After Notre Dame gave up 50 points in its season-opening loss at Texas, coach Brian Kelly said criticisms of Brian VanGorder’s defense were “jumping the gun,” adding that “I think y’all should relax a little bit. I think our defense is going to be fine.”
Following that 36-28 loss to Michigan State two weeks later, Kelly said “without question” VanGorder was the right man for the job and that firing him was “not even part of the conversation.”
And after Saturday’s 38-35 loss to Duke, Kelly said he was pleased with Notre Dame’s defensive coaching. Then, on Sunday, he fired VanGorder.
“That's not the appropriate time to get into talking about your coaches and where you feel they fit on that continuum of how well they are doing,” Kelly said of his media sessions. “I’m going to defend them, I'm going to defend my coaches in those kind of public settings. As I got a chance to further evaluate our football team and our current situation, I felt that it was in our best interests to make the move that I did.”
While Kelly said he never considered firing VanGorder after the 2015 season, he did mention that he felt a pattern emerged after that loss in Austin. Going back to last year, Notre Dame had lost three consecutive games to Stanford, Ohio State and Texas, with defensive issues marring each game.
Notre Dame’s defense allowed Stanford to connect on a walk-off field goal that effectively eliminated any chance of the Irish reaching the College Football Playoff. Ohio State’s offense kept Notre Dame at arm’s length in the Fiesta Bowl, a game which ended 44-28 in favor of the Buckeyes. And the 50 points Texas racked up — 37 of which came in regulation — were too much for DeShone Kizer (who scored six touchdowns) and the offense to overcome.
“To me, that was three in a row,” Kelly said. “So that's got my attention. You're evaluating everything at that point. So yes, I mean, I'm evaluating those from even what it happened the previous season.”
Kelly spent more time with Notre Dame’s defense last week, which allowed him to take the pulse of the group. And after watching his team self-destruct in an embarrassing loss to Duke, Kelly said he needs to see more energy, fire, passion — whatever you want to pick from the buffet of synonyms — from his team.
The move to fire VanGorder, in part, is an effort to generate that kind of enthusiasm from this defense going forward. Because if this defense doesn’t get fixed, or at least improves to being somewhat reliable, Notre Dame could very well struggle to reach six wins.
“I need to see our guys play fast and free and loose, and I need to see excitement on the field,” Kelly said. “I need to see guys playing the game like kids, and not so mechanical and robotic. They have to let it go and let it happen and that means we have to tweak some things.
“They had some fourth down stops. They played hard. But playing hard is not enough. There has to be other intangibles as it relates to your defense, and we were missing some important ingredients, and that's why I made the change. And so what I'll be looking for in particular relative to these tweaks is these guys come at it with a clean slate, and I expect to see them play with a lot more passion and enthusiasm.”