No. 9 Notre Dame looks inward as it faces a familiar defensive scheme

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Brian Kelly is often criticized for relying too much on coach-speak, not giving the frank answers some Notre Dame fans or media desire. When it came to Bowling Green, the Irish head coach was nothing but blunt Monday.

“This is a week for our football team to really look at themselves and say, do I want to be great, or is this as good as it gets?” Kelly said. “That rhetorical question of our mission here is to graduate champions. This is a week where you can focus on being a champion.

“All the details that are so important to being one, you get the opportunity to sharpen that this week.”

Rather than rattle off platitudes about the Falcons’ schemes or individual players, Kelly focused on No. 9 Notre Dame’s reflection in the mirror while also offering some empathy for Bowling Green’s first-year coaching staff, led by former Boston College offensive coordinator Scott Loeffler.

“I have a great deal of respect for Scott Loeffler and taking over this program,” Kelly said. “I know how hard it is at the MAC level when you’re coming in to put in your culture and develop your philosophy offensively, defensively and special teams.”

Kelly, of course, took over at Central Michigan when the Chippewas were coming off a five-year stretch of 14-41. Within three years he had flipped them to a MAC-winning 9-4 season.

More than his voiced respect for Loeffler, Kelly’s relationship with former Irish defensive coordinator and current Bowling Green defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder is the story peg of the week (pictured at top circa 2016). Notre Dame fans may begrudge VanGorder and his defensive approach for torpedoing the 2016 season and, perhaps even more aggravating to many, not holding up at the end of a 2015 season on the edge of big-picture goals. If Kelly does as well, he does not show it and never has aside from dismissing VanGorder four games into the 2016 debacle.

It should be remembered: VanGorder’s son, Montgomery, hung around the Irish roster through the 2017 season, only beloved by his teammates, many of whom saw him two weeks ago after the loss at Georgia, where Montgomery is now a graduate assistant.

“Obviously I have a great personal relationship with Brian VanGorder,” Kelly said. “Respect him as a football coach and as a person. You can see that he’s getting those guys lined up, getting them to play fundamental football, first and foremost. It’s just a matter of recruiting and time and getting those guys to the level where they can compete in the MAC.”

Loeffler originally hired VanGorder to coach the Falcons’ linebackers, but when Carl Pelini left in January to work with his brother, Bo, at Youngstown State, Loeffler tapped VanGorder to handle the entire defense. Taking over a unit that gave up 40.0 points per game last season, life was never going to be easy for VanGorder or Bowling Green this season.

To this point, that defense has given up 38.0 points per game; removing the season-opener against FCS-level Morgan State, that number jumps to 49.7 against FBS competition. More pertinently, the Falcons rank No. 118 in SP+ defensive metrics. For context, New Mexico fits at No. 128 in those rankings.

Kelly expects a typical VanGorder defensive showing, nonetheless. That is, one intended to confuse the opposing quarterback with a variety of looks and approaches.

“Going against Brian is always a challenge because he’s multiple defensively,” Kelly said. “You’re going to get a variety of different looks, so you have to be prepared for a lot of different things. …

“It’s not certain that they’re at that level where they can bring as many things at you as they did here at Notre Dame, but we’ll have to be prepared for that.”

Kelly has not stayed in touch with VanGorder, citing his “busy career in terms of moving around a little bit.” Most recently, VanGorder spent the 2018 season as the Louisville defensive coordinator. Suffice it to say, things did not go well, lowlighted when Georgia Tech hung 66 points against the Cardinals on a Friday night when most of the college football world tuned in.

Outgoing Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson had a public grudge to settle with VanGorder, tracing back nearly two decades to when VanGorder insulted Johnson and a disciple of his for their triple-option offensive attack. As the Yellow Jackets ran for 542 yards against VanGorder, using that triple-option, it was clear Johnson took those denigrations personally.

There is no reason to think such animosity will be on hand Saturday (3:30 ET; NBC). Instead, simply an overmatched opponent heading toward the MAC cellar.