Analysis: Nostalgia runs amok, but Notre Dame offense will benefit from balance

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame woke up Sunday morning as the nation’s fifth-most prolific running team in the FBS, a statistical snapshot that prompted one seemingly euphoric retro-starved fan on Twitter to respond, “What year is this?”

For the record, it’s been 25 seasons since an Irish football team has finished in the top 5 nationally in rushing (third in 1992), and Notre Dame did so only two other times in the past 60 years (fourth each in 1972 and 1968).

The experienced- and talent-laden Georgia defense that visits Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday night (7:30 EDT; NBC) in Game 2 of the season will provide a reality check on several fronts with regard to the 422 rushing yards that the Irish rolled up on Temple in a 49-16 run-a-palooza this past weekend.

That’s not all entirely bad … potentially.

Of the 10 teams the Irish will face that ranked in the top 40 in total defense in 2016 — a collection that included Temple (third in total defense) — Georgia (16th with 10 starters back) figures to be the most evolved of them in 2017.

But that could coax the Notre Dame offense to evolve, which is a good thing.

Balance and versatility in an offense is still the most difficult combination for an opposing defensive coordinator to deal with. This Irish offense might have it in spades. A team like Georgia will force you to find out.

The most impressive parts of ND’s most prolific run total in a season opener in the 2000s is that the Irish on Saturday flashed physicality constantly, a contrast to Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s finesse-leaning offenses of the past (in actuality, not by design).

And they did it running into eight- and nine-man fronts more than just occasionally.

Both Kelly and quarterback Brandon Wimbush more than hinted Saturday after the Temple game that there’s a lot more left in the Irish offensive playbook. And to those salivating about prolific running numbers, they’ll be disappointed to find out that most of that is likely players involving ND’s deep wide receiver and tight end corps.

Building an efficient passing game, one opposing defenses have to respect, may not sustain uber-prolific run numbers, but it will make the running game more proficient.

The wild card in ND’s offense remains tempo. Can the Irish go faster if need be? Can they downshift and play keepaway? And by speeding things up on offense, does that expose the Irish defense to more plays and more wear and tear?

On Saturday, Notre Dame ran 74 offensive plays, with new coordinator Chip Long at the joystick. That’s roughly what Memphis averaged last season (74.2) in Long’s only other season as primary play-caller.

It’s also about 2.5 above the FBS national average in 2016, yet more than any Kelly-coached team since 2005 at Central Michigan (78.2). Last year the Irish averaged 68.3, with the high of 76 plays set in the double-overtime opening loss at Texas and matched in the regulation loss in the season finale at USC.

The low was 56 in a one-point loss to ball-hogging Navy.

Defensively, the Irish were on the field Saturday for 72 plays, up slightly over the 70.2 average in 2016. New defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s schematic and philosophical approach to force turnovers — something his old school Wake Forest did effectively in 2016 (27) and the Irish did not (14) — is supposed to mitigate the rising snap count for the defense.

But Elko and Kelly are also committed to combatting that as well, by building and using depth. Kelly said Sunday that 24 players on defense played at least 10 snaps in the Temple game.

Georgia’s offense, with running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, will severely test the viability of that strategy.

“It never feels exactly right to get below the top 11, so you’ve got to force yourself to do that,” Elko said this summer of expanding the playing rotation. “Kids will develop and grow in your defense when you give them opportunities to perform on Saturdays for them.”

Quarterback intrigue

For the second week in a row, Kelly didn't know definitively who would start at quarterback for the opposition, at least not early in his prep week.

With Temple, first-year head coach Geoff Collins got carried away with gamesmanship and suggested as many as three Owls could see action at QB against the Irish. Only redshirt sophomore Logan Marchi actually played.

In Georgia’s case, the left knee of sophomore Jacob Eason initially clouded the issue for Saturday night’s matchup between the 15th-ranked Bulldogs (1-0) and Irish (1-0) at Notre Dame Stadium. Georgia head coach Kirby Smart ended the ambiguity on Monday, declaring Eason out for the game and "week to week" thereafter.

