Feeling Out Process

Statistical history refutes a popular assumption in Prediction No. 7 of our summer series.

Irish fans that hope to see Brian Kelly's offense "hit the ground running" next fall will get their wish. Literally.

Prediction #7 – Notre Dame will run more than it passes

In his first meeting with the media in January, new Irish offensive coordinator Charley Molnar admitted he and head coach Brian Kelly shared an affinity for the forward pass.

"We love to throw the football; we all know that going into this thing."

And in 2009, throw they did – 472 times, to be exact – en route to 12 consecutive victories, a Big East Title, BCS berth and new job opportunities for Kelly, Molnar and the bulk of the Bearcats staff.

There is, however, one element of the game of which Kelly is more concerned than moving the ball through the air…


By Any Means Necessary

"I'm strictly about winning," Kelly told a small group of internet media in December. "And everything that I've done as a head coach has been about winning. I've never broken up a program into offense/defense/special teams…it's all been one.

"If you look at our schedule (at Cincinnati) carefully, and really go through it, you'll see that we won one game 28-7. That we won another 21-14. So you'll see some low-scoring games in there and some of it was tactical, in how we played offense, to get the win that day."

To get the win vs. six BCS conference teams over the 2010 season's first six weeks, Kelly will bleed the ground game, relying on trio of tailbacks early before showing further reliance on the pass as the Irish enter the season's second and third months.

Through 15 spring practices, Kelly offered a vote of confidence for both the running back unit and the offensive line while bemoaning the game-readiness of what appears to be a well-stocked receivers' group.

Gamesmanship? Possible but unlikely for a coach with a singular purpose. Kelly expects a great deal from his quarterback and receivers. Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph are of all-star quality, but the rest of the group has either underachieved or is completely unproven. The old adage: "three things can happen when you pass and two of them aren't good" applies as the Irish tackle a first-half heavy schedule.

Until trust is established in the battery of Dayne Crist and his targets, expect Kelly to lean on the much-improved Armando Allen, spring star Cierre Wood, talented Jonas Gray, and an offensive line he noted has "eight to 10 guys that we know can play winning football…"

Scanning the Slate

Notre Dame's first two opponents, Purdue and Michigan, ranked 94th and 91st respectively vs. the run last season (120 FBS teams). The Irish burned the pair for a combined 371 rushing yards on 73 carries in '09 matchups.

With QB Dayne Crist just 10 months removed from ACL surgery and the only non-freshman scholarship QB on the roster, an element of "protecting one's investment" will likely enter Kelly's play-calling process as the offense gets its feet wet vs. the Big 10.

Week Three brings a trip to East Lansing and an evening kick-off in which the Irish defense will be tested enough for the offense to consider a game of keep-away to slow a collection of Spartans skill position players.

Notre Dame welcomes Stanford (55th ranked rush D in '09) to South Bend the following week. Backup halfbacks Theo Riddick and Robert Hughes combined for 114 yards on 19 carries vs. the Cardinal last season.

Three of Notre Dame's first four opponents can be had the old fashioned way.

A trip to take on the sound Cover 2 defense of Boston College (No. 14 ranked rush D last year) in Chestnut Hill will prove promising, the second such road contest in which the outcome will hinge on ball security for the Irish – trusting a quartet of runners rather than a first-time starter in his first pair of road games vs. the program's recent foils appears prudent to this writer.

By the time the stout run defense of the Pittsburgh Panthers comes to South Bend on October 9, Notre Dame will have established its offensive identity, one that searches for a bit more balance between the run and the pass. The season's final six contests offers a mixed bag: The late-October matchup in the New Meadowlands features a Navy program that has held the Irish offense below 175 rushing yards just twice since 1996.

Barring a major collapse by the Irish defense, games vs. Western Michigan (October 16), Army in late November and possibly Tulsa on Halloween weekend should see the Irish ground game staked with a solid lead to protect entering the final period.

November tussles with Utah and USC could be wide-open affairs, but by then the run/pass ratio statistics will favor this prediction.

Look to the Past

At both Central Michigan and Cincinnati, Kelly embraced the running game early in his tenure before installing the entire offensive package and shaping his personal to fit the spread system.

Look for the pattern of running game reliance in Year One to continue in South Bend this fall.

Brian Kelly Run/Pass ratio (Cincinnati):

  • 2009: 361 to 472
  • 2008: 455 to 472
  • 2007: 476 to 464

Kelly Run/Pass ratio (Central Michigan):

  • 2006: 422 to 447
  • 2005: 434 to 426
  • 2004: 448 to 375

Notre Dame Run/Pass ratio:

  • 2009: 401 to 447
  • 2008: 436 to 447
  • 2007: 437 to 389
  • 2006: 423 to 471
  • 2005: 491 to 454
  • 2004: 460 to 362

Prediction #6

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