston College quarterbacks continue to compete for starting honors with junior Grant Loy. None of the three have reams of experience, so it will be an unknown commodity behind center no matter the starter.

Bowling Green gave up plenty of explosive plays and long touchdowns in allowing 40 points per game last season. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Of the notes resulting from researching Bowling Green’s defense, none of them are positive in nature. The best thing that can be said about it is that the Falcons gave up only 168 passing yards per game in 2018. That was partly because they had a decent secondary, but it was mostly because opponents just defaulted to the sure thing of running against Bowling Green, averaging 280.5 yards per game in doing so.

Five different opponents ran for more than 300 yards last year, led by Maryland’s 444 yards on an 8.4 yards per carry average. Only two opponents rushed for fewer than 200 yards, those two late-season Falcons victories; Central Michigan ran for 67 yards and Akron ran for 79.

If VanGorder wants to find success, stopping the run will not be the only change needed. Bowling Green failed to consistently pressure the quarterback, managing 15 sacks, highlighted by four in that victory at Akron, and hardly forced turnovers with 14 total, winning the turnover differential just twice.

The preseason media MAC balloting slotted the Falcons last in the East Division and bookmakers set the season win total over/under at 3. In other words, expectations are low for Loeffler’s start. Again, that is not because of the new coaching staff.

It is because when looking at Bowling Green’s schedule, only the opener against Morgan State looks like a sure win. Any other victories figure to be tight and somewhat surprising.

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