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  • Defense, Offense and Dissonance

    by SEE

    A look back at Notre Dame’s last four national championships and the last four by any school point to one glaring commonality:  Championship teams have to play great defense. It may sound trite, but that fact gets lost as fans concentrate on the more glamorous side of the ball.  If a team plays great defense and wins the turnover battle, it can win any game.

    Ara’s first national championship team, in 1966,  featured the number one ranked defense in the country. His second national championship team finished with the country’s 4th ranked defense.  Devine’s national championship team was 12th and Lou’s lone national championship team ranked 3rd.

    One could argue that 20 years ago may not be relevant given the changes in the game, but the last four national champions finished  1st, 50th, 1st  and 5th  in the country in defense.  Auburn remains the lone outlier, but their defense won them the national championship game vs. Oregon holding the Ducks to 19 points.

    The most encouraging aspect of Kelly’s coaching resume was not the offense, but consistent defense.   While some are surprised that Notre Dame’s defense is outperforming the offense, that has been true in five of Kelly’s last six seasons.

    2007 – His first year at Cincinnati his defense finished 11th in the country in defense.

    2008 – Kelly’s second year the defense slipped to 25th, but their offense was exceptionally mediocre (kind of like jumbo shrimp) very much like our offense this year. Kelly credited the defense with carrying the team that year, but he still fired his DC (Joe Tresey, now at UCLA) for Diaco.

    2009 – Under Diaco, Cincinnati’s defense initially was even better. Eight games through the season it was giving up just under 13 points a game (top 10) and was leading the country in both sacks and tackles for loss. The defense fell apart after that giving up vast swaths of yards and points leading to rightful speculation about Diaco’s capability (including my own.)

    Only in 2009 did Kelly’s offense outperform the defense and that was only for the part of the  season.


    Performing on defense is not new to Kelly’s teams, what does seem to be different about Kelly is that he’s seemingly more content to win the battle at the line of scrimmage and play great defense.  That’s a marked shift and one that will be tested this week as he faces Oklahoma and Stoops who has candidly said he doesn’t care about time of possession.

    “Some guys are just worried about time of possession and eating the clock and playing close to the vest,” said Heupel, now OU’s quarterbacks coach. “That is not coach Stoops at all.” “They can’t score fast enough for me,” said Stoops. “That’s always been my mentality… to score as often and as quickly as you can. You go up 21-0, that presses the other team, too.”

    To his point, Kansas held the ball 40 minutes to Oklahoma’s 19 last week, but Oklahoma’s ability to strike quickly put the game far out of reach.  Oklahoma has the ability to run a fast-break quick strike offense.

    Cognitive Dissonance

    The interesting fact here is that Kelly too has previously said he didn’t care about time of possession, only scoring points.   His new philosophy will likely fall under pressure this weekend, especially if Oklahoma climbs on top of Notre Dame early.   If Oklahoma goes into hurry-up mode, will Kelly stick to his new philosophy, revert to his old or morph into something new? My guess is that Notre Dame will try to keep up in a shoot out.  Perhaps Notre Dame’s defense is strong enough to make the point moot, but I suspect it will take more than 20 points to win this game.

    I’ve written much about Kelly having a strong coaching floor, but this weekend should give us some insight into his ceiling.  A win Saturday would represent a true turning point for the program and will likely put the Irish in the BCS for the first time since 2006.



    12 Responses to “Defense, Offense and Dissonance”

    1. Interesting thoughts here, and obviously this team seems to have the defensive chops required to fit the bill. I wonder how the national champs fair in offense each year? Sporadic enough to say defense is the true elixir?

      What stat did you use for total defense, scoring?

    2. I wonder how any nation championship contender faired with special teams. has anyone ever won a national title with special teams that rank among the very worst in division I football?

    3. Speed on defense especially on the d-line is what makes the SEC the best. Speed pass rushers, fast LB’s and shut down corners make a national champion challenger.

    4. This is Kelly’s biggest coaching game of his career but it will be unfair to pin this game on him if our young QB makes a few big mistakes which ends up costing us the game.On the other hand playing not to lose should not be his philosophy. Not in this game against a team with a big play offense. I really hope Kelly understands he may not need 40 points to win this game but playing very close to the vest and winning games by scoring around 17 wont work Saturday night. Give Everett a chance to get the ball down field and keep OU’s defense honest. You wont be able to just ground the ball and keep time of possession. Every decent coach in America is going to put enough guys in the box to stop the run when Everett is out there. Throw early to set up the run for later in the second half where hopefully our big 3 backs wont have to see 8 in the box. ND 27-24

      • That analysis is spot on Jack! I am hoping BK’s conservative play calling vs. BYU was a ploy to give OU a false sense of security or perhaps keep them guessing as to what kind of game he will be calling on offense. BK could be planning to use the element of surprise on Stoop. I hope he runs play action pass the whole first drive.

