SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame’s new defensive philosophy is to do less with more.
After three seasons using a complicated scheme that depended heavily on a core of players under defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, coach Brian Kelly has changed things up after firing his long-time friend. He has simplified the defense, requiring fewer play call changes. He also gave more players opportunities to get on the field in a 50-33 victory win over Syracuse, a game where the Irish held the Orange to six points in the second half.
That might not seem like a major improvement, but for a team with the nation’s 106th-rated defense that is giving up 461 yards and 33.4 points per game, any sign of progress is welcome. The next challenge for the struggling Irish (2-3) is a game Saturday at North Carolina State (3-1), which has the nation’s 21st- rated offense at 505 yards a game.
The Irish have allowed six straight teams from Power Five conferences to score at least 30 points and the Wolfpack is averaging 40. Irish players are confident that the new simpler scheme, using more players and the enthusiasm brought by new defensive coordinator Greg Hudson will lead to better play.
“We knew we had to change something, because obviously what we were doing wasn’t working,” defensive end Isaac Rochell said.
With Kelly making the decisions on defense, the Irish reverted to using more three-man fronts — the style they used before VanGorder arrived with his 4-3 scheme — and defensive backs played more conservatively. Irish players said they were able to play faster because the scheme was simpler.
“I would say it’s not overly basic, but it’s not overly complicated,” Rochell said.
Defensive end Jay Hayes said players felt comfortable.
“So guys were playing loose, playing free, running around with a lot of energy,” he said.
The Irish used five freshmen defensive backs against Syracuse and had four of them on the field at the same time. The Irish have played 13 freshmen already this season, the most ever in Kelly’s seven seasons as Irish coach.
Kelly had said last week that he couldn’t take a player who hadn’t played in game yet and suddenly put them in for 70 plays. But he came close with freshman cornerback Troy Pride Jr., who was on the field for about 60 plays after not playing previously.
“I wanted to play him, and I thought we should have played him. So I’m making those personnel decisions,” Kelly said. “We played him a little too much, quite frankly.”
Irish players said playing fewer plays as they rotated in and out allowed them to play with more energy.
“It’s great for us. If we wouldn’t have rotated, I would have played 90-plus plays. It’s counter-productive. So it’s great. I love the rotation,” Rochell said.
Kelly believes the way the Irish played in the second half against Syracuse built confidence.
“I think that there was that sense of, this is going to work out pretty good. So I think there is a bigger trust and understanding and knowing that go we’re going to be in pretty good shape defensively,” he said.
It’s been a while since the Irish have been able to say that.