Striking Offensive Balance Imperative for Notre Dame in ’15

Tarean Folston - Notre Dame
Notre Dame Fighting Irish running back Tarean Folston (25) celebrates after a touchdown in the second quarter against the North Carolina Tar Heels at Notre Dame Stadium.

The game of college football has seen a metamorphosis over the last ten years from a” balanced offensive attack” philosophy , to a “pass first and fit the run game in when we can” mindset by offensive coordinators and head coaches alike. For better or worse, the pass first mentality has permeated the entire landscape of college football, sans a few programs – same with the pro game.

It’s no different at Notre Dame, and if one takes a look at the stats from the 2014 season, compared to the stats of the 2004 and 1994 season, you will notice a significant difference in throw verse pass attempts ratio. The stats below do not account for rush attempts by the quarterback.

Notre Dame 2014

Passing attempts   – 463

Rushing attempts  – 337

Notre Dame 2004

Passing attempts  – 362

Rushing attempts  – 400

Notre Dame 1994

Passing attempts  – 244

Rushing attempts  –  435

Obviously It is easy to look at the numbers above and assume that they are that way because all of college football has bought into the idea that in order to win, you have to throw the ball, often. For comparison sakes, we wanted to take a look at the four teams in the college football playoffs last year. Once again, these numbers do not take into account rushes by the quarterback.

Ohio State

Passing Attempts – 409

Rushing attempts  – 446

Florida State

Passing attempts – 516

Rushing attempts – 394


Passing attempts – 451

Rushing attempts – 484


Passing attempts  – 474

Rushing attempts  – 505

Looking at the comparison numbers, the Irish were responsible for the highest pass to run differential between all five teams. Only Florida State came close, and it is a well known fact that the Seminole team struggled with offensive line continuity last year, which severely impeded their ability to run. That’s not to say that the Irish offensive line didn’t have their own set of problems in 2014, but not nearly to the degree that the Florida St. program did. The Seminoles also sleep walked through first halves throughout the year and were forced to throw often as they played catch-up.

Here is a compiled breakdown and comparison of the of all five teams for the 2014 season.

Pass play called vs. rush play called

Notre Dame +126

Ohio State -37

Oregon -31

Florida State  +122

Alabama – 33

For final comparison sakes, here is a look at the Offensive line efficiency for each of the five programs, for 2014. On this scale 100 is average, anything below 100 is sub-par, anything above 100 is above average.

Team              Eff Rating     Rank

Alabama              122.7              6th

Florida St.           106.4              45th

Oregon                136.8               1st

Ohio St.               133.7               2nd

Notre Dame       110.4               32nd

Source: Football Outsiders

The most confusing aspect of any of these decisions from a Notre Dame offensive mindset is that while the 2014 Irish defense was decimated with suspensions and injuries, the coaching and play calling did very little to alleviate some of the stress of the defensive woes. Instead of slowing the game down, and keeping the defense off the field as much as possible, the decisions to attack through the air seemingly had the opposite effect, and the second half of the season  difficulties the Irish dealt with lends credence to this theory.

With the assumption that Malik Zaire will be the starting quarterback in 2015, it would seem that the Irish coaching staff would need to approach each Saturday with a different mindset. This is where newly hired Mike Sanford comes into play. As the Boise St. offensive coordinator, his offenses produced on average 40 points and 495 yards per game, and did so while utilizing the rushing attack just as much(if not more) as attacking through the air.

The Irish have weapons in the backfield, that is not up for debate, the question is will they use them in a proper way that will add a more balanced attack on game day? With the emergence of Tarean Folston in 2014, Notre Dame has an every-down back, and if Greg Bryant can show some progression in his approach and is given the opportunity to do so, the Irish could have potentially have a dangerous combination for teams to prepare for. Add in the fact that Notre Dame has a potentially elite receiving corp., and the Irish offense could be very dangerous if handled properly.

The 2015 season has the potential to be very good one for Irish fans, and in no way am I suggesting that the Irish go back to a “3 yards and a cloud of dust” mentality. I’m merely suggesting that providing a more balanced attack on Saturday helps the Notre Dame program in almost every way possible. The coaching staff needs to utilize the weapons they have on offense, get creative in ways they approach each opponent, and force opposing teams to worry about all aspects of the Notre Dame offense.

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  1. An excellent example of the levels of lost that any given writer can come to…in the first sentence. The “college football landscape” is being overrun by a new offensive strategy; certainly. But, pass happy isn’t, and has never been the thinking. Zone, Spread, Read-Option. That means run first. That’s what Kelly runs, or has tried to run. And it means run Forrest’s Run!
    All the time to gather comparative statistics, and for no better understanding of the great changes in the game. 15 more minutes of my life gone away.

