Notre Dame offense searching for short-yardage answers
Buried in the trenches, there are some perplexing extremes.
Through two games, Notre Dame’s offensive line has paved the way for 467 rushing yards, eclipsing 200 yards in back-to-back games to open a season for the first time since 1996. Defensive back-turned wide receiver-turned running back C.J. Prosise has been a revelation, grinding his way for 253 rushing yards, a touchdown and 6.8 yards per carry.
The Irish have amassed three rushing touchdowns in their first two games, striking from 14, 25 and 24 yards out.
The big plays have been there, as have the wins.
But when the offense only needs two yards, rather than five or 10? That’s when a dominant running game inexplicably wilts.
“Plain and simple, we haven't been good enough in that situation,” senior center Nick Martin said. “Good thing is every week's new, every week's different. You can't dwell in the past, you can only learn from it and move on from there.”
Unfortunately for Martin, skeptics have plenty to dwell on. In Notre Dame’s 34-27 victory over Virginia last weekend, the Irish offense was blanked in 10 tries on third down, managing to win a game without converting a third down for the first time since 1990.
On third-and-1 in the first quarter, freshman running back Josh Adams gained zero yards.
On third-and-2 in the second quarter, quarterback Malik Zaire gained one yard.
On third-and-1 in the fourth quarter, Prosise gained zero yards.
Can anyone spot the trend?
“I think it’s just attention to detail,” Prosise said. “We’ve had a couple missed assignments on third down and things we made mistakes on. This week, we need to fix that. We can’t be as bad on third down as we were last week.”
So what are the Irish: monster, or mirage? Head coach Brian Kelly is certainly hoping for the former, especially as his team breaks in first-time starting quarterback DeShone Kizer against No. 14 Georgia Tech on Saturday. Run the ball efficiently, he says, and everything else falls in line.
“We've had effectiveness in our running game, and so if we feel like you're going to gang up on us in the running game, those inside slot receivers will catch a ton of balls,” Kelly said. “They've still respected the slot receivers and have given us the opportunity to run the football. I think we've had back-to-back 200-plus yard rushing games, and you can say what you want, but that's two ‘Power Five’ conference teams that have pretty good athletes.
“So if you start to rotate down and leave those slot receivers in one-on-one situations, they're going to catch plenty of balls.”
And Kizer should have little trouble delivering them.
“As a quarterback I understand that with the playmakers that we have to my right and to my left, and the great offensive line that I have in front of us, any given play, any given down, whether it's third-and-10, first-and-20, we can run the ball for some yards,” Kizer said.
“People like to get the seventh man in the box for us because they need help in stopping the run game and it opens up the opportunity to stop the pass game. So as long as we continue to read the defense and the way they want to go about their schemes, I think we'll be very successful in the upcoming weeks.”
Success, at least on the offensive end, hinges on Notre Dame’s formidable front five — Ronnie Stanley, Quenton Nelson, Alex Bars, Mike McGlinchey and Martin — a battering ram with 78 career starts crowding its collective resume. In theory, that group should be dominant.
And most of the time, it has.
The next step, according to Stanley, is to dominate those third-and-shorts — and eliminate the extremes.
“I would say you just have to be ready for what the defense has to bring,” Stanley said of the line’s mindset in short yardage situations. “They’re going to be all up in there. They’re going to have it boxed up usually.
“You just have to be ready for anything they’re going to bring. We know they’re going to bring it all.”