"My prediction is whoever puts the most points on the scoreboard will probably win tonight's football game." - Will Ferrell as Dan Fouts
77 games. That's how many games we have played since the start of the 2017 Renaissance. In that time, Notre Dame has mooooooostly played up to snuff. We've only lost 14 times in those 6 seasons. 63-14 isn't too shabby. We've even had 2 shots at the National Championship via the CFP and a third season where we finished the regular season just outside of the playoff. Pretty, pretty, pretty good. How good? Here are the records of some of the top programs in the country in that same time period:
Ohio State: 67-9
Penn State: 55-21
Obviously, Covid messes with some of these teams records, but ND is right in the middle of some of the most consistent name brand teams in recent memory. We're good. Damn good. So what do we need to do to take that next step? Well look back at that list and tell me which ones have titles in the last 6 years. LSU, BAMA, Georgia and Clemson. 3 of those 4 have better records than ND. LSU is the lone anomaly and that is because they had a once-in-a-lifetime season in 2019. Only one team with a better record than us is without a title in these 6 years. That is Ohio State, and they have had plenty of opportunities to do so. They lost by 1 point to UGA in the Semifinal last year, lost by a good bit to Bama in the 2020 Natty, and lost by 6 points to Clemson in the Semifinal of 2019. Several chances that have slipped through their fingers. But this isn't a post about or for Ohio State. It's about ND and what we need to do to get to top of the mountain. To win all our games and hoist the Title. We've got a good record, but we have come up short year in and year out. What's missing? What do we need to do to finally reach the pinnacle of the sport?
Points. That's it. Let me explain.
Despite our Renaissance in which we have won 82% of our games, Notre Dame has been the epitome of inconsistency. 20% of our wins and 33% of our total games have been lacking something very important. 30+ points on our side of the scoreboard. The four big boys who won Titles and Ohio State all consistently break the 30 point barrier (LSU did in 2019 anyways).
We all can bring up at least one game per year where our offense poops the bed However, the most damnable thing about our offenses is that we don't consistently break the 30 point barrier in games. When the scoreboard is lacking a 3 in the ten digits column every third game, that's inconsistency. Why is that number so important? Because Notre Dame has a serviceable enough-and at times, elite-defense to prevent teams from consistently breaking that same mark. Don't believe me? Here are the number of games our opponents broke 30 points in a given season going back to the beginnings of the recent Renaissance in 2017. This includes bowl games and our record in those games are in parentheses:
2022: 4 (3-1)
2021: 3 (2-1)
2020: 4 (2-2)
2019: 1 (0-1)
2018: 1 (0-1)
2017: 3 (1-2)
Total record: 8-8
Now let's look at the number of games in which we failed to break 30 points in a game per season (record in parentheses):
2022: 6 (2-4)
2021: 3 (2-1)
2020: 4 (2-2)
2019: 3 (1-2)
2018: 6 (5-1)
2017: 5 (2-3)
Total record: 14-13
Notre Dame has lost 14 times in this 6 year span. In all but one of those losses we scored less than 30 points. In 8 of our 14 losses our opponents scored more than 30 points. While defensive performance can cost/win you a game, a porous defense is not as consistently disastrous as an anemic offense. After all, we lost 6 games despite giving up less than 30 (sometimes 20).
Let's look at the consistency of scoring more than 30 points on offense vs giving up less than 30 points on defense. We'll start with defense again:
2022: 9 (6-3)
2021: 10 (9-1)
2020: 8 (8-0)
2019: 12 (11-1)
2018: 12 (12-0)
2017: 10 (9-1)
Total Record: 55-6
And now the offense and the games where they scored 30 or more:
2022: 7 (7-0)
2021: 10 (9-1)
2020: 8 (8-0)
2019: 10 (10-0)
2018: 7 (7-0)
2017: 8 (8-0)
Total Record: 49-1 (4 of the 49 wins broke the 30 point mark because of blocked punt or a turnover for TD.)
6 of our 14 losses have come in spite of our defense playing competent to excellent football. Meanwhile, we have lost only 1 time when scoring more than 30 points. That one game was the Fiesta Bowl game against Oklahoma State, most infamous for Notre Dame playing like champions for one half and then as though they were preparing to play Marshall the next half.
These stats aren't fancy. They are very binary and straightforward. Score 30 or more points and you'll usually win. Don't and you'll lose. Genius. I love defense and everything our guys on that side of the ball contribute. There are a number of games out there in which our defense bailed us out throughout the years (14 times or more than twice a year on average). However, the most consistent indicator of success for Notre Dame (and most teams) is when we score 30 or more points. It literally takes a massive once-in-a-generation breakdown in every facet of the game for us to blow a game in which we break 30.
Now, it's easy to say, "Score more points!" Executing , however is the key. We have to have the talent and the play calling that allows for success. Over the last 6 years, we have seen a mixed bag of both. Tommy Rees and Chip Long before him had brilliant moments and frustratingly vanilla ebbs throughout their tenures. The result was familiar. 25 out of 39 chances for Rees and 25 out of 38 chances for Long resulted in 30+ points per game.
