This is Part 1 in a four-part series devoted to discussions on the Notre Dame run game under Brian Kelly and the future success of the Irish offense. We hope you enjoy it.
So here we are 52 games into the Brian Kelly Era. We've seen some very promising highs with the running game but also plenty of room for improvement.
This series will focus mostly on the problems with the Irish running game and to see if there are any solutions for the program as it heads into Brian Kelly's fifth season in South Bend.
Today I'll try to add some context to a collection of situational rushing stats and hopefully narrow in on the biggest issues over the past 4 years.
Here are the overall rushing numbers for each of the past four seasons. Kelly's first season was by far the worst of his tenure and yet an improvement in nearly every category over Charlie Weis' final season. That's not much of an endorsement of Kelly as it is an indictment of Weis. The 2007-09 squads were all worse than 2010 (let us not speak of the rushing in 2007) and even the "explosive" offenses of 2005 & 2006 only rushed for 1,765 yards (3.6 per rush) and 1,634 yards (3.9 per rush) respectively.
An important question moving forward should be: How much of an aberration was the 2012 season? That was the most rushing yards and highest YPC for a Notre Dame team since 1996. Think about that for a second. Brian Kelly has been labeled a "pass-happy" coach yet he's dug Notre Dame out of a rushing malaise that stretches, not just back to Charlie Weis, but all the way to the late-90's.
So while Kelly has plenty of room for improvement any discussion of this topic cannot be made without mentioning the lows the Fighting Irish program had fallen to while running the ball in the preceding 14 years prior to his arrival. I doubt any other traditional power has ever had such a sustained run of poor rushing in college football history.
That lack of success from the past fosters a lot of the impatience from fans with the running game, but it also blinds people to the fact that Kelly has Notre Dame operating on a higher level with an increase in production possibly on the horizon. This could probably be an apt analogy for the entire program.
1st Quarter Rushing
Notre Dame was a really poor first quarter rushing team during Kelly's first year--the program was shaking off the Weis era, learning a new system, and breaking in 3 new starters along the offensive line--but they've improved quite a bit since then. In fact, the 2011 team (21st nationally in YPC) & 2012 team (16th nationally) were among the country's best at running the ball in the opening frame.
Keep in mind none of these stats are factoring in schedule strength.
The 2013 squad regressed from the great 1Q rushing from the previous two seasons but they were still solidly above average. You'll also notice that Notre Dame has stayed pretty balanced with a bend towards running the ball in the first quarter and 2013 was the most run-heavy of all the first quarters.
2nd Quarter Rushing
It's in the second quarter where Notre Dame has really gotten off track as the production takes a dip and the play-calling tilts much more towards the pass. It's the least balanced quarter of the Kelly era and the 2012 figures are particularly puzzling coming in at 67th nationally in YPC for the quarter after being a stellar 16th nationally that season in the first quarter.
This past season there was an obscene lack of patience with the run game in the second quarter even though on a per-rush basis it was stronger than the 2012 version.
Why is that?
We do know opponents stacked the box in 2013 like no other season under Kelly but that should have affected other quarters as well. I'm sure a lack of faith in the defense was also a significant factor.
Moreover, the Irish trailed going into the second quarter only once in 2012 (Alabama) and trailed at any point in the second quarter in just 3 other games. This past season Notre Dame trailed heading into the second quarter in 4 games (Michigan, Purdue, Oklahoma, Stanford) and trailed at any point in the second quarter in additional 4 games (MSU, ASU, USC, Navy).
That's a lot of trailing in the second quarter for 2013 and as you'll see below the Irish got away from the run a little bit under those circumstances. In those 8 games trailing in the second quarter Notre Dame ran the ball 33% of the time. Even in the other 5 games when they led for the entire quarter they only ran the ball 45.4% of the time.
This seems like a combination of losing, plus not fully trusting the running game or defense, and pressing to come back and/or build a bigger lead in anticipation of the second half. I'd also surmise that the Molnar/Kelly & Martin/Kelly combo might not be great at making adjustments on the fly after the opponent mixes things up in the second quarter.
