Notre Dame has not lived up to expectations through the first half of the season, but the Irish are still sitting at 5-1 and ranked 14th in the nation. The second half schedule is quite manageable, with the final six opponents entering this weekend with a 17-19 combined record.
Notre Dame has an opportunity to right the ship and finish the season on a very, very strong note. There is still a lot to play for during the second half of the season, with a New Year’s Six Bowl game or a very outside shot at the College Football Playoff in front of the Fighting Irish.
But none of that will happen if the Notre Dame offense doesn’t get on track. There are five things I want/need to see from the offense during the second half if it is going to play to its potential.
1. Line must build off Virginia Tech performance — The line didn’t play great against the Hokies, but the group as a whole battled their butts off and did a good job of staying engaged. They were solid in pass pro and played a solid game overall, and with the skill talent Notre Dame possesses that is really all that is needed. If the line played like that during the first five games the Irish would be undefeated right now and scoring at a much higher rate.
They don’t need to be the 2020 line, or the 2017 line, or the 2015 line, or the 2012 line. This unit just needs to play hard, play assignment sound and get a body on a body. If that continues in the final six games the offense will be much, much better. It will be far from perfect, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction after how miserable the performance was the first five games.
2. Build around Jack Coan or make the move to Tyler Buchner — Notre Dame is stuck trying to run an offense they think they should run with a quarterback room that doesn’t have one player that fits all of that offense. They are stubbornly sticking with Jack Coan, something I support, but also force feeding Tyler Buchner into games. That “rotation” has made it hard for Coan to get into a rhythm, and while Buchner has been able to give a quick spark, by the time the defenses figure him out the offense with Coan is out of rhythm.
Notre Dame has to make a decision, it cannot keep doing what we’ve seen at quarterback. Yes, they have won games against average teams, but the schedule in the second half is filled with teams that can beat an Irish team that struggles to score.
The staff needs to one one of two decisions. One, decide that Coan is your quarterback, embrace the things you’ve done with him that have worked (pushing the tempo, spreading the field, quick game, RPOs, levels, deep shots) and make that the primary emphasis of your offense. If you aren’t willing to do that as a staff you are simply setting Coan up to fail.
If their focus is more on “this is our offense, we aren’t changing” then they need to go with Buchner, or a combination of Buchner and Drew Pyne, and then keep doing what you want to do schematically. It’s not fair to Coan to keep putting him into these situations and it’s not fair to the rest of the team to keep playing a quarterback carousel that prevents the unit from gaining any kind of consistency.
Indecision will give us more of the same. Making a decision on who you are, or who you want to be, will give this offense a chance to get better.
3. Stop forcing the run game — Of course Notre Dame must get better at running the football, but the manner in which they are forcing it now has hindered the offense. Notre Dame is trying to force 12 and 13 personnel on this offense, and acting like a run-first team that is making that part of the game their foundation. That’s stubborn and counter-productive.
This is a team loaded with outstanding passing weapons, it has an offensive line that struggles to get consistent movement (even in the Virginia Tech game) and it’s an offense that has been at its best when it spreads things out. Even their All-American running back, Kyren Williams, is also an outstanding weapon in the pass game.
Notre Dame’s coaches must embrace who they are and not stubborning stick to who they think they are, or who they think they should be. Do that and the result will be a much better rushing attack that makes more big plays because teams will have to spend so much time trying to handle the pass game.
4. Expand your perimeter attack — Building on point three, Notre Dame’s offensive staff must build around its perimeter ability, which includes Williams and tight end Michael Mayer. That means two things. One, it must be more 11 and 20/21 personnel driven from an alignment and scheme standpoint. Two, it must start implementing parts of the offense that attack the perimeter of the defense both horizontally and vertically.
In the pass game this means starting to focus on building a legitimate RPO system. Notre Dame is dabbling in it right now but it hasn’t committed to it, and that has hindered the offense. More diversity in the screen game is a must as well, and the Irish must be more creative with how it attacks the perimeter with the run game.
That means not only using players like Braden Lenzy and Chris Tyree on jet sweeps and reverses, it also means incorporating more of a true outside zone, a better designed toss play and perhaps a buck sweep concept into the run game. When your line isn’t good enough to just push teams around something that can help is to take pressure off the box. Notre Dame’s run game is almost entirely box oriented, and mixing it up would not only take pressure off the line, it would also be yet another way to get your athletes in space and out of the box, which puts far more stress on defenses.
A better perimeter pass game attack (RPO, screens), being more willing to attack with things that work very well in college (jets, reverses) and incorporating a better perimeter run game would then open up more creases on box runs, especially if the staff is using more 11, 20 and 201 personnel.
5. Play better situational football — Notre Dame ranks 56th in red zone offense and 104th in third-down offense. Both of those numbers must improve dramatically in the final six games.
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