    5. Bob Howsam, Jr. says: for a good Kelly bio.

      The suggestion that Kelly’s team have consistently played great defense is simply not true. As Kelly’s UC bio states, his formula for success starts with a creative offense … his UC Bearcat defenses were generally regarded as porous Ds that, while sometimes causing turnovers, gave up lots of points … and caused his offense to rack points like a pinball machine to succeed, which they did.

      The hallmark of Kelly’s fantastic offenses at Cincinnati was frequent use of up-tempo, no huddle and 5-wide sets. His spread offense spread the field, created lots of natural space and opened up running lanes that resulted in long dashes when used, which was rather sparsely.

      This year, the Irish are blessed with a strong defensive line and a great linebacking corps as we all know. The secondary is an amalgam … but it’s a lot of young, untested guys who haven’t had particularly significant challenges like USC, Alabama, Oklahoma, Oregon, KSU, etc.

      Last week, the Irish would’ve lost if BYU had something remotely resembling a college QB, which they don’t. The secondary was exposed by a terribly average offense.

      My point? The D will not carry this team, by itself, to a National Championship.

      Kelly’s O has got to step it up.

      He has the talent. He has at least 5 and arguably 6 great WRs, a First-Team All American TE, a solid offensive line, and a reasonably mobile QB with a strong arm (Golson).

      The problem? Kelly refuses to spread the field, refuses to consistently go 4- and 5-wide and his play-calling has been decidedly unimaginative.

      For a while that was because his communication of plays to the QB was so bad, but he’s cleaned that up. He has a phenomenal ground game to be sure, but against the Oklahoma, USC and Alabama’s, he won’t be able to run up the gut. We saw that against Michigan, whose D line was far superior to the Irish’s O line.

      For the Irish to run the table, which they can, Kelly’s gotta spread the field and get GAIII and Davonte Neal more touches.

      Spreading the field will also make it far easier for the Irish to run the ball in down and distances that would suggest a pass play.

      • Kelly’s defense played better than his offenses in every year but one. What it speaks to is overall team development. You don’t field top 25 defenses consistently by chance. Only at the end of 2009 did the defense give up a lot of points, overall they finished 11th, 25th and 30th in the country in scoring.

        At Notre Dame his defenses have given up less than 21 points a game his first two years and are currently giving up less than 10 points a game.

        • Bob Howsam, Jr. says:

          Overall team development is great, but you only have so many chances to win it all, and this year, make no mistake about it, the Irish have a legit shot.

          The Sooners, the Trojans and the Tide are the road through which the National Championship goes.

          All three will score 21-28 minimum. Bank on it.

          Can a lumbering run up the gut Irish squad score that many? Well, the objective evidence is no. Heck, we could only muster 17 against BYU.

          This team can outscore the Sooners, the Trojans and the Tide, but Kelly’s got to re-discover his creativity. Kelly only need to study the tape of Sunday night’s Steelers win at Cincinnati and the tape of the Packers’ win at St. Louis to see real imagination. Golson doesn’t have the accuracy of Rodgers, but Big Ben is never going to be accused of being a pure passér, yet the imagination of the plays in those games was sick.

          Reverses, misdirections, flea flickers, … the Steelers did it all. This is not rocket science. College players are even more susceptible than pro players to rush all out, and the Irish have so many guys with good speed, one seam and you’re looking at 20-45 yards.

          Kelly needs to step it up. Pure and simple. Otherwise it’s 10-2 or 9-3 and the bowl.

          • You are, of course, talking about offense. I’m not sure we have a QB to direct the offense as you suggest. I suppose we’ll see, but Golson has too many mistakes in him yet and Rees is limited. It will take a great coaching performance to win in Norman, let’s see if Kelly is up to the task.

            • Bob Howsam, Jr. says:

              I believe Golson’s up to the task, but Kelly’s play-calling has forced Golson to make throws he simply isn’t ready to make consistently. Kelly could help Golson immensely by calling better plays with a higher percentage of success. Specifically, very few red-shirt freshmen can consistently throw a 15-25 yard back-shoulder or a throw to a TE south of the LBs but north of the safety. Those sorts of throws require remarkable touch that Golson clearly doesn’t have consistently right now. But the beauty of the 5-wide is that it gives you far more and easier short and intermediate throws on out, curls and crossing pattern that are far harder to defend and have a much higher percentage completion based on level of difficulty. Additionally, it opens up the pattern where the WRs run deeper patterns to draw the CBs and safeties and QB throws a check down which requires the RB to beat a LB for a long gain. Golson has had far too few sustained confidence building drives, but Kelly’s play-calling has had a lot to do with that In any case, simply great to look forward to game of this importance this late in the season.

    6. george kaplan says:

      I agree with M. Howsam but I don’t think Golson is ready.