We've had talented players who've seen the field and others who have stayed on the sideline. Reasons for said sidelining can vary, but there seemed to be times when it occurred because Kelly had his guy and he was going to play him despite another being more qualified for the moment. Think of the receivers that didn't get chances in one game and then balled out in others that same season. Think of how the wrong running back is used to attack an opposing D Line. Think of how a running QB is asked to chunk the ball mercilessly against an overmatched opponent.
Too often, Kelly and his OCs chose formations, game plans and plays that stymied the offense, too. You probably are thinking of Toledo 2021, Ball State 2018, etc. Those are extremes in which ND really came in unprepared and refused to adjust. However, look at just about any of the Virginia Tech games. There was no excuse to be unprepared for them, and yet we seemed to be every time. In each of these contests, Notre Dame had clear advantages in one aspect of offense but chose to hammer at VT with another. 2019 especially is egregious to me.
In 2019, we chose to throw the ball 53 times as opposed to 38 rushes. Now, I was and am a big fan of Ian Book. However, 50+ passes is not his style. Worse yet, Book was responsible for 13 runs. 1/3 of the running attempts from our slightly nimble QB. We didn't have a world beater at running back (and the closest to one we had was injured that day), but that's too much to put on your QB who has to throw 53 times. It's stubborn and allowed VT to focus in on Book as the sole source of their defensive attack. As a result, he rushed throws that could have been checked down due to pressure. He ran when he could have found an outlet because he felt harassed. The game plan set him up for failure as the game went along and it showed.
They also chose the wrong pieces in that game. Jafar Armstrong, who had been plagued with injuries, got the lion's share of runs at 19. He tallied 37 yards. Jahmir Smith got 3 carries for 14. That's a small sample size but it was 2.5x yards per carry. There was no attempt to give Smith more opportunities even as Armstrong struggled on the ground (he had 49 yards receiving, though, so maybe they should have used him in that manner). Armstrong also lost the fumble on the goal line that allowed VT back in the game. Still, they stuck with him for most of the 2nd half as the primary running back.
Javon McKinley, who had a couple of really good games coming into this one got one target, a 26 yard reception. Meanwhile, ND hammered the Chase Claypool button despite multiple men surrounding him throughout the contest.
Still, this game turned out to be a win. It was mostly due to the defense playing superbly throughout, but it was also due to one thing that Kelly actually excelled at during ND's Renaissance. It's late in the game. After banging his head against the wall for the entire game, Kelly stopped trying to finesse throws and allowed Book to open up the playbook and make the plays that led the Irish down the field. It's on this drive that Avery Davis actually got used. On this drive, Book used Armstrong to his strengths in the passing game instead of as a north and south runner. Book took off when it was necessary and threw the ball to where it would be a catch or incompletion only (no risky passes like earlier in the game). His clutch throws to Claypool on the final drive along with calling his own number inside the 5 were the stuff of legend. He wasn't even that good on this drive, going 6-14 but the team played loose which allowed them to keep going and make the necessary plays when it mattered.
It should have never come to that. Still, Kelly knew at times when to finally let go and let the Irish team play like themselves. It's why we ended up with such a great record in his last 5 years at ND. His penchant for choosing the wrong players at the wrong times to shine and selecting a game plan for the big moments that underdelivered is why we never made it to the mountain top.
Kelly is gone and so is Rees and Long. Freeman is here and now we have Gerad Parker. We don't know what Parker will do as an OC and the jury is still out on Freeman. He seems to be a coach that identifies well with his players. I hope that allows him to run the team truly as the best man for the job gets to see the field. It doesn't matter if he is a freshman or a 5th year senior. Can he help us to win the game?
I also hope that Parker creates a playbook that maximizes the talent that we have on the field. Don't try to force us into a read option offense if Hartman is a pocket passer. Don't rely on screens and draws if you have the ability to stretch the field. Bowl over the defense with Estime instead of trying to have him stretch them out. And if those things aren't working, be willing to adjust. Once you have those things in place, let those players go out there and show what they are made of. Don't restrict them to the point to where they are game managers or just cogs in a system that's designed to give you the glory.
Finally, I don't want to dismiss the importance of our defense and our need for them to step up throughout the season. Oklahoma has scored 30+ points in 64 games over the last 6 years. That's 14 more than us. They have 1 less win. How is that possible? They've surrendered 30 or more points 34 times in that time period. That's twice as much as us. If you don't have a quality defense, you can score as much as you like. You'll eventually get beat.
Think about that, though. OU has clearly sucked at defense the last 6 years and yet they are still so close to us in record. They done this through a prolific offense.
ND has the prolific defense. Alabama, the poster child of defensive dominance, has surrendered 30+ points 13 times. Remember, we have given up 30+ only 16 times. We're not even that far off from Georgia (10 games of 30+ points surrendered). We're in the elite tier of defenses. What we need is an elite and consistent offense.
We finally have the QB to do it. There are signs that our receivers are the most talented in more than a decade. They just need to prove it. We have a lead RB that is a beast and several backups that could all play quality minutes. Our O Line is apparently deeper than expected and our TEs might be able to Voltron themselves into being a Michael Mayer between the several of them. All of the pieces are there. Can ND find the system that lets them succeed and can they release them to flourish inside-and, at times-outside of that system? That's the difference between breaking 30 and winning and missing 30 and clinching our butts all year long. Go Irish. Break 30.