The Notre Dame defense was not good against Texas. In fact, Notre Dame’s defense hasn’t been consistently good in a while. In other news sky is blue and water is wet. So why has the Irish defense struggled? Is it a lack of talent? Poor scheme? A scheme that doesn’t fit the talent? All of these are plausible explanations. However, I would argue the biggest problem the Irish defense has is a lack of fundamentals.
When we talk about defensive fundamentals, most people think of tackling. Obviously, that’s a pretty important one and generally speaking the Irish aren’t great at it (especially in the open field). But it’s more than just tackling. I coached with a guy who always talked about alignment, assignment and attacking as the fundamentals of defensive football. Alignment means lining up in the right place before the ball is snapped. Assignment means knowing what you are supposed to do when the ball is snapped and attacking means taking the best angle, defeating blocks and making the tackle. Frankly Notre Dame has been wildly inconsistent in these three areas during the Brian VanGorder era. Sunday night was no exception. Let’s take a look at the film and I’ll show you what I mean.
A critical point in the game. If Notre Dame stops Texas here, they probably win. It’s 3rd and 5 and Texas is going to run read option. The quarterback will read the unblocked player (orange dotted lines) and make a decision whether to hand the ball off or keep it. In this case he will hand the ball to the running back (red star and red line).
The receivers will all run patterns (orange arrows) and the line will block the man across from them (orange lines) with the exception of the guard and center who will double team the nose guard. A lead blocker will come across the formation and find the first threat to block (orange line).
Notre Dame is playing run all the way. The corners and nickel are in man coverage (blue arrows) with no safety help. Notre Dame will use a 5 man front with three down linemen and two linebackers coming off the edge (blue arrows).
Here is the first fundamental mistake. Look at the alignment of the safeties and the middle linebacker (blue circle, black question mark). I have no idea what this is. Obviously the safeties are playing run. But why are they so close to the middle linebacker? It’s fundamentally unsound to have three players this close together. You’ll see why in a bit.
A fraction of a second after the snap. I know there are a lot of arrows here, but stick with me. The ball carrier is at the tip of the red arrow. Isaac Rochelle (#90) is unblocked and is in hot pursuit (yellow arrow). James Onwualu (# 1, green arrow) is locked on the block and has barely moved. Jarron Jones (# 94, pink arrow) hasn’t got any push and is still at the line of scrimmage. Andrew Trumbetti (# 98, blue arrow) is past the line of scrimmage, but has been turned into a pretzel and walled off by the blocker. Greer Martini (# 48, purple arrow) has run himself out of the play and is also being walled off by the offensive tackle. 4 players who haven’t come close to beating their blocks. This would be a good example of poor fundamentals.
As for the group of three (blue circle, black question mark), I have no clue why they are huddled close together like a group of cavemen, unable to make fire and scared of the darkness that surrounds them.
Let’s take a closer look at the play side. If the running back (red arrow) has to slow down even a bit, Rochelle (yellow arrow) will make the tackle. If Trumbetti or Martini (black lines) could have pushed the blockers in the direction of the black arrow it probably would have been enough for Rochelle to make a play.
As for alignment, the two safeties (blue X’s) should have been wider pre-snap (somewhere near the blue stars). This would allow them to play with outside – in leverage, forcing the ball carrier back towards the interior where there are more defenders.
Proper alignment would allow the safety to take a direct angle to the ball carrier (blue line). The middle linebacker would have followed the purple line and they would meet at the running back. One defender coming from the outside, one defender coming from the inside, and Rochelle pursuing from behind. Sound, fundamental football. Instead you have two players coming from the inside and no one coming from the outside. Not so sound.
The players in the blue circle have moved even closer together and are nearly on top of each other (blue circle, black question mark). They are also too far to the inside which means the running back has a clear path (red arrow) to the part of the field with no defenders (green circle). This could be bad.
Tackling. It’s kind of important. Avery Sebastian (# 8, blue arrow) is in the process of missing the tackle. He took the wrong angle and ended up with his head behind the running back. This leaves only his arm (black arrow) in position to make the tackle. You aren’t going to arm tackle this running back (red arrow). Once he treats Sebastian’s arm like a turnstile, the running back will have a lot of room to run (green circle). This is especially problematic considering the defender in the best position to make a touchdown saving tackle has his back to the play (green arrow).
As an aside, check out Nyles Morgan (# 5, yellow arrow). He was moving towards the ball carrier in the last screenshot, but at the last second he changed direction and turned his attention to the lead blocker who was on the other side of the formation. I’m not even sure what to say about that.
Let’s see how the Irish defenders have progressed in terms of defeating blocks. James Onwualu (blue arrow), looks like he’s been sucked in by a tractor beam from the death star, he hasn’t moved. Jarron Jones never did get off the line of scrimmage and is now in the process of falling down (yellow arrow). Andrew Trumbetti and Greer Martini (black arrows), both ran past the play, got walled off and look like they are auditioning for some sort of mutant version of dancing with the stars.
The running back is off to the races (red star). Touchdown.
Poor initial alignment, poor angles, poor reads, an inability to get off blocks and a missed tackle. A near complete inability to master even the most basic fundamentals of defensive football. All in one play.
Admittedly the sample size here is small, but I don’t believe this play is an exception. It represents problems that have plagued the Notre Dame defense the past few years. You can talk about scheme, and talent and injuries all you want. The reality is… this isn’t a fundamentally sound defense. Frankly, I’m not sure it has been consistently fundamentally sound since Brian VanGorder took over as defensive coordinator. The defense has repeatedly struggled to get lined up properly, struggled to execute the most basic elements of their assignments, struggled to take the best angle to the ball carrier, struggled to get off blocks, and struggled to tackle in the open field. If you can’t do those things on a consistent basis you can’t be a good defense.
Something has to change. And it has to change fast.