I have to admit, I’m actually not a huge proponent of the “Brian VanGorder’s scheme is too complicated” theory to explain the struggles of the Notre Dame defense. In fact, my plan for this post was to look at fundamentals and pay very little attention to scheme. However, as I re-watched the game, by the end of the 1st quarter I could no longer ignore the elephant in the room. The scheme was a problem.  In particular, I was mystified by the almost obsessive reliance on dropping linemen into coverage. While I think this technique can be effective in limited use, there is very little evidence to suggest it has been effective at Notre Dame. Too often, the result of lineman dropping into coverage is little to no pressure on the quarterback and linemen who really don’t know what they are doing in pass coverage. Let’s take a look at the film and I’ll show you what I mean.


Late in the 1st quarter, 2nd and 8. Michigan State is going to run an empty set with 4 receivers to the wide side of the field and one receiver to the short side. For the most part the patterns are designed to get first down yardage with a check down to the tight end if necessary (green lines).


Notre Dame will respond… with uh… this. Let’s start in backfield, this looks to be some sort of combination of man coverage underneath, with 3 deep zone coverage over the top (blue lines). However as you’ll see later, Cole Luke (# 36, blue star) on the bottom of the screen shot uses man cover technique and for some reason Drue Tranquill (# 23) will roll his coverage away from the 4 receiver side. I’m not exactly sure what this coverage is supposed to be, but we won’t get bogged down on the details right now.

In terms of pressure, this is going to be a BVG special. It’s a 4 man rush, but it’s designed to confuse the quarterback. Instead of linebackers dropping and defensive linemen rushing, linebackers will rush (red lines) and defensive linemen (in this case a defensive tackle and a defensive end) will drop (pink lines). I know your mind is blown right? Up is down, night is day, cats and dogs are living together.


A fraction of a second after the snap. This screen shot illustrates one of the problems with the vaunted Brian VanGorder pressure package. The ball is on its way to the quarterback (yellow circle) and the players who are bringing the pressure are still a great distance away (red lines). Unless the quarterback holds the ball for a long time, this pressure concept isn’t going to work. The linebackers simply start too far from the quarterback. Unfortunately, this “blitz from a distance” concept is fairly common in BVG’s scheme and it rarely works.


Let’s check in and see how the coverage is doing. On the bottom of the screen shot you can see that Cole Luke appears to be using man cover technique and focusing on a single receiver (blue line). Drue Tranquill has turned his back on the 4 receiver side and is running towards the single receiver side (blue circle). That leaves one of the slot receivers wide open (green star).

Fortunately we have the tight end (who is running a three yard check down pattern) triple covered (pink circle). I guess you could argue it’s not really triple coverage because two of the guys involved are defensive linemen (pink stars) and really don’t know what they are doing as pass defenders.

I’m at a loss for words here. This just seems bizarre. As an aside, I’m not sure why I put that pink arrow in the circle, but I’ve left it there for your enjoyment. You’re welcome.


The coverage is an issue; however a little pressure can hide coverage mistakes pretty quick. Let’s see how we’re doing with the linebacker pressure.

The scheme actually did cause confusion. Te’von Coney (# 4 red star) is going to be unblocked (red line) because the guard (yellow arrow) didn’t see him coming. On the other side of the formation, for some reason, James Onwualu (#17, red arrow) has run right into the back of Isaac Rochelle (# 90) allowing one player to block both of them. Even if he wasn’t running in to his own teammate, Onwualu is too far away from the quarterback to make much of a difference. The quarterback (yellow circle) is planting his back foot which means he’s ready to throw. For the pressure to be effective, it needs to be in his face now.


The quarterback is about to throw to the receiver in the yellow circle. Although Te’von Coney is unblocked (red star), he won’t make it in time. If Jay Hayes (# 93) was closer to the pink star, we would be in pretty good position. The circled receiver would be bracketed underneath and over the top (pink star, blue star) and the quarterback would have to go to a second read. This might just give the blitz enough time to create pressure. Or maybe even get a sack. Of course that isn’t a guarantee. If the quarterback goes to his second read there is an uncovered receiver on the other side of the formation (yellow star).

On a totally unrelated note, it almost looks like Jay Hayes is a little uncomfortable dropping into coverage. It’s as if he is a defensive lineman coming off an injury who is being asked to drop into coverage (something he doesn’t do very often) and defend players in the open field who are much faster and more agile. Now if I could just figure out how to do sarcasm font…


The ball is caught. Not ideal, but also not the end of the world. All you have to do is make the tackle and this play doesn’t hurt too much. Unfortunately, Nick Coleman (# 24) comes flying up, out of control and is about to miss the tackle. To make matters worse he takes the wrong angle and misses to the inside (blue arrow). If he attacks from the outside (orange arrow) at least he turns the ball carrier back to the inside where he has help (pink arrows).


Another screen shot, another poor angle. This time Drue Tranquill (# 23, blue circle) is the culprit. You can see that he has taken the wrong angle and left the receiver plenty of space to cut back to the inside (yellow line). A more direct route to the ball carrier would help eliminate this (blue line).

And there are our two pass coverage linemen (pink stars). The big fellas are trying, but they’re getting tired. That’s a long way for linemen to run.


As predicted the receiver cut to the inside and Tranquill missed the tackle (blue arrow). Fortunately, Jarron Jones (# 94, pink arrow) is going to make the tackle. Guess dropping the defensive tackle did pay off…

Final Thoughts

The scheme did Notre Dame no favours here. The blitzing linebackers started too deep, the dropping linemen struggled in coverage and the secondary seemed confused about their responsibilities. The cherry on top was two missed tackles in the open field.

Not a good look for the Notre Dame defense. Poor play design and poor fundamentals are a toxic combination.