It isn't balance or bust for Notre Dame's explosive offense
Notre Dame is scoring.
Should it really matter how?
Scrape away the context, and here are Notre Dame’s dazzling offensive numbers: 39.8 points per game (30th out of 128 teams nationally), 495.4 total yards per game (23rd), 6.9 yards per offensive play (14th) and 73.9 percent touchdown conversions in the red zone (30th).
But in South Bend, especially, the spotlight sears through the sunny statistics. It’s ever so easy to nitpick.
So let the nitpicking begin.
Despite the fact that Notre Dame (2-3) runs the football 53.5 percent of the time, the Irish have passed for a total of 1,639 yards this season, nearly doubling its rushing yardage (838 net yards). The passing game has been expectedly explosive, as junior quarterback DeShone Kizer has stacked up 14 touchdown passes and 13 passes of at least 30 yards (13th nationally).
But where there is strength, there is also a hint of struggle. After Notre Dame rushed for 207.9 yards per game and 5.6 yards per carry in 2015, those numbers have deflated to 167.6 yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry through five games this season.
When it comes to physical production, Notre Dame hasn’t been balanced.
But points, in the big picture, are the only thing head coach Brian Kelly requires.
“I've always wanted to throw it equally as well as running,” Kelly said. “But if you let us throw the football all over the field we're going to throw it and we won't run it as much. Are there things we can get better at in the running game? Absolutely. But we've been afforded the opportunity to throw the ball around the field. Teams have wanted to pressure our run game and I think a lot of that has been, ‘Look at all these young receivers they have, let's challenge them.’
“Teams have (challenged us), and we've been up to the challenge. If they want to keep doing that we have to keep proving that we can throw the football, and I think you'll see that running game come back into more balance.”
Entering the season, Notre Dame’s receiving corps was centered on one relatively underutilized senior (Torii Hunter Jr.) and a gaggle of talented question marks. Opposing defenses schemed to make Notre Dame prove that Kizer and his new cast of characters could beat them.
Now, look at the result.
“This is a season where we're just taking what the defense is giving us,” Kizer said. “We're not forcing whatever we have to do to get the ball down the field. It's more just allowing our game plan to come into play when people want to add guys to the box. When you have Dexter Williams and Josh Adams and Tarean Folston along with the line that we have, you have to expect that guys are going to continue to respect the box the way that they are.
“I mean, we're deadly. If you take a guy out of there, we're going to run all over you, and we'll respond accordingly if we need to pass the ball.”
Of course, Notre Dame’s decidedly one-sided production isn’t entirely a product of opposing defenses. The Irish are also breaking in three first-time starters on the offensive line — center Sam Mustipher, right guard Colin McGovern and right tackle Alex Bars. Running backs Adams, Williams and Folston are plenty capable, but Notre Dame’s top rusher from 2015 — C.J. Prosise — has galloped into more lucrative pastures in the NFL.
Essentially, it’s difficult to replicate last season’s production without last season’s personnel.
“I think that's the biggest battle,” senior left tackle Mike McGlinchey said on Wednesday. “It's about growing and continuing that cohesiveness the entire year, week to week. We've certainly gotten a lot better with playing together and playing five guys on five jobs at a time. We're going to continue to do that.
“We haven't done it quite to the manner we would have liked to so far this year, but that's football. You're going to continue to have your lumps, and it's about how you learn from them.”
Notre Dame may take a few more lumps on Saturday, as the Irish meet an NC State defense that is allowing just 99 rushing yards per game (13th nationally). If Kizer and Co. need to throw to win, they’ll throw — and expect to win.
For the Irish, at least through five games, it hasn’t been balance or bust.