In looking over the first two years of Brian Kelly’s tenure with the Fighting Irish, one way to trace the development of his offense is to consider the shifting balance between the rushing and passing game. That balance can reflect a number of variables: scheme, strategy, play-calling, personnel, execution, and of course, it can suggest something of the opposing team’s defensive preparation and execution.
When tracing the rush/pass balance across Coach Kelly’s first two seasons at Notre Dame in terms of yards gained, we can see a pronounced shift from yards gained effectively through the air to yards gained effectively on the ground. This is reflected in the balance shifting towards the run on attempts: through most of 2010, the Irish offense averaged about 30 rushing attempts per 40 passing attempts; late in 2010 and through 2011, the attempts rushing and passing evened out to an average of roughly 34 of each per game, with rushing attempts consistently outnumbering passing attempts down the final stretch. We can also see correlations worthy of consideration between that balance and the offense securing wins.
To try to identify that development in the Irish offense over the last two seasons, as I did in a previous post on development at the quarterback position, I broke down ND’s games across the 2010 and 2011 seasons into 3 sets of games: (1) the first 8 of 2010, when Crist was at QB; (2) the last 5 games of 2010 (starting with Tulsa), when Rees took the helm, and the first 4 of 2011; and (3) the final 9 games of 2011. This leaves us with three sets of 8 games (Purdue 2010–Navy 2010), 9 games (Tulsa 2010–Pitt 2011), and 9 games (Purdue 2011–FSU 2011).
Here are the rushing and passing yardage numbers for each set of games, along with a few other totals:
total yards, rushing yards / attempts, passing yards / comp-att-int (first downs, rushing / passing / penalty)
First 8 games (Purdue 2010 to Navy 2010):
Purdue: 358 yds, 153 yds / 36 att rush., 205 yds / 19-26-0 comp-att-int pass. (20 first downs, 10/10/0)
Michigan: 535, 154 / 32, 381 / 21-44-3 (23, 8/12/3)
Michigan State: 461, 92 / 26, 369 / 32-55-1 (28, 5/20/3)
Stanford: 351, 44 / 23, 307 / 26-45-1 (19, 4/15/0)
Boston College: 315, 112 / 31, 203 / 24-45-1 (18, 4/12/2)
Pittsburgh: 329, 87 / 31, 242 / 24-39-0 (22, 9/12/1)
Western Michigan: 448, 149 / 34, 299 / 20-30-1 (17, 6/10/1)
Navy: 363, 106 / 30, 257 / 25-38-2 (22, 7/15/0)
Averages:25.9 off. points per game, 395 total yards per game
30.4 rush. att per game, 40.3 pass. att per game
21.0 first downs per game
Second set of 9 games (Tulsa 2010 to Pittsburgh 2011):
Tulsa: 458 yds, 124 yds / 24 att rush., 334 yds / 33-56-3 comp-att-int pass. (26 first downs, 7/15/4)
Utah: 256, 127 / 29, 129 / 13-20-0 (13, 4/7/2)
Army: 369, 155 / 38, 214 / 13-20-1 (15, 7/8/0)
USC: 296, 147 / 32, 149 / 20-34-3 (15, 8/7/0)
Miami: 397, 196 / 48, 201 / 15-29-0 (23, 10/9/4)
USF (2011): 508, 117 / 29, 391 / 31-49-3 (27, 5/18/4)
Michigan: 513, 198 / 33, 315 / 27-39-2 (28, 9/15/4)
MSU: 275, 114 / 32, 161 / 18-26-1 (18, 6/8/4)
Pitt: 398, 216 / 32, 182 / 24-41-1 (23, 9/11/2)
Averages:24.8 off. ppg, 386 total yards/game
33.0 rush. att/game, 34.9 pass. att/game
20.9 first downs/game
Third set of 9 games (Purdue 2011 to Florida State 2011):
Purdue: 551 yds, 287 yds / 40 att rush., 264 yds / 25-41-0 comp-att-int pass. (34 first downs, 15/17/2)
Air Force: 560, 266 / 29, 294 / 27-36-0 (28, 10/16/2)
USC: 267, 41 / 14, 226 / 27-43-1 (17, 5/12/0)
Navy: 442, 182 / 35, 260 / 19-25-1 (21, 11/9/1)
Wake Forest: 341, 175 / 38, 166 / 14-24-2 (20, 10/9/1)
Maryland: 508, 212 / 46, 296 / 30-38-0 (30, 15/14/1)
Boston College: 417, 161 / 39, 256 / 24-39-1 (21, 6/13/2)
Stanford: 309, 57 / 31, 252 / 17-37-2 (20, 5/11/4)
FSU: 280, 93 / 35, 187 / 19-35-3 (19, 9/9/1)
Averages:27.2 off. ppg, 408 total yards/game
34.1 rush. att/game, 35.3 pass. att/game
23.3 first downs/game
In the first 8 games of Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame, total passing yards were always at least double rushing yards, except against Purdue (2010, Kelly’s first game at ND, where the team netted 153 yards rushing and 205 yards passing). (Also, to split hairs a bit, against BC in 2010, the Irish rushed for 11 yards over half their total passing yards.) The tall passing numbers could be tied to a range of factors: among others, Crist’s strong arm for longer passes, a pretty impoverished run game dependent on Armando Allen (enduring nagging injuries) and an inexperienced Cierre Wood, poor blocking from a young receiving corps, and a relatively young and inexperienced O-line.