3rd Quarter Rushing
One of the consistent factors with the Kelly run game is that it produces really well in the third quarter. If there are any lack of adjustments made from the the first to second quarters there is clearly something right going on after halftime.
There wasn't much commitment to running here during the first two seasons but the trend has been tilted toward pounding the ball over the last two seasons in addition to a very impressive 5+ YPC in each of the past 3 seasons.
If trailing in the second quarter affects the run/pass splits it doesn't seem to affect the third quarter all that much. The Irish trailed at half only 3 times in 2010 (lowest of the Kelly era) but still didn't run the ball half the time. Yet, this past season saw the Irish trail a Kelly-record 5 times at half yet they still ran the ball 54.2% of the time in the third quarter. Further, the Irish trailed 8+ minutes longer in the third quarter this past season than in any other quarter.
4th Quarter Rushing
With a 37-15 record through 4 years Notre Dame is bound to be winning in the fourth quarter in a lot of games. In fact, the Irish have been winning after 3 quarters in 33 games, losing in 15 games, and tied in 4 games.
When teams are winning they run the ball a lot late in the game so it's no surprise that this is the most run-heavy quarter of the Kelly era.
What's interesting is that despite the run-heavy fourth quarters the production is really bad. Is it a product of being too conservative while sitting on leads? Is it because Notre Dame hasn't been able to develop the second team offense very well? The team has been leading in the fourth quarter by 14+ points in 17 games (32.6%) of the Kelly era but there haven't been very many full blown 2nd-team opportunities in 4 years.
Whatever the reasoning things need to get better in the fourth quarter. Notre Dame hasn't been in the top 50 in 4th quarter rushing in any of the past 4 seasons.
1st Down Rushing
Here you can see that on first down Notre Dame has been tilted towards the run over the past four seasons. There's been very solid production running the ball on first down too, except for 2010.
Kelly may get pass-happy at times within a game but he's consistently balanced with a lean towards running the ball early in games and on first down.
Just looking at the raw numbers the Irish were 38th nationally in 2013, 27th in 2012, and 19th in 2011 with yards-per-carry production on first down.
3rd Down Rushing
I didn't spend the hours it would take to look at the splits for every team in the country but a quick look at a handful of nationally prominent programs with varying offenses has their third down rushing percent around roughly ~42% on average. That's right where the 2012 team finished.
In 2010-11 & 2013 the Irish had a tendency to get pass-happy on third down. What's more, Notre Dame still hasn't been very good running the ball on third down--in fact this past season was an abysmal effort in this regard. 2010 (43rd YPC) and 2012 (40th YPC) were solid while 2011 (66th YPC) was below average. 2013 was a wretched 111th nationally for YPC on third down.
In terms of converting third down rushing plays 2013 was a new low for Kelly. The offense converted 40.3% in 2010, 49.1% in 2011, 48.6% in 2012, and just 37% this past fall.
3rd Down Rushing with 1-3 Yards To Go
The 2012 run percentage of 75.4 is right around the average of the national teams I looked at why the other three Notre Dame seasons are far below. If you're not running the ball 3 out of 4 times in short-yardage situations it's safe to say you don't trust your ground game. The Irish need to build their ground game so they can trust it.
The 2011 and 2013 seasons were really ineffective while the 2012 season boasted the 28th best rushing average nationally on third and short thanks to a hell of a season by Theo Riddick who converted 14 of 19 attempts on 3rd and short while averaging 6.05 YPC.
In terms of converting third downs this past season was again by far the worst. Curiously 2010 was the best percentage-wise although with the smallest sample size of 25 attempts (76% resulting in first downs). The 2011 season finished at 61.1%, 2012 finished at 65.1%, and 2013 nose-dived down to just 51.4%.
The redzone has been an issue for Kelly except for the 2011 season when the offense was actually quite good at converting opportunities into touchdowns. That season is most remembered for some brutal turnovers but the 66.67% TD conversion rate was still tied for 28th nationally.
