"Go Figure" seems appropriate.
Just once prior to Saturday's 264-yard rushing outburst vs. Navy has the Irish offense topped 200 rushing yards. They lost that game, 35-21 to Oklahoma. Yet the same unit managed just 78 rushing yards (in congress with a paltry 142 through the air) one week prior, and prevailed, and against a Michigan State team that hadn't lost before or since.
Earlier this season, quarterback Tommy Rees became the second quarterback in program history to hit for more than 300 yards in the season's first three games. It was a mirage, as two straight contests that followed didn't produced a combined 250 yards. Still, both scenarios included victory and defeat over ranked teams.
From week to week, win or lose, it seems there's nothing on which head coach Brian Kelly and the offensive staff can hang their collective hats.
Enter the opponent and its relative weakness.
"I think each week you're trying to establish who you are and what you know you can do well against your opponents," said Kelly of an offense that's produced 83 points over its last two outings.
"You look at the Michigan State game, everyone was talking about why (ND) couldn't run the football. Well, nobody has been able to run the football on Michigan State this year, so you try to do the things you can do the things that you can do (in a given) week. We felt like we could run the ball against Navy and we did.
"This week it might be something else. So when I'm talking about the offense, it's knowing what we can do well, based upon what we're going to get. That's the ticket for me. Knowing what we can do, what we're going to call on in terms of pass plays, and what we're going to ask our offensive line to do in terms of the running game. I think we know what we can do when afforded that opportunity."
That reactionary approach to offensive football might not work vs. the nation's elite defenses -- Michigan State (#1) and Oklahoma (#10) both turned the Irish one-dimensional and then proceeded to limit that dimension -- but it's worked well during a five-game winning streak that began with an upset over Arizona State in Cowboys Stadium.
"Similar to the last few weeks, a lot of man-to-man coverage," said Kelly of his team's plan of attack that evening, a 37-34 win in which the offense produced 30 points. "Their choice was to make it difficult to run the football."
The Irish passed for 279 yards as a result (and ran well with 145, to boot).
Gaining ConfidenceOne week later, a Tommy Rees-led offense put up 263 yards in the first half including 166 through the air before the attack bogged down in his absence. (Rees was on pace for more than 300 yards and four touchdowns prior to suffering a neck injury.) USC is middle-of-the-pack against the pass (#46); top tier (#13) vs. the run.
The plan was to pass to win against a youth-filled Trojans secondary.
"We didn't expect it to be as close against USC," said Kelly. "We expected to score more points."
Scoring through the air was guaranteed vs. Air Force one week later -- the Falcons rank among the nation's worst vs. the pass. The ground game was the focus vs. Navy last week -- the Midshipmen have the 93rd ranked rush defense.
"To have the run game help out the pass game, the pass game help out the run game, you can get a lot of things done out there when you're clicking on all cylinders," said Rees of the last two weeks.
They're not clicking as such yet. Future foes Pittsburgh, Brigham Young and Stanford are far more stout defensively than the recently conquered Service Academies.
The Panthers Saturday will take the field with a rush defense ranked one spot ahead of Notre Dame's (#63) and a pass defense that allows just 202 yards per game, good for 18th nationally (for the sake of reference, Notre Dame ranks 23rd).
Both numbers could be misleading as like Notre Dame, Pittsburgh concluded a two-game set with run-heavy option teams, Navy and Georgia Tech.
What strength will the Irish offense turn to Saturday night?
"I don't know if I said it was a 'strength,'" said Kelly only half-joking of his end-season situation. "What I said is, we know what we can do, and we know what we can't do. We know more about our strengths and weaknesses offensively, and that's pretty clear, and I think we know now where we're now nine games into it, we know who we are offensively and that is where we'll move forward."