A New Notre Dame Offense or One Game Wonder?

Malik Zaire - Notre Dame QB v. LSU
Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback Malik Zaire (8) hands the ball off to running back Tarean Folston (25) during the first half against the LSU Tigers in the Music City Bowl at LP Field. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Notre Dame ran the football 51 times against LSU in the Music City Bowl earlier this week – tied for the most attempts during the five year Brian Kelly era – and the result was 263 yards of offense against the SEC’s top ranked defense.  Prior to Tuesday the Irish attempted even 40 rushing attempts just four times this season.  Was Tuesday a preview of things to come for the Irish offense or a one hit wonder like we’ve seen in the past?

While Notre Dame hasn’t attempted 50 rushing attempts in any game this season other than the Music City Bowl, they have run the ball that many times twice during Kelly’s tenure – both in 2012 (Pitt and Miami).  Notre Dame won both of those games and is now 3-0 when they run the football 50 or more times under Kelly.  In fact, Notre Dame is 17-1 in games when the run the ball 40 times or more.

The main reason to uptake in rushing attempts was a heavy dose of quarterback runs out of the zone read from first time starter Malik Zaire.  The sophomore quarterback ran the ball 22 times on Tuesday for a team high 96 yards.  The previous season high in rushing attempts for Everett Golson was 16 in 12 regular season starts – 7 of those attempts however were actually Arizona State sacks.

With the success of the two quarterback, run heavy offensive game plan on Tuesday should Notre Dame fans expect to see more of the same in 2015?  Brian Kelly was noncommittal following the game.

“Part of playing Malik (Zaire) and starting him was to try and find out how we were going to utilize him in the game and how to construct playing two quarterbacks,” Kelly said .  “I think we can move forward and begin looking at that and how we can construct that.”

With the success of playing both and the success the Irish saw on the ground after struggling to run the football so often this year, Kelly and his staff will likely be spending most of the offense doing just that – rethinking the pass heavy offense Notre Dame employed most of the 2014 season.

Moving towards a run first offense would not be completely foreign to Kelly at Notre Dame.  Despite a rather pass happy offense the last two seasons, the Irish ran the ball effectively and with regularity during tis run to the national championship game in 2012.  Seven of the 18 games in which Notre Dame attempted 40+ runs during the Kelly Era came during that 2012 season.

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Figuring out the identity of the Irish offense moving forward is only part of the equation for Kelly and staff this off-season though.  They will once again need to figure out who their starting quarterback will be on top of figuring out if they want to even just stick with one quarterback or use a system similar to what they did against LSU.

Kelly’s game plan for LSU was without question masterful.  Kelly took an offense that couldn’t protect the football or run the ball against solid defenses and devised a game plan that utilize both quarterbacks skills and kept LSU on its heels while racking up those 263 yards.

With a full game tape to study though will such an approach work in 2015?  Notre Dame also used two quarterbacks regularly in 2012 with Tommy Rees playing the role of closer during Golson’s first year as a starter.  Kelly did not, however, change quarterbacks in 2012 as often as he did on Tuesday though.  There were times when Kelly would shuffle his quarterbacks multiple times in a single drive with the game winning drive being a prime example.

“It went back to just a feeling of what I believed that they execute in a very crucial situation of the game,” Kelly said of the final drive. “That’s how I called the game in the last series, really trying to fit into what I believed were the plays they would feel comfortable with.”

With the Music City Bowl out of the way and the Irish coming out on a winning note to cap off what was a disappointing season. Kelly and his staff will now turn their attention to what their plan will be long term for the quarterback position.  “This really was just about this game. Playing bother of them and my focus was about winning this game and we’ll figure out the quarterback situation in January,” Kelly said.

Whatever Kelly and his staff decide for the future, the results from Tuesday can’t be argued.  Notre Dame ran for more yards on LSU than all but Auburn, Mississippi State, and Wisconsin.  The Irish only ran for more yards in any single game this season in the season opener against Rice.  Last year the only game in which the Irish topped their 263 yards from earlier this week was against Navy.

In looking at the personnel the Irish will have back in 2015, Notre Dame really can go either way here.  If Ronnie Stanley returns for his senior season, the offensive line will return all five starting linemen from the Music City Bowl.  The Irish wide receivers will be among the best in the nation with Will Fuller, Corey Robinson, Chris Brown, and CJ Prosise being potentially bolstered by Davaris Daniels should he be reinstated in addition to the youngsters on the roster and enrolling next year.

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With all of that fire power, Notre Dame should be able to pick its poison.  Complicating matters somewhat, however, will be a potential lack of depth at running back.  As of now, the only scholarship running backs on the roster for next year are Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant.  Notre Dame does have Josh Adams committed and on schedule to sign his letter of intent next month and have been leaving no stone unturned in their pursuit of a second running back in this class but even if the Irish add two backs that is not exactly a well stocked backfield experience wise.

