After reading Moons’ excellent HLS debut, I started thinking a lot about one of the corollary questions that inevitably arises with any discussion of the Notre Dame offense under Brian Kelly. While we have loads of stats and trends for the offense, the “identity” question seemingly never gets an answer. In fact, as I listened to the most recent Power Hour this past week, that same question arose without a real answer. Just what does Notre Dame do well and why does it seem that Brian Kelly can’t land on a specific style of play to establish one for good?
In fact, the last two games demonstrate the two extremes. Against Southern Cal, Everett Golson came out firing with 14 called passes in their initial failed first quarter drives. Against LSU, the opening 15-play drive saw 9 runs alone. Of course, it becomes very easy to use these two examples and draw the conclusion that running the ball is clearly the wiser choice, especially when using the 2012 56.96% rushing rate as backup.
However, football is never that binary or simplistic and there is some statistical evidence to back that up, at least in the NFL. Football Outsiders did a huge piece back in 2013 looking at the old axiom of success being based on establishing the run back in 2003. The evidence, however, showed that the top teams were running because they were winning and not the other way around. Now, combine this with the trend Moons (via @IrishTightness) found in his post:
I had a tweet sent to me by @IrishTightness passing along a tweet by @CFBMatrix which stated that 5 of the past 7 winners of the National Title Game have ranked in the Top 5 in Points Per Play in the same season. Looking at the 2014 leaders for Points Per Play, each of the top 9 teams went to and won their bowl game. That includes Oregon and Ohio State who will play for the National Title Game on January 12th.
With that context, FO’s “you run because you are winning” axiom appears to buck the old school trend because football in general has shifted to more aggressive and explosive offenses. Now, aggressive and explosive doesn’t automatically mean “pass it like crazy”. That result manifests itself in various forms. Sure, an Air Raid pass-happy offense is one of them, but other spread concepts like those based off the read option or ones that include up-tempo offenses certainly fit that bill as well.
So, with this information at hand, when I try to determine Notre Dame’s offensive identity, I think about how Brian Kelly has attempted to do so during his tenure in South Bend. We’ve determined in the past that Kelly’s offense is heavily centered around the QB. Not only that, but it appears as if Kelly centers his offense around his QB’s skillset as well. The offense that Tommy Rees ran last year isn’t what Everett Golson ran for most of 2014. Similarly, what Malik Zaire ran against LSU wasn’t anything like Golson in the very same season (even though Kelly did attempt some read option with Golson with disastrous results, read: turnover on the goal line against Northwestern).
Kelly’s offensive gameplan, however, doesn’t stop at just what his QB can do. It appears that he looks to attack a defense’s weakness or, in the case of LSU, avoid their strengths. So against the 118th ranked passing offense in the nation, Southern Cal, Kelly aired it out and that choice seemed painfully obvious as the Trojans were ranked 27th against the run. If you go back and watch that game, you will see receivers running wide open, but Golson failing to execute in what was easily his worse game of the season. Against LSU, Kelly had the choice to either attack the 47th ranked rushing defense in the nation or go suicidal and attack one of the best passing defenses in the nation.
Further, against LSU, Kelly purposefully employed an offense focused on ball control. Attacking the weaker rushing defense was only part of the equation, Kelly knew that his depleted defense wouldn’t be able to hold LSU’s rushing attack and doubly so if they were tasked with being on the field for far too long. Unlike Southern Cal, that gameplan worked to perfection and allowed the Irish to pull out the surprise victory against LSU.
In some ways, how Kelly approaches the game reminds me somewhat of Charlie Weis (bear with me here, keyword is “somewhat”). One of the more enlightening things that I observed during practices as a manager for the 2005 squad were discussions that Weis had with Brady Quinn in determining how and when to check to a run or pass depending on what the defense showed. For Weis, if a DB decided to give a 5 yard cushion, forget what was called and just audible to a quick look route and take those yards. Similarly, if the defense seemed overly concerned about the threats on the outside, run it right at them. Weis also loved exploiting physical mismatches at his disposal such as Maurice Stoval’s height, making him a favorite fade target in the endzone.
Kelly, unlike Weis, has a far more aggressive mindset. While he will certainly look to exploit the better matchup, he also looks for the killshot early and often. Or to put it another way, Kelly looks for every way to get that Point Per Play stat up as high as possible, making his offense an explosive and efficient machine.
At least, that’s my hypothesis.
We are in a recent rarity for Notre Dame football. We have held on to the same coach for more than five years for the first time since Lou Holtz. This gives us quite a bit more data to work with than usual. Moons’ post last week and this on is just the start of picking apart this offense during the offseason and seeing where the trends of success and failure lie. Perhaps by the time we hit the 2015 season, we will have discovered whether or not my hypothesis is true and if Notre Dame even has an established identity at all.
But at this high level, spit-balling stage, Notre Dame’s offense appears to be one that tries to employ a gameplan with the highest probability of success while trying to remain as aggressive as possible through a vertical passing game if possible. A complicated response? Certainly, but having witnessed five years of football under Brian Kelly that has involved one of the craziest QB situations that I’ve ever witnessed, there doesn’t appear to be any simple answers.