Slow Starts Continue to Plague Notre Dame

Notre Dame - 1st Quarter Woes
Photo: Mark J. Rebilas // USA TODAY Sports

Stop me if you heard this from a Notre Dame fan before, “if you take away that first quarter, Notre Dame wins.”  It’s a common mantra among Notre Dame fans for a reason, it far too many cases it’s absolutely true.  Slow starts have plagued the Irish all season long and throughout the Brian Kelly era.  For Notre Dame to be a legit playoff team in 2016, starting faster – specifically on offense – has to be a point of emphasis for Kelly and his staff.

Before diving in, here are the ugly statistics.  In Notre Dame’s three losses in 2015, the Irish have been outscored by a combined 42-10.  That’s a 32 point differential in three losses that came at a combined 20 points.  In the remaining three quarters, Notre Dame has outscored its opponents 76-64 with it’s best performance coming in the fourth quarter where the outscored the trio of Clemson, Stanford, and Ohio State 33-22 thanks in large part to a 19 point outburst at Clemson.

I don’t know what is more alarming though, the fact that Notre Dame has scored just 10 points combined in the first quarter in its three biggest games of the season or the fact that they have given up 14 points a piece to each of Clemson, Stanford, and Ohio State.  To me that says that whatever offensive game plans the Irish have had going in didn’t work and it wasn’t until the defense allowed the opposition to jump ahead that the Irish had to change course.

In two of their three losses, the Irish kicked off to start the game – Clemson and Stanford.  In those two contests, the Notre Dame defense allowed its opponent to score touchdowns both times with Clemson marching 64 yards on 7 plays and Stanford moving 75 yards on 11 plays.  Both teams were 2 for 2 on third down attempts on those drives on their way to the end zone.  Two tough games on the road and in both games the Irish defense spotted the opposition seven before the offense even saw the field.

In the only loss in which the Irish received the ball, the defense didn’t fare any better when they saw the field for the first time.  Ohio State marched 80 yards on 9 plays for a touchdown converting their lone third down on the drive.

Add that all up and on the first drive of each loss, Notre Dame has allowed the opposition to gain 219 yards on 27 plays, score 21 points, and convert all five of their third down attempts.  Now, while all three squads feature elite offenses, Notre Dame won’t be a playoff team with a defense that allows that type of production.

Offensively, Notre Dame hasn’t fared much better on their first possessions of the game.  Against Clemson the Irish went 3 and out without gaining a yard on offense.  Versus Stanford Notre Dame returned their first kickoff for a touchdown and on their first offensive drive gained 70 yards on 10 plays but settled for a field goal.  In the Fiesta Bowl, the Irish again went three and out gaining just a single yard.

So by comparison, on their first offensive drive in each of the three losses, Notre Dame gained 71 yards on 16 plays and scored 3 points.  That’s a difference of 148 yards and 18 points compared to the opposition.  That just simply won’t cut it if Notre Dame wants to still be playing football at this time of the year in 2017.

The question now though is how do the Irish fix their first quarter problems.  Returning their starting quarterback whether it be Dehone Kizer or Malik Zaire should help some by default, but they can’t count on that alone.  Schematically, the Irish will need to rethink how they script their first drives of the game.  With all of the weapons the Irish have on offense there just isn’t any reason they should struggle that much early on in games.

On defense, it might be beyond just rethinking game plans.  After two years of the Brian Vangorder era, Notre Dame is still starting games slow defensively and opposing offenses are still not having any trouble moving the ball on the Irish.  The type of production from opposing offenses in big games suggests that they know exactly what to expect and are able to do whatever they want.  That ought to be enough to facilitate major changes on defense whether it be simplifying Vangorder’s defense or more drastic changes will be up to Brian Kelly.  One thing is certain though, there is no way Kelly and staff can look at how their defense has played in the first quarter of big games and keep things status quo.

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11 comments

  1. martin dekom 4 years ago

    Dittos Frank, and it needed to be said. The answer is not in the scheme but in the coaching. People can softsoap it all they want, but football is about domination. Our guys are (generally) well trained, but they do not take the field looking to impose their will on the other team. It seems the offensive ethos is often to outsmart the other team with mismatches, clever routes, and unique formations. But despite all the ballyhoo about the offensive line, you just don’t get the feel that they are crushing guys and controlling the line of scrimmage. This is exactly why I’ve been a Kelly doubter- he’s got a brilliant offensive mind, but he lacks that Holtzian ability to compel his offense to throw someone’s dick in the dirt.

    On defense it’s even more obvious, with the arm tackles, lack of contact speed, and I’ll-wait-to-see-where-the-runner-goes, instead of charging him. This also shows in the lack of turnovers, in that the opposing offenses just aren’t being physically battered and consequently intimidated. VanGorder is good on his schemes but he is not a motivator. At this level, the emotional/leadership factor counts for a lot more.

    I’m also kinda a UGA fan, and I was talking about Nick Saban with friends before that game. My feeling was that he was absolutely not going to lose two in a row. After the loss at home, I said, “how many players do you think got a moment’s rest in practice that week?” I bet even his dog avoided him. Bama just destroyed UGA the next game. Whereas our coaches, I get the feeling the speech would be like, “stuff happens, now pay attention to detail,” etc.

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  2. Peter Recchio 4 years ago

    PS to my post: add poor special team play and NO consistent pass rush to the list

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  3. Peter Recchio 4 years ago

    One of your BEST articles Frank!!! You hit on many important points schematically and tactically. !st quarter struggles / red zone struggles / o-line breakdowns / dropped balls / play calling / game management / porous defense / poor tackling /big 3rd down defensive performance / missed assignments / low take-a-way rates /poor positioning / where are the lb’s and db’s (Jaylon not included), and many more. ALL these point lead directly to BK.

