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Mazurek: Irish defense has actually improved

| Friday, November 4, 2016

They say that time heals all wounds. For Notre Dame’s defense, that has certainly been the case.

Well … time, and a new defensive coordinator.

Four games after the student section loudly called for Kelly to make a change at the helm of the defense, it appears those chants of “Fire VanGorder” were justified.

In the first four games of the season, with VanGorder in charge, the Notre Dame defense gave up 33.5 points and 454 yards per game on average. And that includes giving up 500 yards to Michigan State and Duke.

Yes, Duke.

In Notre Dame’s last four games, the Irish have allowed, on average, just 21.75 points and 323 yards per contest. That’s an improvement of nearly 130 yards and 12 points per game.

Yet the stats don’t even tell the whole story. North Carolina State put 10 points on the scoreboard against the Irish, but 7 of those came from a blocked punt returned for a touchdown — not the defense’s fault. Similarly, against Stanford, a safety and an interception returned for a touchdown meant the Cardinal scored nine of their 17 points with the defense not on the field.

The raw stats also don’t tell the full story against Syracuse and Miami. Yes, the Irish gave up 33 and 27 points to the Orange and Hurricanes respectively, but the defense played well in each game. Against one of the nation’s top offenses and with only one week with new coordinator Greg Hudson, the Irish started slowly, but only allowed Syracuse to score six points in the entire second half. Most recently, the Irish defense stifled Miami, led by a future NFL quarterback in junior Brad Kaaya, giving up only 27 points — seven of which were on a fumbled punt recovered in the end zone.

You can point out how the N.C. State game was played in a literal hurricane and how Stanford was playing without former Heisman candidate Christian McCaffrey, and those are fair arguments. But even taking those factors into account, the Irish defense is playing very well since VanGorder’s departure.

Part of the turnaround is due to the revamped system Kelly has installed after firing VanGorder. Plays are simpler, there are less reads and most importantly, more players are getting time on the field, especially in the secondary. Senior Cole Luke seems like a completely different player in the nickel slot, and freshmen Julian Love and Troy Pride Jr. look to be strong building blocks for next year.

But another reason for the increased level of play has to be attributed to a simple change in scenery. With the hire of Hudson, Kelly clearly wanted to emphasize effort and passion over complicated schemes. Hudson gives chest bumps to his players every time they come off the field, and professional wrestler Ric Flair videos have reportedly made appearances in team meetings. The Irish look like they’re having fun, and that seems to be the difference.

I’m not trying to cast shade on VanGorder’s leaderships techniques, but the results don’t lie. The Irish blew simple cover-3 techniques on a regular basis against Texas and Michigan State, the team didn’t record a sack until the fourth game of the season, and missed tackles were a huge problem.

VanGorder obviously isn’t responsible for each individual missed tackle or blown coverage — ultimately, the players on the field have to make the plays — but with the way the defense has responded under Hudson, Kelly made the right choice.

The same defense that looked to be the team’s weakest link at the beginning of the season is now an asset. Hudson has clearly struck the right motivational chord with the squad and the results are showing. If the Irish continue the upward trend, Kelly may not have to look far to find his defensive coordinator for the future.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Marek Mazurek

Marek is a senior history major and is a former resident of Carroll Hall. He has lived in Mishawaka or South Bend for all 21 years of his life and covers Notre Dame football and men's basketball. He has loads of hand-eye coordination but lacks the height to be any good. Marek is also a proud esports supporter.

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