(The Rock Report | Notre Dame Football News) – W.I.N. (What’s Important Now) was Holtz’s mantra when he came to Notre Dame. Holtz didn’t play for the future, he played to win immediately. What’s frustrating is that the Irish could be looking at a BCS game this year, but for a seeming mismatch between Kelly’s stated objectives about the run game and game day execution.
To be fair, Kelly’s sitting in a good historical position at 3-3 with the hardest part of the schedule in the rear view mirror. Almost every successful coach struggles in his first year including the benchmarks of Saban, Carroll, Meyer, Tressell, Stoops and Brown. Ohio State fans noted that the sentiment was very negative in Tressell’s first year. And while frustrating to watch, the first half of a first season with a new coach has shown little correlation with ultimate success simply because everything is new and being put on its feet for the first time. Immediate success doesn’t correlate with ultimate success. As noted, Willingham and Weis both started out strong.
And, so far, there aren’t any major red flags that point to Kelly’s inability to win long-term, but there are a few areas of concern: the run-pass mix and time/game management.
I’ve never bought into criticism over specific play-calls or time management. You could parse any coach’s performance in these areas to death (as Bama fans are doing now with Saban, btw.) Good coaches tend to develop a feel for what works and don’t always play the percentages. It’s what separates them from a computer calling plays. Win and all of that suddenly looks good. Still not sure what to make of Kelly’s clock management, but if you’re winning games by two touchdowns the point is moot. It’s certainly a concern at this point, but I’ve yet to see any coach at any level escape criticism for specific play calls or time management.
More troubling is Kelly’s dogged adherence to pass the ball with a team that can’t execute the passing game yet at the level needed to succeed. If the purpose is to develop the offense at the expense of winning games, that’s a mistake. Kelly seems to be force feeding
the passing spread despite his own rhetoric about the importance of a run game. Here were Kelly’s quotes preseason:
“You can’t win unless you run the ball,” Kelly said, according to a story in the Chicago Sun-Times. ”If you just throw it, you’re not going to win all your games. We’re here to win all our games. I don’t know if anybody knew that. We’re here to win them all. And to win your games, you have to run the ball.”
“We’re going to be able to run the football,” Kelly said. “That’s pretty clear after a week, that we’ve got really solid backs.”
But Kelly’s recent quotes are all centered around Crist’s ability to run the passing offense and the run-pass mix has declined to even below his low numbers at Cincinnati. Despite Kelly’s quotes about running the ball, only nine teams in football bowl subdivision have run the ball less than Notre Dame this season.
That the offense is sputtering sans an effective run game and putting inordinate pressure on the defense is no surprise, what is surprising (or disappointing) is Kelly’s failure to adjust. As Coach Molnar said, when this offense goes three and out, it’s ugly to watch. Fits and starts on offense are the norm in year one of a new system with a new quarterback and Notre Dame has better options.
Against Pittsburgh, the offense looked very good while mixing the pass and the run. Not Holtzian, but certainly good enough to beat the teams on our schedule save Stanford. The mystery is why Kelly defaulted back to the pass when the play mix was working so well. Notre Dame performed well when not put in obvious passing downs and poorly when forced into passing situations. The difference was stark in terms of yards per play and points.
Looking back, pass heavy coaches with new quarterbacks seem to always underperform in their first year versus their ultimate ceiling. Norm Chow and Bobby Petrino both went through significant growing pains in their first years at USC/UCLA and Arkansas respectively, at times looking like inept high school coaches. Stoops lost his starting QB last year and struggled to his worst record since he came to Oklahoma. Texas and Florida are out of the top 20 with new starters and somewhat new offenses. That the passing offense couldn’t be relied on at this point was obvious.
What’s frustrating is that Notre Dame could be looking at a BCS game if Kelly had followed through on his plan. When Crist went down against Michigan, Kelly put in Rees who promptly threw an interception. Against Michigan State Notre Dame threw the ball 55 times to 26 runs (32%). You rarely win like that. I have little doubt that with a commitment to running the ball, Notre Dame would be sitting at 5-1 or at worst 4-2 (which is also a backhanded compliment, btw.)
Kelly will be able to get the offense going eventually, and it will likely happen in this three game stretch, though it will look more like Texas than Alabama. Long-term, there is reason for optimism on two fronts: improvement on defense (see El Capitan’s post) and recruiting. Just “green shoots” if you will at this point, but promising and those will be far more important to the long-term success of the program under Kelly. Defense wins championships and while this defense has a long, long way to go, Diaco’s proved solid to date despite being put on the spot time and time again by a struggling offense. Recruiting (in particular recruiting along the defensive line) has been a surprising bright spot. If Kelly can hold on to Tuitt and Lynch to pair with Nix, Notre Dame can finally start thinking about putting a defense on the field that has the ability to win a national championship.
But to keep them, he needs to win now and counting on what has been an unreliable passing attack seems imprudent. Kelly needs to string together wins against poor competition and then defeat USC and/or Utah. Wins are the only way to erase the losing stench that has permeated the program and to secure the talent needed for an eventual title run.