    Can he look at reality and face the music. Most of us at the job, as spouses, or as parents, have had to face the music of our performance or lack there of. The ability to recognize our own shortcomings, improve them, accentuate our strengths, or said another way manage change, goes a long way in determining consistent success and well being. We face these crossroads and make choices.

    Can BK do these all things? If he could, if he would, this could be one of the most exciting ND stories to tell, of the many that have thrilled and inspired me for over 65 years as an avid ND faithful fan. Although I truly hope he can, my gut tells me otherwise.

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  4. Michael the Archangel 4 years ago

    Excellent post, Frank.
    You hit on several major concerns.
    Whether starting slow is due to predictability or not I do not know.I did see Meyer decide to throw early and often, showing a strategy few anticipated, leading to early success. I’d hoped to see Fuller have a few more chances vs. tOSU, especially when he was single-covered.
    Then, you ventured where few of your readers dare go.
    Was game prep and coaching the elephant in the room shown as a deficit on the field ?
    ND having 20 starters missing at least one game, and most of them gone for the rest of the season after their injury, demands depth few teams could have overcome having to play 5 teams who finished in the top 25 ( according to the last poll – and no top team had to match that).
    But playing nine teams next season who went bowling this season suggests it won’t get much easier.

    Playing in a major bowl was another positive step. Not winning a major bowl in over 20 years has to be devastating to a program’s confidence; coming close to winning on the road vs. two top teams is what we’ve all seen before. One small step for team 127 this season, but not a giant leap for NDs program.

    And next season without Jaylon, Day, leading sacker Okwara, Shumate (maybe K.Russell), et.al. on D’ and veterans Martin, Stanley, Fuller,Brown, CJ, and Carlisle departing, it won’t get easier. Other than Bama, tOSU, Clemson and a very few others, reloading and replacing your elite with elite isn’t a given. Can we expect a marked improvement on D’?
    Without that, can ND ascend to the elite?
    I have no “plan B”, so I’ll be watching.

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  5. Storespook 4 years ago

    SFR,
    I would say that “Yes,” the head coaching job at Irish U does not carry the same glamor as it used too. Like anything, it re-becomes more marquee when winning marquee games & bowls starts to occur at ND. Pinstripe and Music City bowls are not seen as real marquee compared to the Fiesta Bowl. Losing in big non-bowl games doesn’t help. After 6 years, when does ND start winning marquee matchups or achieving some STRONG signature wins. Your record says who you are in this business of coaching and it’s more than just numbers but who you have also beaten.

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  6. NemesisTheDestroyer 4 years ago

    I think the view of the ND head coaching position for football is definitely not held in the same esteem it was maybe since Holtz’s departure. I think the proof lies whom was hired since Holtz left. Are you telling me that Davie, Willinghem, Weiss, (I guess you can’t forget O’Leary too) were the best coaches out there to hire. I don’t think so. Kelly, at least had desire to be at ND and a track record of winning prior to being hired. However, no “major league” head coaches lined up when the position opened up numerously after 1996. That included having, at those times, a major TV deal in broadcasting games on NBC that didn’t help bring in a “big gun” coach to use that as a major recruiting tool. I like Kelly and I am not one calling for him to be let go, he does however, have some coaching tendencies I wish he would work on more to help him be a better head CEO. If Kelly were to leave, I am not aware of a big time coach out there who has indicated he would want to come to South Bend and we know about the lying sack of pus Rural Meyer said about ND being a dream job then thumbing his nose at becoming a coach at ND when opportunity presented itself. I hope Kelly can increase his success. As to the ND head coach position, to me, it has lost some of its luster and that sucks.

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  7. SteelFanRob 4 years ago

    Stores, are you saying ND is no longer a marquee job? If so, how sad is that! What more proof do you need that ND is facing perhaps the end of its storied history.

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  8. Storespook 4 years ago

    I think offensively, Kelly should let Sanford coordinate completely the offense AND call the plays. His usefulness is not being used fully.

    As to the defense, if MAJOR improvement is not seen in 2016, it’s time to move BVG on and let him be successful elsewhere. There seem to be glaring issues on fundamentals such as tackling and being in position and that is on COACHING.

    Still need more 4& 5 star recruits to increase depth, which was lacking on the D side especially on the line.

    As to Kelly, I am not thinking he needs to go because frankly, I don’t know who wants to come to Notre Dame. No big names want to come because of admission and culture standards to coach at ND and MONEY will not change that.

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  9. Bruce johnson 4 years ago

    The problem is when Kelly has a problem he doesn’t fix it right away. He will never ever get it right. So much talent comes to nd not because of Kelly but because it is ND. The get here and don’t get inspired. In all his time here I never saw them play over their heads except in 2012. They leave early or my god they cheat. It’s all so confusing to me. Find a great DC. Find a great DC coach.

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  10. Jack 4 years ago

    The problem I have is even when ND claws their way back into the game, the defense can’t stop the opposing offense.

    The other problem I have is always hearing how their in the wrong defense or shifted the wrong way. This is year two of this defense and the mental breakdown are still there. The tackling is also horrible. I’m starting to think BVG isn’t the right guy for the job. ND has the physical talent, I’m just seeing a lot of mental errors that shouldn’t happen. ND gets within one TD and allow Elliot right up the middle to put the game out of reach

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  11. Mike 4 years ago

    I was thinking the same thing while watching. Last year the team was way behind early in losses to Arizona State and USC.

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