  2. I think you have to give the keys to Zaire. Run, Run, Run, Run, Run, Run. Once they start stacking the box and are beat up and tired, throw some 10-15 yard outs get the corners cheating, then send Fuller down the sideline for the homerun. There is no reason we should score less than 28 points a game in 2015. I think BK is a great coach, but i hope he gives the keys to Sanford and let’s him loose.
    This could be a fun year, everything is in place.

  3. Notredame no doubt has the offensive talent to be nearly unstoppable imho. The key is if kelly lets sanford run the show.

  4. I think we need to do what takes advantages of the opponents weakness, we will have a great team to watch this year, I’m sure we have coaches and players talented enough to figure it all out. Just my two cents.

  5. Shouldn’t the offense game plan adjust as to what each team sets up to do and as each game progresses, and take what the other team’s defense gives?
    Case in point- Syracuse last year.
    They stacked against the run, so Golson and the game plan threw quick outlet passes to react to them filling the box with defenders while their CBs gave a cushion to exploit, which ND did. Run more? Pass less? How ’bout game planning based on overcoming what the other team’s D was designed to stop? With this ND team’s capability to run and pass, I’d suspect the game plan would adjust to what’s best to exploit each week rather than deciding to primarily run more or pass more before you see what D’ schemes are in place and which opponents’s weaknesses are there to attack.
    Fortunately, BK, Denbrook, and Sanford will design those game plans and not us.

    1. Michael… Boy do you have it right ! All the stats above make for good reading but you take what the defense gives you. The 2014 offensive line was not very good until the LSU game. As most great coaches say you start with the O-line and the O-line was not very good and caused many problems for the offensive scheme.

    2. Case in point Syracuse? I’d count that win as a fluke. On most Saturdays, 4 turnovers in a game will get you consistently beat.

      The Irish play Clemson who had the #1 total defense last year and are consistently strong on that side of the ball.

      They also play Stanford who was #3 in total D

      They play Boston College who was #11.

      The real test is what you do against a team that is balanced on defense as most championship teams are.

      Rarely does passing to set up the run work against any decent defensive team.

      Notre Dame’s total defense ended up at #73 last season behind Wake Forest, Pittsburgh and Virginia both opponents in 2015.

      None of that really matters other than food for thought as you have to play the game.

      In my opinion with Zaire running the read option with Bryant and/or Folston in the backfield you run the ball and if you are successful the passing game will open for big plays with wide open receivers.

      Look at the top 25 total offenses and see how many of those teams have what the experts would consider a good read option QB.
      It’s a very hard offense to defend if your QB can run well and the defense has to respect that.

      One other thing to note..When Boise State finally had a dual threat QB that could run the read option, Hedrick, it became a staple of their offense. He rushed for almost 600 yds last season, second behind their running back who rushed for over 1800 yds.

      Looks like Sanford definitely believes in using the run to set up the pass.
      I think there are plenty of things to be really optimistic about. Even if Golson is the starter, I doubt Sanford will leave him in if he starts turning the ball over. He proved during last season he’ll sit his starter even if he is an offensive captain, if he throws 4 picks in a game.

    3. I see the point your making here. See what’s on the field and mend your offense to exploit where they haven’t fully committed to.

      However, the LSU game. The Irish set the tone of how the game was going to be played and made LSU do what you are saying.

      The Tar Heels came into south bend and did the same to us. They took control of the game and made the Irish play their game. They nearly beat us.

      The overall point is that the Irish have the tools both to run the ball with authority…take control as they did with LSU. And still be able to exploit the secondary.

      The numbers don’t lie. Teams who commit to the run game still in the “landscape” find success.

      1. Hey, Williams

        I was there keeping it altogether as the DC. I was the guy that got us 12 wins.

        -Bill O’Really

  6. the Irish were responsible for the highest pass to run differential between all five teams.

    clearly we need to run more,

  7. Bob. That’s a fine article you put together. I’ve commented hundreds of times over this last season about what you’ve written here. IMHO, had the coaching staff designed game plans for the entire season…as they did for the LSU game…my-o-my. What a season it would have been!

    I wonder. At the start of the season Golson took the field with strength, courage and leadership. I wonder. What if? What if the coaching staff had not buckled and called Golsons number so much that he had to make up for a young defense, riddled with injury…force come back after come back?

    The kid was earning heisman talk for crying out loud. Lol

    What if…the coaching staff recognized that they could “control” games by pounding the football? Would it have allowed Golson to throw daggers into a tired beat up defense instead of being asked to Payton Manning?

    At any rate. I hope like hell this new OC is given the keys to balance this offense out.

    And in case there’s some question….I’ll take Golson and & 35-40 rushing attempts a game and enjoy the playoffs watching the IRISH!! Lol

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