First Impressions Are Everything: Analyzing Notre Dame's Opening Day First Drives

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Taking a look at Notre Dame's opening-day first drives under Kelly provides some interesting consistencies.

With the dawn of the 2013 Fighting Irish football season almost upon us, the Notre Dame offense was able to maintain a level of consistency in 2012 that had escaped the 2010 and 2011 squads.  The Irish were able to run the ball more consistently and were also able to minimize the mistakes that plagued the previous teams.

But understanding how the team will look in it’s season opener is something very different.  There is more emotion and intangibles that cannot be quantified by statistics.  Despite that, I thought I’d look at how Brian Kelly handled his opening offensive drives while at Notre Dame.  After I finished, I was pretty surprised at how consistent they were across the board.  The Irish started every season opener under Kelly on offense.  The gameplan preferred running the ball.  Passes were kept short and safe and there were clear trendlines that the offensive performance improved each year in the season opener.

When Kelly took over the reins of the Irish squad in 2010, he faced Purdue in the first game of the season.  The Irish went out on a seven play, 26-yard drive that resulted in a punt.  In fact, Ben Turk had Purdue pinned inside their own 10-yard line, but was forced to re-kick after an illegal formation penalty.  He then booted a stinker that went out at Purdue’s 25-yard line.

Play Result
Run Middle to Armando Allen 4-Yard Gain
Pass to Theo Riddick Incomplete
Pass to Kyle Rudolph Complete - 12-Yard Gain
Pass to T.J. Jones Complete - 15-Yard Gain
Run Left to Armando Allen 3-Yard Loss
Draw Middle to Armando Allen 2-Yard Gain
Pass by Dayne Crist

Stripped, Recovered by Crist for No Gain

Going into the details of the drive, the Irish ran exclusively in Kelly’s trademark spread offense.  Every play was in shotgun and the pace was fast.  However, the Irish struggled to gain yards on the ground.  Notre Dame ran the ball four times, though one of them was a scramble by Crist after he picked up his own fumble.  On those runs, Notre Dame gained roughly 3 yards.  A clear majority of the yards that Notre Dame’s offense gained were in the air, as Dayne Crist connected on two passes for long first downs.

The numbers also remain similar the following year.  For the 2011 season opener against South Florida, Kelly mixed his offense up a bit.  Crist lined up behind center for a handful of plays on the ill-fated opening drive, as well as the typical shotgun formation.

The first play, a swing pass to Cierre Wood, gained 32 yards for the Irish.  After Jonas Gray was stuffed for no gain, Crist connected with Michael Floyd for 27 more yards.  A few moderate runs brought the ball close to the goal line, where Gray was stripped and South Florida scored on a coast-to-coast touchdown, a mistake that would prove to be costly for the Irish.

Play Result
Swing Pass Right to Cierre Wood 32-Yard Gain
Run Middle to Jonas Gray No Gain
Quick Slant Left to Michael Floyd 27-Yard Gain
Run Left to Cierre Wood 9-Yard Gain
Run Middle to Cierre Wood 4-Yard Gain
Run Middle to Cierre Wood 3-Yard Gain
Run Middle to Jonas Gray Fumble TD

Going into the numbers, the Irish again gained more yards in the air, despite having more rushing attempts.  The Irish were brought to the steps of six points by a long scamper by Wood on a short swing pass, and by a quick slant.  Jonas Gray gained no yards on the drive, and Wood gained 16 on three carries.

The 2012 opening drive by Notre Dame against Navy is where you start to see some clear differences.  While Notre Dame still attempted to run the ball more than they passed, the running game was significantly more successful.  The Irish, working in a new quarterback, lined up under center for a clear majority of the running plays.  The combined work of George Atkinson III and Theo Riddick led the offensive drive.  GA3 set the tone on the first play from scrimmage, a 10-yard run for a first down.  Riddick would then take over and rush for roughly 30 yards and a score on 5 carries.  Riddick also caught a swing pass for 9 yards.

Play Result
Run Left by GA3 10-Yard Gain
Pass Left to Tyler Eifert 6-Yard Gain
Run Middle to Theo Riddick 7-Yard Gain
Run Left to Theo Riddick 1-Yard Gain
Pass Right to T.J. Jones 12-Yard Gain
Pass Right to Troy Niklas Incomplete
Run Right to Theo Riddick 10-Yard Gain
Run Middle to Theo Riddick 3-Yard Gain
Pass by Everett Golson Sacked for 8-Yard Loss
Pass by Everett Golson Navy Penalty, 1st Down ND
Run Left by Theo Riddick 11-Yard TOUCHDOWN

Going into the numbers on Notre Dame’s touchdown drive, Kelly called six runs and five passes.  One of those passes resulted in a sack, one was incomplete and another resulted in a penalty on Navy.  Everett Golson connected on the other two passes for about 20 yards or so.

If the trends hold, don’t be surprised to see a run-first offense complemented by a short passing game.  Kelly in the past two years has favored using the swing pass early, despite Rees’ struggles with it.  The other passing plays under his tenure in the season opener have been short passes that resulted in big yardage.  I’d expect more of the same, especially with the rumored appearance of the pistol offense.  Temple’s 100th ranked rushing defense in 2012 would lend credence to the run-first theory.

While Brian Kelly may end up surprising us all for the season opener against Temple and have Rees sling it around, there is no mistaking his offensive pattern while head coaching the Irish in the season opener.  It will certainly be interesting to see how that holds up for Tommy Rees’ first opening-day start as a Notre Dame quarterback.

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