Clock's ticking on Notre Dame defense

AP photoDejected Notre Dame football players walk off the field after Sunday’s 50-47 double-overtime loss to host Texas in Austin.

Need a historical guide to college football coaching longevity, whether as a head coach or an assistant? Check out year No. 3.

A third season provides a coach at any level or position group adequate time to get his system and recruits in place, washing away the built-in excuse of growing pains and inexperience.

For Notre Dame context – perhaps unfair – head-coaching legends Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz all won national championships in their third seasons with the Irish.

Sunday night’s tussle in Texas between the Longhorns and Notre Dame wasn’t a matchup of third-year head coaches, but it wasn’t too far removed.

And based on the 50-47 double-overtime upset the No. 10 Irish suffered, third-year Texas head coach Charlie Strong dealt third-year Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder another decisive blow.

A defense that Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly listed last week as a source of confidence was torched for 517 yards and the most points in an Irish defeat since Miami handed Gerry Faust a 58-7 embarrassment in 1985, Faust’s last game as Notre Dame coach.

“We have really settled into our defense,” Kelly said in the days leading up to the Texas game. “Our kids are very confident in what we’re doing. We’ve transitioned well from where we were defensively to Coach VanGorder’s scheme. I think there’s a comfort level that’s on the defensive side of the ball.”

Comfort turned code blue Sunday night, perhaps expectedly so.

Coming into the 2016 season opener, Notre Dame had allowed a troubling 46 scoring drives of 75 yards or more during VanGorder’s first two seasons on the job. The Longhorns added four more such long drives to that long list Sunday night.

A unit promised to be predicated on pressuring quarterbacks and forcing turnovers, Notre Dame’s defense during the first two seasons under VanGorder has finished 78th and 70th in sacks, and 110th and 41st in forced turnovers, respectively.

Working against the Longhorn line Sunday night, patch-worked together because of injury, the Irish defense managed no sacks and only one quarterback hurry versus a high-tempo Texas offense that averaged 6.0 yards on its 86 plays.

A Longhorn offense stuck near the bottom of the NCAA pack last season at only 370.8 yards and 26.4 points per game picked up right where Irish opponents left off last year. During this current three-game losing streak – a slide that dates back through losses to Stanford and Ohio State to finish last season – Notre Dame’s defense has allowed 44 points and 478 yards per game.

Nonetheless, Kelly downplayed on Monday the avalanche of criticism heading the way of VanGorder, blaming Sunday’s dazed and confused defensive performance on inexperienced players.

“It’s the first game and there’s a lot of uncertainties,” Kelly said during his Texas recap conference call. “We’ll critically evaluate. I think everybody needs to tap the brakes and relax. … This narrative about ‘it’s all the defense’s fault’ is Monday morning quarterbacking.”

While VanGorder is the easy target to pile on to after the production numbers Texas piled up, Kelly can’t be let off the hook after also being badly out-coached Sunday night.

Texas worked its two-quarterback system masterfully – neatly shifting between bulldozing senior Tyrone Swoops for the tough yards and strong-armed freshman Shane Buchele for the big plays – while Notre Dame coaches showed no plan or purpose with the usage balance between DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire.

The loss to Texas dropped Kelly to just 4-9 in true road games since the start of the 2013 season, a dubious record to stand alongside his struggles against top teams. Road wins and victories against ranked opponents define any college football coach and Kelly continues to struggle with both.

Texas wasn’t ranked before its game with Notre Dame – though it certainly will be after – but since Kelly defeated four ranked teams during an undefeated regular season in 2012, his Irish are only 4-9 against top-25 opponents, not exactly the stuff of legends.

Kelly’s three biggest games last season – Clemson, Stanford and Ohio State – all came against ranked teams, away from home, and each ended in a loss.

The goals are clear every year for an independent Notre Dame program.

“We don’t have a conference championship,” Kelly explained, “so everything that we look towards is to be one of the four teams selected in the playoffs.”

Yet, and perhaps obviously, if Brian VanGorder’s defense is no better in its third season than it was in its first two, playoff selection will be unattainable before the calendar even hits October.

Freelance columnist Todd Burlage covers Notre Dame sports.

(2) comments


Fire VanGorder!

Tim Stewart

I'll second that ![angry]

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.