Notre Dame Football: Brian VanGorder's Defenses by the Numbers

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Notre Dame Football: Brian VanGorder's Defenses by the Numbers
Joe Raymond

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Excluding a certain position battle between a pair of quarterbacks, arguably the biggest Notre Dame football storyline of the past few months has been new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and his aggressive approach.

VanGorder arrived in South Bend with a wealth of experience as a defensive coordinator—many years and many different stops—at both the collegiate and professional levels.

Entering his 26th season as a coach, VanGorder is now with his 12th school or organization. His longevity provides us with a strong sample size to analyze his past defenses.

We’ll take a by-the-numbers look at what trends have emerged over his years as a collegiate defensive coordinator, and we’ll examine what we should expect from the Irish in 2014.

(The following charts feature stats and rankings from VanGorder’s years as a defensive coordinator at the collegiate level. Notre Dame’s 2013 stats and rankings are included for comparison’s sake.)

Scoring Defense
Year Team Rank Points Per Game
2013 Notre Dame 27th 22.4
2012 Auburn 65th (tied) 28.3
2004 Georgia 9th 16.5
2003 Georgia 3rd 14.5
2002 Georgia 4th 15.1
2001 Georgia 17th 18.9
2000 Western Illinois 23rd (tied) 17.6
1999 Central Michigan 96th 31.3
1998 Central Michigan 43rd 23.0
1997 Central Florida 73rd 27.5
1991 Grand Valley State 5th 11.8 and

Bend but don’t break.

Aggressive. High pressure.

Very generally, those are two different approaches to defense. But no matter the style, the substance is how many points a defense allows.

In these 10 years, VanGorder’s defenses finished around 34th in the nation in scoring defense, on average. There were elite years at Georgia and struggles at Central Florida and Central Michigan.

While an elite defense is likely a stretch for the Irish in 2014—especially with loads of youth and inexperience—a solid, above-average unit is reasonable, based on VanGorder’s past.

Total Defense
Year Team Rank Yards Per Game
2013 Notre Dame 31st 366.2
2012 Auburn 81st 420.5
2004 Georgia 8th 288.9
2003 Georgia 4th 276.9
2002 Georgia 15th 303.5
2001 Georgia 49th 361.5
2000 Western Illinois 12th 278.0
1999 Central Michigan 79th 386.1
1998 Central Michigan 50th 354.1
1997 Central Florida 81st 393.9 and

In the nine years in which we analyzed total defense, VanGorder’s squads finished, on average, 42nd in the nation, slightly worse than they did in scoring defense but still solidly positioned.

Again, VanGorder’s defenses are historically good—not great—when it comes to allowing yards, something we saw from Notre Dame last season, when the Irish ranked 31st in the nation in total defense.

Rushing Defense
Year Team Rank Yards Per Game
2013 Notre Dame 70th 168.0
2012 Auburn 100th 197.58
2004 Georgia 15th 106.9
2003 Georgia 13th 102.4
2002 Georgia 19th (tied) 114.0
2001 Georgia 15th 108.8
2000 Western Illinois 40th 131.0
1999 Central Michigan 84th 171.8
1998 Central Michigan 69th 164.5
1997 Central Florida 39th 131.5 and

When it comes to stopping the run, VanGorder’s units checked in at an average of 44th in the nation, right in line with the rest of the defensive numbers.

It’s unreasonable to expect the Irish to be dominant against the run in 2014. Notre Dame is replacing five starters in the front seven of a defense that was below average—70th in the nation—defending the rushing game last season.

Passing Defense
Year Team Rank Yards Per Game
2013 Notre Dame 15th 198.2
2012 Auburn 48th (tied) 222.9
2004 Georgia 16th 182.0
2003 Georgia 6th 174.5
2002 Georgia 31st 189.5
2001 Georgia 96th (tied) 252.6
2000 Western Illinois 12th 147.0
1999 Central Michigan 68th N/A
1998 Central Michigan 32nd N/A
1997 Central Florida 107th 262.5 and

The average ranking for VanGorder’s passing defenses is 46th, which slots those defenses closer to the middle of the pack than to the cream of the crop.

The Irish appear to be stable in the secondary, with KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke manning the corners and Max Redfield emerging in the back half of spring practices. Matthias Farley earned praise from coaches for his work at nickelback, and Cody Riggs is scheduled to join the program in June after graduating from Florida in May.

Year Team Rank Interceptions
2013 Notre Dame 53rd (tied) 13
2012 Auburn 123rd (tied) 2
2004 Georgia 113th (tied) 5
2003 Georgia 21st (tied) 17
2002 Georgia 36th (tied) 16
2001 Georgia 54th (tied) 12
2000 Western Illinois 22nd (tied) 17
1997 Central Florida 54th (tied) 11 and

On average, these seven defenses finished 60th in the nation in interceptions, highlighted by the especially weak 2012 and 2004 seasons.

Looking ahead, if Notre Dame does, in fact, play more press coverage on the perimeter and bring more pressure off of the edges, there figure to be plenty of opportunities for defensive backs to make plays in one-on-one situations.

Fumbles Recovered
Year Team Rank Fumbles Recovered
2013 Notre Dame 118th (tied) 4
2012 Auburn 53rd (tied) 11
2004 Georgia 21st (tied) 12
2003 Georgia 42nd (tied) 12
2002 Georgia 21st (tied) 15
2001 Georgia 60th (tied) 9
2000 Western Illinois 13th (tied) 17
1997 Central Florida 62nd (tied) 10 and

VanGorder’s defenses ranked 20-plus spots higher, on average, in recovering fumbles than they did in nabbing interceptions. That’s good news for an Irish defense that tied for last in 2013 in fumbles recovered with four.

The key takeaways

No matter how we slice up the statistics, VanGorder’s defenses have averaged out to produce good seasons. There have been stellar and struggling seasons, with middling years mixed in, as well.

Joe Raymond

On very few occasions have VanGorder’s defenses been elite at causing turnovers. Except in 2000 at Western Illinois—when the Leathernecks finished tied for 13th with 17 fumbles recovered—no VanGorder defenses cracked the top 20 in either interceptions or fumbles recovered.

Still, an aggressive defense might not automatically translate to more turnovers, and that also might not be the primary goal of VanGorder’s attacking approach, according to Irish head coach Brian Kelly.

“I think that’s too simple of a term—creating turnovers,” Kelly said in early April. “I think what Coach VanGorder and I want to create there is, we want to create more pressure for the quarterback. We want them under more duress. And so from that standpoint, maybe the net gain there is turnovers. But I think if they’re making bad decisions and throwing the ball away, we’re gaining downs in that respect too.”


*All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Mike Monaco is a lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco_ on Twitter.

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