One could argue that the 2016 Notre Dame football team’s lack of growth can be attributed to the coaching staffs poor job of preparing the players for success.
From that perspective, the Irish have been “under-coached.”
Listening to Brian Kelly, quarterback DeShone Kizer, receiver Torii Hunter, Jr., and offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey this week, it sounds like the Irish offense has been “over-coached.”
When the University fired defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder four games into the season, Kelly said it was time to get back to the basics. Too much scheme led to a defense that was mechanical in its approach instead of flying around to the football.
Now that the offense has sputtered in losses to N.C. State and Stanford, and struggled on third down in each of the last five games, Kelly believes some of the “paralysis by analysis” that plagued the defense has spilled over to his side of the football.
“Offensively, we have fallen into a similar trap that we were dealing with defensively,” Kelly said. “We’re probably doing a little too much.
“When you do the things that you practice every single day, it becomes second nature. You can play free; you can play fast. That’s helpful. Let’s practice what we’re good at and let’s be better at execution.”
The Irish gained confidence in the first half against Stanford when they rushed for 108 yards on 17 carries en route to a 10-0 halftime lead. They opened the second half with three straight rushing plays and a first down.
Then all hell broke loose, beginning with a pick-six thrown by Kizer. The Irish never regained the momentum.
Kizer, one of the most gifted passers in the country, understands the temptation to throw the football at all costs.
“We have so many talented positions across the field that it’s hard not to try to get the ball to each and every guy with multiple looks in multiple situations,” Kizer said.
“The smart kids that we have and the great coaches from a bunch of different styles of offense have put together these great looks and great ideas about specific defenses.
“But there’s an understanding now that we have to figure out what we are doing well and put emphasis on those looks.”
Kizer and McGlinchey believe establishing a rushing attack is central to Notre Dame’s offensive improvement and tempo control.
“The (first half of the) Stanford game is a pretty good example of how the offense can go from one side of the run game, and then make some passes here and there,” Kizer said.
“We know we can run the ball,” McGlinchey said. “We know we can do a lot of things really well. We just have to stop spreading ourselves too thin, both in our execution and in our mindset about how we go about doing our job.”
Hunter, a receiver, tends to see solutions in the passing game, albeit a much more controlled passing game.
“We may have been trying to do a little too much instead of trying to perfect what we’re good at, which I think is our quick game,” Hunter said. “Just completing some short passes, getting confidence.
“We’ve made big plays,” Hunter said. “Our yards per catch and per attempt are pretty high. But we’re missing those short-yardage plays where you can throw hitches and things like that. If we get back to that, it should generate some confidence, and hopefully, we can get those yards back that we’re missing in the run game.”
Toning things down offensively is easier said than done for Kelly, particularly against a Miami defense that leads the nation in tackles for loss (71) while allowing just 3.4 yards per carry.
Will Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford have the patience to grind out drives? Perhaps, especially against a Miami secondary that has led the Hurricanes to the No. 24 ranking in yards per pass attempt (6.2).
“Maybe shy away from taking too many shot-plays in the first half,” Kizer said. “More along the lines of making sure we can find what we do well and continue to do it.”
Notre Dame has been abysmal on first down, which has led to an atrocious 18-of-64 on third down (28.1 percent) in the last five games. The weather conditions led to 1-of-15 on third down at N.C. State. But against Michigan State, Duke, Syracuse and Stanford, the Irish were 17-of-49 (38.7 percent).
More manageable third-down conversions would help.
“We’ve got to do a better job of staying in front of the chains,” McGlinchey said. “(We’ve) strayed from our base fundamentals because of situations we’re put in throughout a football game.
“The ultimate goal now is to stay ahead of the sticks,” Kizer said. “We’re getting into way too many third-down situations where there’s a lot more pressure than there should be.”
The temptation to do too much comes on the early downs.
“First and second down is where you can call whatever you want,” Kizer said. “As an offensive coordinator, your mind is everywhere. You have your starters and openers that you want to try to (use) in the first half. From there, with the talent we have, you can go in any direction.
“Once we figure out where our strengths are, which I think we have during this bye week, we’ll be able to go back to those plays where we know we’re going to have constant success.”
The challenge this week is to truly legitimize the “less is more” approach. If that means running on first and second down and facing a 3rd-and-5, at least it’s a more manageable passing down.
The Irish – per Irish Illustrated editor Pete Sampson’s analysis – are 5-of-34 on 3rd-and-10 or longer (14.7 percent). On 3rd-and-3 or shorter, Notre Dame is 12-of-23 (52.1 percent), which isn’t great, but three-and-a-half more times likely to convert than those 3rd-and-longs.
That means forcing the agenda, even if the Hurricanes and future opponents “load the box,” which has been a mantra for avoiding the running game throughout Kelly’s tenure with the Irish.
“Get to spots instead of worrying about whether it’s a trips box, three linebackers, two linebackers, three-down or four-down,” Kelly said. “Let’s just get to a spot and block whoever is in that spot.
“You do that with more formations and less plays.”
Now let’s see if Kelly and his staff can practice – and execute -- what he preached.