NOTRE DAME, Ind. — It didn’t take long, all of one game, for Brian VanGorder bashers to come out of the woodwork. The termites have been nibbling at the Notre Dame defensive coordinator in his first two years, but now they’re in a feeding frenzy after Sunday’s 50-47 double-overtime loss to Texas.
Fighting Irish fans have been less than pleased with defenses that have ranked 73rd and 45th in total defense over the past two seasons and they were looking for big signs of improvement in this year’s season-opener.
They’ve been loud and calling for VanGorder’s job online and on social media since the loss to the Longhorns. Irish head coach Brian Kelly even fielded a question from the media at his Tuesday press conference asking if VanGorder is “the right man for the job” at Notre Dame.
“Absolutely,” Kelly responded.
“I just think we’re jumping the gun,” he continued. “If we’re 10 games into this and we’re giving up 50 points a game, I’ll have to answer your questions.”
Kelly attributed Sunday’s defensive struggles more to Texas’ new, up-tempo offense — an offense his Irish have not faced before. The 50 points Notre Dame gave up was the most a ranked team has allowed to an unranked team since the AP began its rankings in 1936.
To be fair though, those 50 points do come with an asterisk. The last 13 points came on touchdowns in the two overtime periods where offenses start just outside of the red zone.
Still, the Irish allowed 517 yards of total offense to the Longhorns. It’s what Texas head coach Charlie Strong was looking for when he hired first-year offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert away from Tulsa. His offense — similar to what Baylor has employed in recent years — ranked 14th in total offense (502.8 yards per game) and 25th in scoring (35.9 points per game) last year.
Notre Dame won’t see another offense like that for the rest of the season, but there is still a lot of room for improvement. Poor tackling hurt the Irish defense throughout the night and that was strongly amplified on the final play of the game when Tyrone Swoopes powered his way through several tackle attempts en route to scoring the game-winning touchdown.
Injuries during training camp are always a concern and Kelly says there wasn’t a lot of live tackling during this year’s camp. He knows it’s an area in which his team must improve and says they’ll “spend more time on it” during practice this week before Saturday’s home-opener against Nevada.
Play in the secondary was an issue against the Longhorns as well. Defensive backs Nick Coleman and Shaun Crawford were both beaten deep Sunday. Safety Drue Tranquill, who missed most of last year due to an injury, was also out of position on at least one occasion that led to a long touchdown pass.
Kelly knows his team can’t play high-scoring games all season and hope to have a successful season. Last year’s 24.1 points allowed per game is still on the high side for a team that wants to play for a championship, but it’s much more manageable than 37-50 points.
“If we’re 10 or 11 games into the season and we have to outscore everybody, I’ll take questions,” Kelly said.
Only time will tell.