Notre Dame aims to eliminate offensive lulls against Navy

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Here’s how the Notre Dame offense gets you.

It takes the field in the first quarter, and — as long as hurricane swells aren’t smashing into North Carolina’s vulnerable shores — it scores. In fact, the Irish have scored first in seven of their eight games this season. DeShone Kizer and Co. are outscoring their opponents 75-37 in the first 15 minutes of games, piling up an average of 9.4 points per quarter.

These predictable early outbursts, for Notre Dame fans, present a shred of inevitable hope. Maybe, one could think, this offense has finally put it all together. Maybe Kizer will limit turnovers and reach his full potential. Maybe the oft-maligned offensive line will manhandle unworthy opponents. Maybe the three-headed running back monster that is Josh Adams, Tarean Folston and Dexter Williams will eviscerate overwhelmed defenses. Maybe the storm is over. Maybe this is the first step in a long-awaited ascension.

Only, it never is.

That’s because, in Notre Dame’s 3-5 start, opponents have scored at least 17 unanswered points five times. Texas ripped off 17 straight points. Michigan State piled up 36 straight points in an unsurmountable wave. Duke managed 21 consecutive points — inside Notre Dame Stadium, no less. Without star running back Christian McCaffrey, Stanford scored 17 straight points to climb out of a 10-0 hole. Last weekend, Miami flipped a 20-0 deficit into a 27-20 lead.

In the final three quarters and overtime, opponents are outscoring Notre Dame 184-167. The Irish average dips to 6.5 points in the final three quarters.

Why?

“We're not consistent in running the football, and that lends itself to having some of those periods of not being consistent offensively,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “I think, if you're consistent at running the football, we're going to be scoring boatloads of points. That's why we run hot and cold at times offensively, because we haven't established the consistency at running the football.”

The numbers bear that out. Through eight games, Notre Dame ranks 94th nationally in rushing offense (149.8 yards per game), one spot behind Stanford and one ahead of Miami. The Irish manage just 4.1 yards per carry, which ranks 87th. And logically, a sustained, consistent running game wears down an opponent, creates manageable third down situations and keeps the defense off the field.

But does it explain why Notre Dame soars in the first quarter, then struggles the rest of the way?

“I think that's a mindset we have to have when we go out drive to drive,” Kizer said. “In the beginning of the game, you come out with this enthusiasm, you come out with this energy, coming out of the locker room. You’ve got the fans on your side. That kind of propels you into the game where you can get the first three drives with great energy and great focus. When you get to the end of the half or maybe the beginning of the second half, that energy can sometimes fade away.

“I think the biggest way for us to eliminate those lulls is to be able to come off the field, sit down with each other, make sure we focus back up, get ourselves excited to go back out there and play, lock in on what we have to do, execute and make sure that same energy we have in the beginning with these strong starts continues throughout the whole game.”

Of course, a reliable running game would help. A less disastrous special teams operation would help. A more formidable defense would help. So would more effective play calls once the Irish scrap their game-opening script.

This particular virus carries with it a bevy of potential cures.

Expect the Irish to score early against Navy on Saturday. Still, the goal is a complete effort, not spotty, unsatisfying blips of success.

“Sometimes you go up (in games), and you have mental lapses,” senior wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr. said. “I think if we just stay focused on putting opponents completely out of the game, we'll be able to overcome that and be the offense that we can be for an entire four quarters.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame’s Kevin Stepherson (29) has a pass into the end zone broken up by Miami’s Ryan Mayes (27) during the Notre Dame-Miami NCAA college football Saturday, Oct. 29, 2016, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN