Keep The "Plays" Down

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly has long charged his defenses with the mantra “Keep the points down.” A similar edict should be on tap for this Saturday against Syracuse

Notre Dame middle linebacker Nyles Morgan remembers the feeling well.
Frenzied. Hectic. Confusing. All decidedly unsettling for any defender tasked with controlling the opposition.

“Yeah, you feel it,” Morgan said of quick-tempo offenses. “Trust me: you make a tackle and the center is getting up running down field, you’re like, ‘Where the ball?’ That’s the sense of urgency Coach has been talking about. If we can get everybody on that tempo, we’ll be fine.”

The tempo to which Morgan refers to is an approach that Syracuse and new head coach Dino Babers espouse. It afforded the Orange 105 plays in a contest this season. 93 in another. (Notre Dame’s highest snap total since the beginning of 2015 is a mere 76.)  

North Carolina hurt Notre Dame’s defense with a quick-tempo attack in 2014. So too did USC (along with everything else) later that fall.
Texas did the same earlier this month.

“It’s obviously physically taxing,” said Irish safety Drue Tranquill of defending such an offense. “But what an up-tempo team does is shrink your inventory (number of defensive plays that can be used). You can’t get to some of your calls and have a lot of checks because they’re getting up and just lining up and playing.

“It definitely shrinks your inventory which can be good and bad in certain situations.”

Tranquill’s last comment is telling, because when an opposing offense moves at breakneck speed, its up to the defense to adjust.

Or not to adjust, pending your purview.

“I mean, we can have different checks for different formations and just say, ‘Screw it, we’re playing this check regardless of the formation,’ said Tranquill when asked if nearly eliminating pre-snap checks could benefit a defense vs. up-tempo styles. “(Decide that) ‘You’re relating to 2 (2nd receiver from the outside, you’re relating to 3, doesn’t matter if he’s flexed, doesn’t matter if he’s in the core (aligned). 

“Some of the changes I’ve seen (this week), we’ve shrunk down those checks.”


An effective up-tempo offense can stress a defense in myriad ways, but one general by-product of the approach is that the opposing defense ends up facing a high volume of snaps. More snaps equates to more opportunities to score…and fatigue for a defense.  

For Notre Dame, that’s proven to be of major detriment to the left side of the W-L ledger.  

Through four games this fall, Syracuse has averaged 86 snaps. It’s relevant for Irish fans that a clear dividing line exits when a Power Five Conference foe is able to execute more than 70 plays in a contest vs. Notre Dame’s current defensive scheme, one in place for 30 contests and, it is assumed, remains relatively the same.

70-Plus Snaps Against:

  • 2014 UNC 84 snaps (43 points against) – Irish W
  • 2014 ASU 73 (55 points) – L
  • 2014 Northwestern 96 (43 points OT) – L
  • 2014 Louisville 71 (31 points) – L
  • 2014 USC 93 (49 points) – L
  • 2015 Ga. Tech 71 (22 points) – W
  • 2015 USC 77 (31 points) – W
  • 2015 Wake Forest 74 (7 points) – W
  • 2015 OSU 78 (41 points) – L
  • 2016 Texas 86 (50 points against in 2 OT) – L
  • 2016 Michigan State 78 (36 points) – L
  • 2016 Duke 74 (38 points) – L

-- Combined 2014-15-16 record vs. Power Five Conference teams when the defense faces 70-plus snaps: 4-8

Less than 70 Snaps Faced:

  • 2014 Michigan 67 snaps (0 points) – Irish W
  • 2014 Purdue 66 (13 points) – W
  • 2014 Syracuse 68 (15 points) – W
  • 2014 Stanford 68 (14 points) – W
  • 2014 FSU 57 (31 points) – L
  • 2014 LSU 52 (28 points) – W
  • 2015 Texas 52 (3 points) – W
  • 2015 Virginia 68 (27 points) – W
  • 2015 Clemson 64 (24 points) – L
  • 2015 Temple 62 (20 points) – W
  • 2015 Pittsburgh 63 (30 points) – W
  • 2015 BC 58 (17 points) – W
  • 2015 Stanford 64 (38 points) – L

-- Combined 2014-15 record vs. Power Five Conference opponents when the defense faces less than 70 snaps in a contest: 10-3


Conversely, Notre Dame’s offensive snap total at game’s end appears to have little impact on its success vs. Power Five Conference opponents:  

Snaps by the Irish Offense in 2015 Wins: 75, 64, 62, 60, 67, 68, 49, 72
Snaps by the Irish Offense in 2015 Losses: 67, 60, 70
Snaps by the Irish Off in 2016 Losses: 76 (2OT), 62, 74
(Though not applicable here, Notre Dame executed 73 snaps in its win over Nevada.)

For Irish fans yearning for the approach that brought Kelly’s Cincinnati Bearcats to back-to-back BCS Bowls and a combined 23-4 record in 2008-09, it’s relevant that the head coach’s successes and failures in South Bend appear to have little to do with whether he attempts to “control” tempo, or to quicken it.

“Tempo, to me, is really about keeping the defense uncomfortable," Kelly told the South Bend Tribune’s Eric Hansen in the spring of 2015. "And so I think if you change it up – it's never one speed all the time – I think that's probably the most important thing.

"You can move it fast when you need to go fast. And if you need to slow it down, you can do that as well. So tempo, to me, would be probably that you can dictate the pace of the game.”

Syracuse will attempt to do so Saturday. It would appear Kelly would counter offensively with a plan of attack attempting to negate that natural edge. If the Orange find a groove, and 75, or certainly 80-plus plays present as a result, it’s unlikely to be a banner day for the new-look Irish defense.

Which is exactly, what?

“When (Kelly) says ‘simplify’ he means getting back to fundamentals,” said Tranquill of the current charge defensively. “A lot of guys out there are so locked up and tight, just thinking about ‘Oh man, I have to make this and that check’

“We want to pull out the talent that got the guys here. We want to see that explosiveness in guys playing free, making plays in open space. I think that’s what he means.

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