Notre Dame Football: Revisiting the Pain of the Brian VanGorder Experience

You know how when you want closure from something traumatic, and the final step in moving on is reliving and laughing about it? Well, this is what I hope to do today. Think of the Brian VanGorder era as an old relationship that was super fun and new (I’ve never been with someone with a stache!) that turned into a dysfunctional disaster you needed ten showers to get rid of.

I’ll likely never be able to forgive how Jaylon Smith, the greatest talent VanGorder will ever coach, was used as the cleanup crew on a defense with more holes than swiss cheese eaten by a mouse. My blood pressure is rising just thinking about that beautiful stallion being wasted on terrible and unsound schemes. Serenity now!

That being said, it’s time to move on. We’ve got Clark Lea, who has proven to be all the things VanGorder was not: a teacher, schematically sound, and adaptable. And this weekend will provide the closure Irish fans need to truly move on. We can say goodbye properly, with a 60 point victory (hopefully) where our players run free and without resistance.

To help in the catharsis of the moment, here are the quintessential disasters of the BVG era, never to be seen again.

The Northwestern Debacle

Watching the Northwestern loss in 2014 was an incredible experience, the way watching your hopes and dreams unravel before your eyes is also incredible. Notre Dame gave up 547 yards on 5.7 yards per play to the then three win Wildcats who had just lost to Michigan 10-9 the week before. The Irish team continually went ahead multiple scores, and the defense kept letting Northwestern stick around, before ultimately letting them send the game to overtime, before finally losing 43-40 in overtime. A sequence at the end of the first quarter sums everything up.

After Notre Dame takes a 20-9 lead, Northwestern faces a second and 10 deep in their own territory. They run a go route straight down the field with the slot receiver, who easily beats Drue Tranquill, and safety Elijah Shumate is left lost in the middle, gets easily beaten, and the defense is only saved by the futility of the Northwestern offense, as the receiver drops the pass.

The very next play, on third and 10 Northwestern runs a draw that is so wide open the running back isn’t even encountered till he is 10 yards down the field and isn’t touched till he’s 30 yards down the field. In all, it’s a 50 yard gain, and Northwestern later scores on the drive to make it 20-16.

Defensive Backs Not Knowing What’s Going On

A signature occurrence of the BVG era is wide receivers running free in the secondary while defenders stare at each other, sometimes even while the play is happening, wondering who exactly should be covering this person. The first drive of the BVG era showed us a preview of what was to come the following three seasons.

Notre Dame opens with Rice at home, who is facing a second down and 17 deep in Notre Dame territory, and they run a simple route concept where the slot runs right up the seam. Notre Dame has plenty of defenders to the play side, but Elijah Shumate inexplicably leaves his zone completely vacant, the receiver is turned loose, and the result is a 26-yard touchdown. After the play, you see free safety Max Redfield come over to Shumate to try and explain what Shumate was supposed to be doing.

Of course, Redfield would later have his turn in the ringer against Pittsburgh, in what was a completely inexplicable play by multiple players. Notre Dame appears to be playing quarters coverage–I say this because Jaylon Smith jumps the flat, rendering a cover two concept unlikely–and the slot receiver runs an out and up. Redfield, the safety to that side, never even sees it; he has no clue what’s happening to his left. Cornerback KeiVarae Russell could pick him up; he has no other threat to his side. But he turns the receiver loose, and looks at Redfield, wondering what he’s doing, while yelling at him to pick up the route. Of course, no one picks up the route, and it’s a long touchdown.

Trick Plays, How Do They Work?

Here’s the thing that some figured out and some did not. If you run a trick play, it will work. For a touchdown. All you have to do is execute it. It wasn’t a question of will the defense sniff it out. They won’t. The question is, will it be caught? Will the pass be accurate?

Even when it is most obvious what’s going on, like in 2015 when USC motioned their wide receiver, who is also a quarterback, behind the formation and threw him the ball. Obviously, he’s throwing a pass. Why would they run a screen with him? They don’t run screens with him. But, the Notre Dame defenders bit anyway, and USC went from floundering and ready to get blown out, to back in the game. They’d take the lead later in the game.

Or how about that time Virginia sent their quarterback out wide as a receiver, then started a bunch of strange reverse action that ended with the quarterback with the ball and the tight end running free down the middle of the field for the easiest touchdown he’s ever scored.

Goodbye Sweet Prince

I will end this with the reminder that as bad as it got, as infuriating as it was, he still gave us 37-0 (#rememberthesix) and one of the greatests gifs of all time. It, of course, ended badly, or else it wouldn’t have ended, but we’ll always have this, and there is something to be said for that.