The other three seasons have seen poor raw numbers for TD conversion including 56.52% (2010), 48.30% (2012), and 53.30% (2013). Further, the rushing production in the red zone through four years has been no great shakes. The top YPC from 2011 finished only 51st nationally.
You may also notice that RUN THE BALL MORE isn't some magical solution. If only football was that easy. In fact, the year in which the Irish ran the ball the most in the red zone they had the worst TD conversion rate of the Kelly era.
Now, a lot of that 2012 stat is explained by a young quarterback throwing the ball away, protecting the ball, and the large increase in redzone opportunities from an offense that moved the ball phenomenally well.
The three seasons of 2010-11 and 2013 didn't see Notre Dame enter the redzone more than 48 times in any single year while 2012 saw a full 60 redzone opportunities. The 160 total plays from the redzone in 2012 are 31 more than the second-most of the Kelly era back in 2010. Put another way, even with a poorer TD% in the red zone the 2012 offense scored 31 more points from inside the 20-yard line than the 2011 offense.
All that said, in terms of pounding the ball into the endzone on the ground the 39 scores for 2011-12 is an encouraging sign. The touchdown figures from 2010 and 2013 are black marks.
Rushing Stats During Tie Game
I'd bet many would have guessed that Notre Dame runs the ball a lot less than 50% of the time when the game is tied but that is not the case.
This past 2013 season backslid below 50% but overall the rushing percentages here mostly mirror Kelly's overall play-calling. The past two seasons ran the ball a little less when tied compared to overall rushing percentage, but the 2010-11 seasons actually ran the ball a good chunk more when tied compared to overall rushing percentage.
We tend to think of one instance that sticks out in our mind where the run was abandoned during a tie game but even Alabama ran the ball just 51.6% of the time in 2013 when even with an opponent on the scoreboard.
Rushing Stats When Losing By 1-7 Points
Here's where Kelly's impatience shows up but it's probably not as bad as his reputation suggests, particularly since 2011. Again, Alabama ran the ball in 2013 just 45% of the time when they were losing by a touchdown or less. It's not uncommon to see these splits for numerous teams when they are losing in close games.
Obviously Notre Dame's run game has to improve if the program is to become a consistent player on the national stage. Condensed into bullet points these appear to be the biggest macro-level problems with the Irish running game:
- Getting away from the run in the second quarter
There have been wild swings--especially in the last two seasons--toward abandoning the run in the second quarter. This does not appear to be a healthy aspect to the offense. Over the past 4 seasons Notre Dame is just +50 in point differential during the second quarter.
- Poor running production in the fourth quarter
The Irish run the ball a lot in the fourth quarter when they are winning. This makes Kelly no different than Saban, Shaw, or Kingsbury. You run when you win not win when you run. As Football Outsiders states:
There is no correlation whatsoever between giving your running backs a lot of carries early in the game and winning the game. Just running the ball is not going to help a team score; it has to run successfully.
It is more important for the Irish to run better than it is to run more, although the offense would be helped by more running in certain situations. However, the fourth quarter is where the Irish simply need to get more productive on the ground. This stat may be skewed by garbage time scores by opponents but Notre Dame is only +13 in point differential over the past 4 seasons in the fourth quarter.
- Converting third downs on the ground
In terms of overall third down conversions Notre Dame was real bad in 2010 (38.33%, 72nd nationally) very good in 2011 (46.55%, 18th nationally) and 2012 (46.33%, 25th nationally) while 2013 was a small backslide to 42.05%
As covered above though, the 2013 season was the worst of the Kelly era in converting third downs on the ground. This really has to become a consistent strength of the offense.
- Poor running production in the red zone
This issue (and the solutions) will be covered more extensively in the following installments. It's a complex issue that can't be solved by Monday Morning Quarterbacking.
There's more to the story than these situational stats. Schedule strength, play-calling, talent, and innumerable in-game factors add complex layers of context. Hopefully we've laid a good foundation for discussion today as these other factors are sprinkled into further posts with this series.