First Things First

ND’s first-down run production has been sub-par. Thirty-one of 70 first-down runs by Adams/Folston (44.2 percent) have been three yards or less.

“Our self-scout shows that we need to be better on first down. There is a trickle-down effect into our third-down manageability. Our self-scout shows some negative plays that we’ve got to get out of our offense. That’s got to be cleaned up for us to have a better third-down efficiency.”
-- Brian Kelly

When Notre Dame traveled to Raleigh, N.C. to take on N.C. State, the Irish took with them an offense that was averaging 39.8 points and 495.4 yards total offense per game.

The effects of Hurricane Matthew washed away Notre Dame’s chances of maintaining their offensive pace as a mere three points and 113 yards total offense sent the Irish catapulting down the stat sheet.

Add last weekend’s 10 points and 307 yards total offense to the equation and the Irish have plummeted to 30.4 points and 413.9 yards total offense per game. That’s a 9.4 scoring dip and an 81.5-yard tumble in two weeks.

Even in the Syracuse game when the Irish put up 50 points and 654 yards total offense, the Irish struggled in the red-zone, which had been a staple through the first four games of the season when Notre Dame scored touchdowns on 16-of-20 red-zone entries. Since then, just three of nine trips inside the opponents’ 20-yard line have resulted in touchdowns.

In addition, a lack of offensive success also can be tied to a dreadful 9-of-41 on third down in the last five games.

• 5-of-14 on third down vs. Stanford
• 1-of-15 on third down vs. N.C. State
• 3-of-12 on third down vs. Syracuse
• 5-of-12 on third down vs. Duke
• 4-of-11 on third down vs. Michigan State

That’s 18-of-64 over the last five games, or just a 28.1 percent third-down conversion rate. For the season, the Irish rank 109th in third-down conversions at 33.6 percent.

Why has this happened? A hurricane and a solid-if-not-great Stanford defense have much to do with it. When Brian Kelly was asked his analysis of the offense’s sudden downturn – mistimed with an uptick from the defense sans Brian VanGorder – he made the italicized statement above.

Kelly said the Irish have pinpointed first down as the main culprit, so we broke it down, first-down-play-by-first-down-play.

Here are some of our findings.

• The pass-first philosophy has led to big plays…both ways.

DeShone Kizer has completed 47-of-81 passes (58.0) on first down for 784 yards. That’s an impressive 16.6 yards per completion and 9.6 yards per attempt. Those are hefty numbers and cause for Kelly and his offensive braintrust, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford, to keep passing on first down.

But there are also 10 sacks on first down, including eight in the last two games alone. First-down sacks put the Irish offense “behind the chains,” and with the woeful third-down conversion rate over the last five games, the Irish can’t move the ball consistently. Coupled with the red-zone inconsistency – often created by penalties – Notre Dame’s offense has regressed badly.

Through the first five games, Kizer was 40-of-66 (60.6 percent) for 729 yards and two sacks on first down. Over the last two games, he’s 7-of-15 (46.6) for 55 yards and six sacks on first down.

• Inconsistent rushing attack with running backs.

Josh Adams has had more than twice as many first-down runs as the next closest rushers on the team – Tarean Folston and Kizer. Adams has carried 47 times for 188 yards on first down for a four-yard average, which is sub-standard for a lead back.

That’s not all Adams’ fault. The offensive line is a hit-and-miss run-blocking crew. Plus, on 2nd-and-6, are the Irish more likely to throw the football or run it? Notre Dame tends to be reluctant to run on both first and second down.

Mix in the sacks on all downs. Notre Dame is 110th in sacks allowed with 19. If a sack occurs on second down, now the Irish are behind the chains again, which has been a death knell the last five games.

The most damning stat of all in the running game as it pertains to Adams is that of his 47 first-down carries, 22 (46.8 percent) have netted three yards or less, including 17 stuffs, which is defined by Irish Illustrated as two yards or less. That’s more than one-third (36.1 percent) of Adams’ first-down carries.

Folston was an effective first-down runner on one carry against Texas and four versus Stanford. He had a combined 14 first-down carries for 110 yards against the Longhorns and Cardinal, but 54 of those yards came on one carry against Texas. Against Nevada, Michigan State and Duke, he had nine first-down carries for 46 yards, and then missed the next two games with an injury.

Like Adams, Folston has had an inordinate number of short gains on first down. Since his 54-yard run, Folston has carried 22 times on first down for 104 yards (4.7). But nine of those 22 runs (40.9 percent) have been for three yards or less. Seven (31.8 percent) have been stuffs, including six against Texas. Between Adams and Folston, 31 of 70 first-down runs – 44.2 percent – have netted three yards or less.

Dexter Williams had a 23-yard first-down run against Nevada. His other 10 first-down carries have netted 30 yards. The trio of Adams, Folston and Williams has been stuffed 31-of-81 times (38.2 percent) since Folston’s 54-yard run.

Kizer has been Notre Dame’s most effective runner on first down, whether it was by design or a scramble. Kizer has 22 carries for 123 yards (5.6-yard average) on first down, so you can see why Kelly and his staff have been reluctant to limit his carries.

But he’s been sacked 14 times in the last five games, which negates anything positive accomplished on first down.

• Limited receiving weapons.

This is the least detrimental of the three areas to which we’ve narrowed this first-down study. One target is the dominant figure on first down, and that target is young and inexperienced wideout Equanimeous St. Brown.

St. Brown has been far and away Kizer’s favorite target on first down (and in general). Of the 47 first-down completions, 16 have gone to St. Brown for 282 yards and two TDs. He’s caught at least two first-down throws in every game but Michigan State, including the 79-yarder to start the Syracuse game.

Torii Hunter, Jr. is next with nine first-down catches for 154 yards, including three for 74 yards against Michigan State. In the other six games, he has just six catches on first down for 80 yards.

Next on the list is running back Josh Adams, who has five catches on first down for 54 yards, although one of those (vs. Syracuse) accounted for 44 of those yards.  His impact has been minimal in this area.

Freshman Kevin Stepherson has been effective with a 22-yarder against Nevada, a 19-yarder vs. Michigan State, a 20-yarder against Duke and a 54-yarder at Syracuse. But those are his only four receptions on first down.

C.J. Sanders has seven catches for 129 yards on first down, but 49 of those yards came against Texas and 30 (on one catch) came against Duke. He hasn’t been a first-down factor in the other five games.  Freshman Chase Claypool had a 33-yard reception in the comeback against Michigan State, but it is his only first-down catch.

Tight end Durham Smythe has just two catches for 26 yards on first down.

The Irish throw a lot on first down, but with the exception of St. Brown, there has been an isolated degree of productivity from the rest of Notre Dame’s eligible receivers.


Sacks on first down hurt the Irish badly in losses to N.C. State and Stanford. Even more damaging was Kizer’s interception at the start of the second half against the Cardinal, which was returned for a touchdown.

The numbers also indicate that the Irish need a healthy Folston to be a well-rounded rushing attack on first down. He had first-down runs of five, 16, six and five against Stanford. But he’s been a positive factor in limited situations due to ineffectiveness and injury.

The offensive line has made it difficult to run the football on first down with such a high percentage of three yards or less. Kizer likely will remain a heavy running option on first down. Kizer has created big plays throwing on first down, but the negative plays have increased dramatically in the last two losses.

In other words, if the Irish offensive line can’t do a better job of run-blocking on first down for Adams, Folston and Williams, it will be difficult to steer clear of a) Kizer runs and b) Kizer passes on first down, which is no way to build a consistent offensive attack.

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