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  1. I thought that Michigan game was 31-0? But in any event, it was sweet putting a big old goose egg on Michigan.

    Just goes to show, I guess, nothing in life is perfect. No one is a perfect success, no on a perfect failure. BVG had so many failures as a DC. But he had one good game among all that misery. One time when he managed to shine.

    In a way it’s a shame he was never able to replicate that. One of the very few things I liked about BVG (other than the 0 on Michigan–man that never gets old) was his passion on the sideline.

    But otherwise he was just a bad coach. Diaco left us with a pretty good foundation and BVG fouled it all up. It’s pretty telling right after he was fired you saw an immediate improvement on defense under the interim DC (I forget who that was). It wasn’t lights out, but the players at least seemed to know what they were supposed to be doing again.

    It’s nice to have a good, if not dominant defense again. ND needs to do whatever it takes to keep Lea on staff (I mean, we probably can’t help it if he leaves for a HC job–but they can’t lose him to a lateral move).

  2. IMHO…BVG has some really good ideas…the problem is he isnt great at teaching, and does not moderate his great ideas…so confused and fundamentally unsound defense is what ya get…Kelly’s comments seem to allude to the fact he can teach fundamentals…SO maybe he can attend a 12 step for exotic defense, and get back to 2001 BVG..

      1. Lemme guess…you thought the add and such calling for Kelly’s head was a good idea…lol.

      2. little dopey davey YOU ARE SO FULL OF SHIT, YOU ARE STUPID, YOUR POSTS ARE PATHETIC RAMBLINGS OF A BATTERED MASTURBATER!! OBTW how are your 2 coaches you said ND should hire as new coach doing? WILLIE TAGGART is a dope, these last 2 years for FLA ST and your SIMPLISTIC VELOCITY that was gonna be a game changer ended after the first year! SCOTT FROST has done a piss poor job at NEBRASKA! Everything you say is bullshit, POST THAT ON YOUR FRIDGE NEXT TO YOUR G.E.D. !!

  3. if Notredame wins out and they are legitimately one of the 4 best teams in the country as a fan I hope they make the playoffs. However I dont want Notredame in the playoffs if they dont have a 50% chance of beating Clemson Alabama . Ohio State. Etc. In that case I would rather go and try to win a New Years day big 6 game.Notrrdame hasn’t won a big bowl game in like 25 years. It would help Notredame more going forward to win a New years day game than to lose again in a playoff imo.Also as of right now with Book and this offense does anyone really believe Notredame could beat Ohio State Alabama Clemson? it would be just like last year. The defense would hang in there but they would wear down because they would be on the field too much because of a poor offense.

      1. Its means they have a good chance of winning and The Las Vegas odds would be 7 points or less.

    1. Face the current state of ND football under this fraud coach.
      There are 8 or 10 great teams that will provide excellent, competitive playoff football entertainment…ND ain’t one of them.

      1. Which leads the perennial question. Why are you here? Please… go follow one of those other 8 to 10 great teams you talk about.

      2. Mmm, hmm. Yet, I don’t go post on team’s unofficial websites that I don’t like.

        I don’t like Miami. But I can honestly say I’ve never once visited one of their websites.

        I’d say I’m sorry you’re life is so unfulfilled, but you know, frankly I just don’t give a damn. But thanks for reminding me why I don’t respond to trolls.

      3. Special message for Damian the Dim: I am a ND fan who hates….HATES…..Brian Kelly and his bottomless bag of BS.
        He is a fraud. A pretender, a loser, an incompetent.

        Until he goes, ND football will remain frustrating, mediocre, bush-league garbage.

        This crap is good enough to “fulfill” you. Not me.

    1. Close second? Naah. But Bronco Mendenhall saying that he saw the opportunity for that onside kick because a player was leaving his post all the time says something not particularly flattering about Polian’s coaching, for sure. Maybe next year he’ll be a full-time recruiter

      1. NEVER peel off until you see the ball is well past you. Never. Everyone else can peel off but NOT YOU. (Paraphrasing my 8th grade football coach who put me on special teams for kickoffs at exactly that position).

        PS: Roll blocking was SO MUCH FUN!!! Why did they make it (and everything else) illegal on kickoffs?

        BGC ’77 ’82

    1. …meanwhile, Saban’s side hustle is running a cost-effective, successful ‘coaching rehab clinic’ in Tuscaloosa.

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