Last night’s loss to Michigan State exposed Notre Dame for what it is: an extraordinarily talented and athletic football team that is at the mercy of its under-performing offensive and defensive lines. Through three games, the Irish are showing that they cannot run when they must and they cannot stop their opponent when they have to. While perhaps expected (?) along the defensive front, the decline in performance along the offensive line is surprising. No matter the side, it looks like the lines have lost it.
The Irish opened the 2016 campaign with a dramatic, double-overtime loss to Texas. They followed up with a comfortable win, at home, over Nevada, and a hot mess-of-a-loss against Sparty. Despite their record, from thirty thousand feet, Notre Dame seems to be doing okay. For example, they’re averaging thirty-eight points per game and have outscored their opponents 114 to 96. The red-zone conversion of 93.3% (14 of 15) is slightly higher than their opponents with 92.31% (12 of 13). Notre Dame is converting on third down 42.86% of the time (18 of 42), almost a push against the field with 41.67% (20 of 48).
Through the air, the Irish are doing well: 56 completions on 94 attempts, with 2 interceptions and 9 touchdowns. Their opponents have 47 completions on 79 attempts with 3 interceptions and 4 touchdowns. On the ground, and it’s here that explanations start to appear like so many rainy-day earthworms, Notre Dame has run the ball 117 times for 502 yards and 6 touchdowns. Their opponents have run the ball 141 times for 596 yards and 9 touchdowns.
Texas and MSU, in particular, exploited our defensive front, by running the ball 59 and 52 times, respectively. While 59 times is anomalous and is attributable to the two overtime periods, MSU ran the ball just seven times less. Texas managed 237 yards, a 4.02 yards per carry average, and MSU managed 260 yards, a 5.00 yard per carry average.
In each of Notre Dame’s losses this season, its offense either put them in a position to win (Texas) or clawed their way back to be in a position to win (maybe MSU) if the defensive could just get a stop. While this may unfairly distill a game down to a single, or two, late series, such is the nature of a game of four quarters. A defense that gives up thirty or more points cannot blame an offense that cannot keep up, especially when, in a more traditional, four quarter affair the enemy offense can chew up so much clock. Michigan State held the ball for 37:57 while the Irish only managed 22:03.
Brian Kelly Mad https://t.co/5pW80AVDOO
— Gustavo Vega (@iamvega1982) September 18, 2016
If you disregard the service academies, whose offenses are “overly-reliant” on running the football, only four teams have rushed fifty times in one game against Notre Dame under Brian Kelly. Ohio State (54) did so in the Fiesta Bowl. USC (53) and Louisville (50) did so in 2014. Stanford (51) did so in 2013. Fine. Since you asked, Navy ran the ball SEVENTY times in 2013.
The Irish themselves put up 206 yards on the ground against Texas and 239 against Nevada but were held to a mere 57 yards last night. If you discount for QB runs, the statistics get pretty grim, with last night being the grimmest of all. Simply put, the Irish are suffering the loss of experience along the offensive line far more than anyone expected.
Regardless of any flaws with the offense, I would be surprised if Brian VanGorder survives the season, as the calls for his head grow ever more hysterical. After the opening loss, Coach Kelly admonished us all to “pump the breaks.” After his second loss and the bottom seemingly gone from his defense, Coach VanGorder may well need to “warm up the moving van.”