No one knows what the 2015 Notre Dame offense is going to look like – not even Brian Kelly and his offensive staff.  If what we saw on Tuesday, however, was a glimpse into the future, there stands to be a good chance that on January 1 of next year we’ll all be busy firing up our tailgates and not discussing next season already.

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19 comments

  1. Bruce johnson 5 years ago

    I think swarbrick made a a bad choice. It took him ten days. Then
    He poo pooed a renaissance in nd national championship hopes. He copse poorly and the decision cost us great football for 8 yrs. ignorant, indifferent mediocre is god enough for him. Give me saban, harbaugh or Meyer they play to win, not bend don’t break bs. Sad .

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  2. MarchySchwartz 5 years ago

    @ Kenny M Jan. 2nd 9:03 p.m.

    Possible options:

    Tom Clements who’s been the OC at Green Bay. Gets rave reviews from Aaron Rogers. Played as QB at ND under Ara and lead ND to national championship in 1973 by beating Alabama in 1973 Sugar Bowl. Some are critical of his age, but he’s within a year of the same age as Nebraska’s new hire for HC.

    Chris Petersen HC at Washington. Age 50. Had a very successful stint as HC at Boise State (92-12). This past season he himself suspended 4 players including one of the best DBs in college football. Doesn’t quite sound like Urban Meyer to me. Washington went 8-5 this season. Replaced one game interim head coash who stood in for Steve Sarkisian who had moved to USC.

    Pat Fitzgerald, age 40. HC at Northwestern. He chances of getting into the CFB playoffs are far better at ND than at Northwestern. One of the best young HCs in CFB. He’s likely got the HC job at Northwestern for life unless he murders someone, but if he wants a national stage to demonstrate his talent as a HC, I have no doubt that ND would be all too glad to accommodate him. Northwestern is also a school that doesn’t fit Urban Meyer’s requirements.

    Mike Tomlin, HC at the NFL Steelers. Age 42. Brilliant coaching talent who labors in relative obscurity by being the HC of a small market team and against other NFL HCs with whom he has to share the national spot light. Played football at William and Mary. Majored in Biology, not exactly a jock major. So it seams he’d appreciate the need for scholarship football players to get an education first and foremost. Really takes seriously his responsibility as role model to young men. That would seem to fit him better for ND than Urban Meyer as well. I can’t think of any hire by ND that would gain as much national attention and hold as much continuing interest as Mike Tomlin. Certainly, he’d have more recognition by becoming a HC at the college level, and especially at ND, as compared to where he is now. If he wanted to gain a national stage to have a greater impact for his interest in serving as role model for young athletes, especially those from disadvantaged family backgrounds, then ND’s solicitation for his services very well may not be immediately ignored by Tomlin as some may think would happen.

    Of these, I would expect that only Tomlin would present a hurdle of sorts regarding the level for his salary. I believe his present salary is in the neighborhood of $5.7 million.

    IF he did his homework, I bet Swarbrick could readily add to this list of 4 by me.

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  3. pete 5 years ago

    I think the biggest problem Kelly had these last 2 years are some his fault and some not his fault. The enormous amount of injuries, suspensions and transfers have hurt Notre Dame badly. Lynch, Dickerson, Vanderdous on the dline. Keil, Sheppard, etc. Golson being suspended. Three starters out the whole year cheating academic fraud. Not Kelly’s fault. I do blame Kelly for not firing Booker And bringing in a great special teams coach. I also blame Kelly for not playing Zaire more starting with the Northwestern game. Kelly is a very good coach. He just needs to figure out how to properly utilize the talent he has. Many on this board may disagree with me , but I do believe at least on offense Notre Dame’s talent is very comparable to Ohio State, Alabama , Florida State , Tcu . etc.

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  4. Drew 5 years ago

    History tells us Kelly is at least 1/2 way through his time here. Nobody does 10 yrs plus. Disappointments ? Hell yes. None of the trash that’s been here was good enough to get this win. 2-3 more years , enjoy it. Go Irish!

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  5. BJ 5 years ago

    “…the coaches have not been able to replace those guys choosing to go with quanity over quality. The coaches simply have not been able to bring in the elite defensive lineman. I think Kelly needs to replace the d line coach and go and get Ed Orgeron who is a elite recruiter and a good defensive line coach. Orgeron from day 1 would be Notre Dame’s best recruiter. He relates very well with these young athletes and they love playing for him.”

    kelly is the wrong guy guy, too bullheaded, refused to really run the ball until the bowl game, when criticized for not running the ball ealier this year, he ran greg bryant eight times in a row one game earlier this year until he fumbled, he has some chip on his shoulder, while the coaches were looking for other jobs conn, eagles, they should have been recruiting defensive talent, refuses to hire the best defensive minds and motivators, we gave up lots of points to lsu, usc, northwestern,navy, louisville, it puts us way out of the elite bracket, that belongs to harbaugh, saban, meyer, etc

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    1. Kenny M 5 years ago

      I agree with some of things you bring up but who are you going to replace Kelly with. The losses we had this season like Louisville and especially North Western should NEVER happen with how long Kelly has been in South Bend. Its hard to get a great head coach who is willing to take on the challenge of coaching at ND. Kelly is the best head coach we have had since the great Lou Holtz.

