Virtually any play-caller – outside of those who employ the triple-option – will say he prefers a balanced offensive attack.
Whether that’s an equal distribution of yardage between the running game and the passing game, or a near 50-50 split in running plays and passes, balance generally translates to diversity, and nothing keeps an opposing defense guessing more than the uncertainty of what’s coming next.
Sometimes balance is difficult to achieve because strengths and, perhaps more importantly, weaknesses, force a tilt one way or another. Sometimes it’s the insistence to emphasize one over the other.
Tuesday, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly defended his offense’s imbalance through five games. The Irish are averaging 327.8 yards passing per game (15th nationally) and 167.6 yards rushing (74th).
“I don’t know that we see it the same way,” said Kelly when asked about the imbalance. “We throw it very, very well, and we’ve been given the opportunity. If we don’t miss a couple open receivers, we throw for 550, 560 (yards versus Syracuse).
“I’ve always wanted to throw it equally as well as run. (But) if you let us throw the football all over the field, we’re going to throw it and we won’t run it as much.”
At his core, Kelly is a pass-first play-caller. It’s why he employs the spread offense and how he was conditioned while emerging as a great offensive mind when the Cincinnati Bearcats became one of the top scoring teams in the country from 2007-09.
At Cincinnati, his offensive balance was way out of kilter and it did not negatively impact his team’s fortunes.
• In 2007, the Bearcats averaged 286 yards passing and 148 yards rushing, and won 10 games.
• In 2008, the Bearcats averaged 253 yards passing and 118 yards rushing, and won 11 games en route to a trip to the Orange Bowl.
• In 2009, the Bearcats averaged 309 yards passing and 139 yards rushing, won 12 games and nearly played for the national title.
But this is Notre Dame with a yearly expectation to contend for a playoff berth and a national schedule that isn’t filled with teams like Eastern Kentucky, Southeast Missouri State, Miami (Ohio), Connecticut, Rutgers, Marshall et al.
Creating balance is imperative to withstanding the weekly barrage of Power 5 conference teams. It’s not so much the numbers or achieving balance for the sake of balance, but rather, creating a diversification that allows a tilt one way or the other, depending upon what is needed at the time.
Notre Dame’s inability to consistently rely on the running game when a) the Irish have a distinct advantage in physicality up front and b) the use of the game clock is critical to the outcome of the game sometimes negatively impacts that outcome.
Kelly sees it differently.
“Are there things we can do better in the running game? Absolutely,” Kelly said. “But we’ve been afforded the opportunity to throw the ball around the field. Teams want to pressure our run game. (Teams say) ‘Let’s challenge (the young receivers).’ Teams have and we’ve been up to the challenge.
“If they want to keep doing that, we have to keep proving that we can throw the football. Then you’ll see that running game come back with more balance.”
What Kelly and his offensive braintrust sometimes ignore is that that the length of the game – 60 minutes – can be as much of a factor as the yardage distribution and even, in some cases, the scoring.
Syracuse is a high-tempo team that ran 88 plays against the Irish and averages 86 on the season. Notre Dame, at times, countered with tempo of its own. That’s certainly in Kelly’s offensive arsenal and there are times when it can be critical to the team’s success.
But running tempo against Syracuse is counterintuitive to the big picture, which was keeping the scrambled defense out of harm’s way as much as possible under the circumstances of a staff overhaul and season-long struggle.
Notre Dame’s tempo, with its big-play strikes against the Orange mixed in, allowed the Irish to pull away to a 17-point victory. But it stresses the defense in ways that a complementary rushing attack would diminish, particularly when the competition is much greater.
“We’re averaging 500 yards a game and 40 points a game,” Kelly said. “I don’t know how to answer the question other than it’s a give and take for our offense based upon how teams are playing us.”
Sometimes, fewer points and yards are worth sacrificing if it means fewer snaps, yards and points by the opposition. Sometimes, the use of those 60 minutes takes on a greater degree of importance than the points and yardage. Time of possession isn’t a factor against lesser opponents; it is against the heavyweights the Irish must defeat to contend for a playoff spot.
It seems contradictory to say that teams are taking the running game away from the Irish if it’s the passing game that’s gashing the opposition. Four- and five-wide receiver sets should, in theory, demand more nickel and dime coverage from the opposition, which in turn should allow for more room to maneuver running the football.
Where the pass-first philosophy hurts the Irish is in short-yardage and goal-line situations, although until last Saturday, Notre Dame was having no trouble scoring in the red zone with 16 touchdowns on 20 trips inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.
Notre Dame’s ability to slam the football between the tackles is compromised by an offense more geared toward throwing the football. Run-pass distribution against Nevada, UMass and Wake Forest doesn’t ultimately matter that much. The Irish will still win.
But it’s against Michigan State, Stanford, USC, Arizona State, Clemson, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh, Northwestern, Louisville and Duke – all programs the Irish have lost to since 2013 – when the inability to run the football lessens the percentages of winning.
“At 40 points a game and 500 yards passing, the numbers don’t lie going into the sixth game,” Kelly said. “There’s some really good production going there. There are inconsistencies within our offense that are all about experience and staying with the system and working through them.”
It’s a topic that’s been broached with Kelly frequently in the last seven years, and his stance is unbendable, particularly when he has an NFL-level quarterback in DeShone Kizer who’s playing behind an offensive line with three new starters.
Yet Ohio State lost three starters on its offensive line and is still averaging 332 yards per game on the ground and 6.5 yards per carry. Michigan is up near the 210-yard mark on the ground and five yards per attempt.
These top 5 Midwestern programs are ultimately the ones the Irish have to compete against -- on the field, on the recruiting trail and in the rankings. Year-in and year-out, the Irish gather some of the nation’s top prep offensive linemen whose skillsets are used to protect Kizer in the pocket, but struggle in short-yardage and tough-yardage situations.
The importance of offensive balance shows up in particular on the road where the Irish have lost nine of their last 14. A consistent run game on the road diminishes momentum and lessens the impact of the home crowd. Of course, since 15 of the 26 losses under Kelly have seen the Irish fall behind by two touchdowns or more, the passing game is even more likely to be over-emphasized.
The Irish are more likely to move the chains on 3rd-and-10 than 3rd-and-2. Coupled with a defense that has been more miss than hit in recent seasons, the approach doesn’t mesh with what’s needed to win the Fiesta Bowl as opposed to the Pinstripe and Music City Bowls.
As long as Kizer is at the controls of the Irish offense, Notre Dame has a chance to win every game it plays, but not as likely if a more reliable rushing attack were a greater part of the foundation of the offense.
“If I was to stand here in front of you at the start of the season and say, ‘Hey, we’re going into the fifth game averaging 40 points and 500 yards of offense,’ I probably would take it,” Kelly said.
That 40 points and 500 yards per game has gotten the Irish to a 2-3 mark through five games. While it’s the defense that’s the main culprit in the three losses, the offensive approach sometimes contributes to it as well.
More victories – not points and yardage – is the ultimate goal. A more reliable rushing attack would assist in achieving that goal.