Eason left Georgia’s 31-10 stifling of Appalachian State Saturday night midway through the first quarter with what was described as a knee sprain. True freshman Jake Fromm took over and went 10-of-15 for 143 yards and a TD with zero rushing attempts. Fromm has been announced as the starter against the Irish.

The only other scholarship quarterback on Georgia’s roster, grad senior Brice Ramsey, almost transferred last spring. Ramsey was Georgia's starting punter for parts of the past two seasons but not this one. His most recent action at QB, before a cameo Saturday against Appalachian State, came in 2015. 

Ramsey attempted two passes against the Mountaineers and was intercepted on both of them. 

Both Eason, the son of former Irish wide receiver Tony Eason, and Fromm have high pedigree. Both were five-star quarterbacks coming out of high school, with ND pursuing Eason in the same cycle it landed Ian Book.

Eason struggled as a freshman starter last season, logging a 120.2 pass-efficiency rating, which ranked 90th in the FBS, in an offense that ranked 87th in yards per game (384.7).

“You're going to obviously respect the fact that Georgia has built their offense around two outstanding senior running backs,” Kelly said Sunday of the initial either/or QB prep dilemma, “and they're not going to put either quarterback in a position that they have to go out and win the football game.

“They're going to be certainly asked to take care of the football, be smart, make good decisions. I think in both instances, Eason and Fromm will do that.”

Running back intrigue

Dexter Williams’ six carries for 124 yards against Temple, and quick first step to the hole on each one of those carries, helps keep the question regurgitating about how best to use him and fellow backup Tony Jones Jr., along with junior starter Josh Adams in ND’s running back rotation.

The carries distribution went 19 for Adams against Temple, one shy of his career high, and six each for Williams and Jones. Quarterback Brandon Wimbush had 12 carries, and wide receiver Cam Smith ran for 12 yards on a jet sweep.

“It starts with Josh, then we'll use in certain situations a particular player to match their skills,” Kelly said Sunday of the time-share methodology. “But all three of them are going to get a chance to contribute to the run game.”

The numbers speak loudly against cutting too much into Adams’ share.

He is the only Irish running back in school history to amass more than 800 yards in each of his first two seasons (835 and 933). And he’s just a few carries short of qualifying, but otherwise he’d enter Saturday’s matchup with Georgia as the FBS’ active leader in career yards per carry (6.56).

Because he lacks those few carries for the moment, that distinction officially belongs to both a running back the Irish will face Saturday night (Chubb, 6.4 ypc) and one the Irish will face on Oct. 21 (USC’s Ronald Jones II 6.4).

Squibs

Former Notre Dame nose guard Jarron Jones not only attended ND’s 49-16 win over Temple Saturday, he strode to the podium after the game in the interview room and jokingly took questions before Kelly’s arrival there.

Jones, an undrafted rookie free agent, was converted to an offensive lineman by the New York Giants, who then eventually waived him on Saturday when rosters had to be cut to 53. Jones has yet to be signed by another team or to the Giants’ practice squad.

• Kelly said Sunday he’ll continue to tag-team sophomore Tommy Kraemer and freshman Robert Hainsey at right offensive tackle for now but isn’t married to the time-share for the long term.

“I really liked the fact that both of them competed and did some good things,” Kelly said. “I think we'll continue to evaluate it and see where that ends up as the season moves on.”

• A booth reversal of an apparent Tony Jones Jr., fumble Saturday means the Irish running backs have gone 15 games without a lost fumble. That dates back to a 19-16 escape from Boston College on Nov. 21, 2015, in a game which both C.J. Prosise and Adams each lost one.

• Notre Dame’s 20 yards in penalty yards Saturday stands as tied for the sixth fewest in the FBS through Saturday’s games.

Junior Dexter Williams (2) was a big part of Notre Dame's 422-yard rushing performance Saturday in a 49-16 rout of Temple. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)