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  6. Kenny M 5 years ago

    Brian Kelly runs a pass first offense, always has and that will continue next fall. Zaire had a very good game and he deserves a ton of credit. This win was badly needed BUT the playbook shrinks with him at QB1. He has a strong arm but Golson is the better QB and unless he is injuried or transfers he will be the starter in 2015. Irish fans forget how Golson carried this offense on his shoulders for the first half of this season.

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    1. Mike T 5 years ago

      I don’t think the playbook shrinks at all with malik in there. He can make every throw that Golson can. The coaching staff has said the playbook doesn’t change. What changes with Zaire is a QB that knows how to run the read option. All this talk about running the ball..Kelly has said ever since he came to Notre Dame that in order for his offense to work ND must be able to run the ball.
      The main problem once again is TURNOVERS. When you turn the ball over and your opponent puts a lot of quick points on the board, you are forced to pass to catch up quickly before time runs out.

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    2. NDFanCanada 5 years ago

      Sorry Kenny but I totally disagree. Zaire can make all the throws EG can. Playbook expands because of all the read option runs MZ can execute. And, he does not get flustered with blitzes.

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      1. Kenny M 5 years ago

        The reason why I say the playbook shrinks with Zaire is because there were several times versus LSU were the Irish were in third and long and Kelly ran the ball instead of throwing it. I could be wrong and Kelly was playing for field position but considering our defense couldn’t stop them running the ball I doubt this was the case.

        To be honest NDF, I don’t care who starts, I want the QB who can win the most games. I am sick of all the 7-8 win seasons. I also look at the group of skill players we have coming back especially the WR and I believe that Golson gives us the better chance to get to the playoffs but what Zaire did against maybe the best defense in the country can’t be overlooked either.

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      2. Mike T 5 years ago

        The advantage of having a QB like Malik, is that in those third and long when everyone is expecting a pass..you have a quarterback that runs like a running back and can get that first down with his legs.
        Plus it’s just more appealing to watch a QB move around with the ball like a football player rather than a point guard in basketball

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    3. JS 5 years ago

      There in lies the problem. With a dominant running game you won’t need to rely on Golson, or any QB, throwing the ball 40-50 times. Our fortunes in 2015 rest on the same game plan we had against LSU.

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  7. John 5 years ago

    This offensive line is built like Alabama’s. With that being the case, this should be a run-first offense next year. The schedule is built for a playoff run. Hopefully Kelly gets away from the Spurrier shit and pounds the rock all the way to the playoffs.

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    1. Kenny M 5 years ago

      Offensive line should be fine if Stanley comes back but the defensive line is what seperates the good teams and the great teams. If this 2015 team wants to be great the defensive line needs to step up their play. Day and Jones are good but they are no Tuitt and Nix and more important the coaches have not been able to replace those guys choosing to go with quanity over quality. The coaches simply have not been able to bring in the elite defensive lineman. I think Kelly needs to replace the d line coach and go and get Ed Orgeron who is a elite recruiter and a good defensive line coach. Orgeron from day 1 would be Notre Dame’s best recruiter. He relates very well with these young athletes and they love playing for him.

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      1. NDFanCanada 5 years ago

        You took the words right out of my mouth.

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  8. Gary 5 years ago

    Knowing Kelly it will be a one game wonder. He is too pass crazy.

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    1. HURLS 5 years ago

      Hate to sound confrontational, but “Knowing Kelly” should mean you know that he is open to possibilities. BK favors the pass, no doubt. But he is not a one-trick-pony.

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    2. HURLS 5 years ago

      ooops – If you responded to above, please write something here. I forgot to check the “notify me if someone else comments” box. Thanks.

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    3. Maxwell 5 years ago

      Sometimes we should just listen to what a coach says. The decision to start Malik has nothing to do with who will start next year. Kelly says he chose the qb that would give ND the best chance to beat LSU. The only three teams to outrush ND against LSU were Auburn, Wisconsin and Miss St. The teams that gained more yards and beat LSU can all run the read option well.

      So if you are choosing a qb that gives you the best game plan to beat LSU then you choose Malik. Plus you get to see if Malik is actually a gamer for next year. If both qbs stick around next season Kelly will use both.

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