In the next 9 games, with Rees at QB from Tulsa (2010) through Pitt (2011), passing yards doubled rushing in just two games: Tulsa, Rees’s first extended game time after Crist went down on the opening drive, and USF to open 2011, again, when Crist was presumed to play the whole game but only lasted half and a point deficit forced ND to pass in the second half. Rushing yards actually exceeded or equaled passing yards (within 5 yards), however, in 4 of those 9 games. In late 2010, the O-line began to cohere, and Wood got his legs under him when Allen went out for the season and Robert Hughes stepped up in an unforgettable way to cover for the accurate but middling arm of a true freshman quarterback thrust onto the field mid-season. In the first third of 2011, the O-line played at a high level, receivers started blocking effectively, Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray exploded onto the scene, and the Irish had their first game under Kelly racking up over 200 yards on the ground (216 against Pittsburgh; they came close with 196 against Miami to close 2010 and 198 against Michigan, 2011).
In the last 9 games of the 2011 season, From Purdue (2011) through the FSU bowl game (2011), passing yards doubled rushing yards in just 3 games—the only 3 losses in this period (USC and the final 2 games, without Jonas Gray, against Stanford and FSU). Rushing yards exceeded or equaled passing yards against Purdue and Wake Forest and nearly equaled them against Air Force (28 yards short of 294 passing). The Irish topped 200 yards rushing 3 more times in this set of games (Purdue, Air Force, and Maryland, and came close against Navy with 182), but were stifled by USC’s defense and the quick abandonment of the run (they rushed the ball only 14 times for 41 yards in the loss), and then suffered a huge loss when Jonas Gray went down against BC: the Irish rushed for only 57 yards against a stingy Stanford defense and 93 yards against FSU.
With all of this variation in the balance of yards gained by rushing and passing over the last two seasons, the points gained by the Irish offense remained very consistent: across the first 8 games, the offense averaged 25.9 points per game; they averaged 24.8 points per game from Tulsa 2010 to Pitt 2011; and from Purdue 2011 to FSU, they averaged 27.2 offensive points per game.
Looking at total yards gained in conjunction with wins and losses similarly seems to shed little light on the relative value of those yards, or rather, it suggests the complexity of the full game reflected in those totals:
In games where the Irish gained less than 300 total yards, they went 3 for 6, beating Utah (2010), USC (2010), and MSU (2011), and losing to USC (2011), Stanford (2011, held to 309 yards), and FSU (2011). ND lost those 3 games by 14, 14, and 4 points; while they beat Utah (2010) and MSU (2011) handily, the Irish defense held their opponents to 3 and 13 total points in those games, and held USC (2010) to just 16.
In games where the Irish gained more than 450 total yards, they went 4 for 9. In this category we find some of the most crushing, despair-inducing, unbelievable losses of the Brian Kelly era: first, Michigan (2010, 535 total yards), where, in his second start, our QB went blind for half the game, Tommy Rees ominously threw an interception for his first career completion, Denard Robinson rushed for 258 yards (and threw for 244) and the longest run in stadium history (87 yards), Crist threw the second-longest TD pass in stadium history, and Robinson threw the game-winning TD with 27 seconds to go. Then there was MSU (2010, 461 yards), where, with play clock expired, the Spartans faked a field goal, tossing a TD in overtime for the win. Then there was Tulsa (2010, 458 yards), where Crist went down for the season on the opening drive after a career-long rush of his own (29 yards), Rees valiantly stepped in and threw for his career best 334 yards and 4 TDs, only to throw the game to Tulsa with a third and final interception, this one in the end zone on the final play of the game. Then USF (2011, 508 yards), clocking in at 5 wretched hours and 59 minutes, when Kelly became famously apoplectic, Crist was sent to the bench for the season for a lousy half, the Irish surrendered the ball 5 times in infamous ways, the lightening raged, and my gosh, the sweltering heat! Then Michigan (2011, 513 yards). You know the story. After dominating and subsequently collapsing, the Irish rally to score the game-winning TD with 30 seconds left on the clock, and then wait—what’s that? Oh. That’s plenty of time for Denard to score his fourth TD of the fourth quarter for the win. To review: in the 5 losses where the Irish gained over 450 total yards, they lost by 3, 3, 1, 3, and 3 points. They lost in the last seconds of the game in 4 of them.
In games where the Irish gained between 300 and 450 total yards, we actually find more than half of their wins and only 20% of their losses: the Irish won 9 of 11 of these games over the last two seasons. The offense was able to move the ball well in these games, and wasn’t forced by a point deficit or a stopped-up running game to pass the ball all over the field.
Finally, returning again to the rush/pass balance of the Irish offense, we find a set of interesting correlations between running the ball and winning that might at least be a starting point for claims that the Irish really do benefit from running the ball with the same commitment with which they pass it:
In games where the Irish passed for twice as many yards as they rushed, ND is 2 for 11 (2/6 with Crist and 0/5 with Rees). Can we attribute most of these losses to turnovers and weaknesses in the defense, rather than to a relatively anemic rushing attack? I believe so, but this is certainly worthy of discussion.
In games where they rushed over 100 yards, the Irish went 15 for 19 (3/4 with Crist, 12/15 with Rees), suggesting the clear value of a meaningful rushing attack and a measure of balance.
And when the Irish rushed for as many or more yards as they gained through the air, they went 6 for 6. They weren’t the most convincing wins, but they were all wins.