It took great self-discipline to not make the following Q&A entirely about former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, but that took more effort than anticipated. To be blunt, there is not much else to discuss about 1-3 Bowling Green, that one win coming against FCS-level Morgan State. To try and broaden that view, let’s turn to Brandon Shrider, sports editor at The Sentinel-Tribune in Bowling Green, Ohio.
DF: I will do my best not to focus all of this on Brian VanGorder, but for all the obvious reasons, he is the most interesting part of this game to Notre Dame fans. For that matter, the Falcons defense is its best aspect, even if that is a backhanded compliment. He was hired as the linebackers coach, and then promoted when Carl Pelini abruptly left. With VanGorder at the defensive helm, Bowling Green has given up nearly 50 points per game against three FBS opponents. What is working for VanGorder, if anything?
BS: The defense actually played very well against Louisiana Tech (in a 35-7 loss). VanGorder’s unit gave the Falcons offense the ball on Tech’s side of the field a handful of times, but the offense could never do anything with it. The pass rush has been effective, even with the numbers skewed a bit from a dominating opening week. The pass rush comes from all across the formation, across the line, in the second level, and both inside and out. The secondary has experience over the top with two senior safeties, but the outside features a sophomore and a true freshman as starters at corner.
However, as good as the defense looked against Louisiana Tech, they looked like a completely different team against Kent State. The Golden Flashes beat the Falcons over the top, underneath, around the outside and up the middle. There really wasn’t anything Bowling Green was doing that was working.
Before continuing to the “VanGorder’s return to South Bend” storyline, let me broaden that previous question. What is working for first-year head coach Scott Loeffler across the board? What are the expectations this season, being he very much did not walk into an enviable situation?
I believe Loeffler has the right visions for the program. He will need to get “his” guys in here, but what he wants to build and how he has begun the process seem encouraging. With that said, the team’s starting quarterback transferred near the end of spring practice and the transfer Bowling Green brought in from Boston College — who ultimately won the starting job in preseason practice — was denied eligibility for this season just days before week 1. About half the Falcons’ roster is freshmen and they have just two scholarship quarterbacks for the year. The situation was bleak coming in and remains bleak for the time being. I think there was some expectation that Bowling Green could take a couple conference games, but those vibes seemed to fade after the drubbing it took at Kent State.
The one piece of Bowling Green’s roster I liked during preseason research was junior running back Andrew Clair. He struck me as a worthwhile back running behind a lackluster offensive line. Has he had any chances to flash this season or was I misguided with my assessment?
Loeffler even mentioned himself the running backs were supposed to be a strength coming into the season. They wanted to be balanced, but the running game certainly seemed like a strong starting point.
It has been everything but that. Clair missed the Kansas State game with an injury and did not get his first snap in the Louisiana Tech game until the third quarter. But even when he has played, along with bruising Boston College transfer Davon Jones and scatback/x-factor Bryson Denley, the running game has been abysmal. The holes haven’t been there and when there is a hole, the backs just haven’t been hitting them with confidence or explosiveness. It has put even more pressure on a passing game that features a quarterback who was granted a sixth year of eligibility after not playing for more than a year, Darius Wade, pictured at top.
Now then, VanGorder’s return to where he was fired four games into 2016 … What has he and/or Loeffler said about this weekend? Irish head coach Brian Kelly has voiced nothing but respect for all involved, as one might expect.
Loeffler and VanGorder, both, have mentioned the atmosphere that Notre Dame presents and the obvious tradition it has in college football. VanGorder himself said he hasn’t treated the preparation any different and that he has no hard feelings toward the program. He added that he has ties with much of that coaching staff, as a handful of them came into the coaching business around the same time.
In trying to quantify how resoundingly Notre Dame should trounce Bowling Green, I surprisingly came to the conclusion the Falcons might actually be better than Ball State was last year, when the Cardinals came an onside kick recovery away from having a viable chance of beating the Irish. What would Bowling Green need to happen to put a similar scare into Notre Dame?
The biggest, most disheartening thing for the Falcons so far this season has been the missed opportunities. They have had big-play chances over the top every week, but the throws/reads just haven’t been on time. If Bowling Green can connect on some of those, the running game could open up a bit more. Pair that with a pass rush, and maybe the Falcons can force Notre Dame’s hand on either side of the ball and put the pressure on.
What do you expect this weekend? As much of a rout as bookmakers suggest?
Despite the response to the previous question, there really isn’t much expectation for Bowling Green this weekend. When you concede 62 points to a below-average MAC opponent, there is nothing out there that suggests you will now render Notre Dame helpless. With two weeks to prepare, maybe the Falcons surprise with their most complete effort since week 1, but this game could certainly be similar to the week 2 loss, 52-0, at Kansas State.