Notre Dame Run Game Must Make Dramatic Improvement

Bryan Driskell

Following Notre Dame’s victory over Stanford, head coach Brian Kelly made an interesting comment about his offense.

When asked about his offensive identity, Kelly responded with this:

“I think it is what it is. We have the ability to run the football when needed. As you saw today, we rushed for close to 200 yards when we needed to.”

When I heard Coach Kelly make that comment the first thought that ran through my head was this is exactly why Notre Dame continues to fall behind other title contenders on offense. 

With one exception (2015), Notre Dame has failed to put a championship caliber offense on the field during Kelly's tenure. The closest it came after that was 2017, but late-season quarterback issues dragged down that unit. But this is why Notre Dame’s offense continues to come up small in the team’s biggest games.

Not being able to consistently score against the better teams on the schedule has been a road block for this program for the last decade, and we saw that again this fall. Against the four ranked Power 5 opponents that Notre Dame faced this season, the offense averaged just 22.3 points per game, 324.0 yards per game and 4.93 yards per play. The Irish averaged just 126.8 rushing yards in those four games.

Underwhelming offensive line play has resulted in an underachieving run game, which has been a driving force behind this year’s struggles. When the offense failed to run the ball effectively a season ago, Kelly focused on the inexperience of the unit, the loss of two first-round draft picks and the injury to Alex Bars. But Notre Dame returned four starting offensive linemen in 2019, and it is a talented unit, so I'm struggling to find a justifiable excuse for the woes this fall.

Notre Dame certainly can't point to a lack of talent up front, but the unit largely underachieved this season. According to Pro Football Focus, left tackle Liam Eichenberg is the only returning starter (among four) that improved his run blocking grade from last season. That's a troubling sign of regression.

The two best teams Notre Dame faced this year were Georgia and Michigan, and both games were on the road. In those two contests, Notre Dame rushed for just 103 combined yards and averaged just 2.5 yards per rush (sacks and team runs were removed).

Those games certainly seemed like moments where the run game was needed, and it didn’t show up in either game. Notre Dame didn’t even try to run the ball against Georgia, with the Irish backs carrying the ball just nine times. Notre Dame either had a lead, was tied, or was within one score for 50 minutes of game action against the Bulldogs, but apparently Notre Dame didn’t “need” to run the ball during the game.

It was a game where Notre Dame needed to run the ball but couldn't.

Michigan was another. There was a rain storm that night, which would seem like a great time to run the ball, but Notre Dame averaged just 2.0 yards per rush in the contest. Another big game, another time where the run game was needed, and another game where Notre Dame failed to run the football.

Not being able to run the ball effectively against top opponents, and top run defenses, has been a common theme for the Irish the last two seasons. Notre Dame faced five Top 40 run defenses this season, and in those contests the Irish averaged just 100.0 yards per game and 3.5 yards per carry, with sacks and team runs removed from the numbers.

The Irish averaged 135.5 rush yards and only 3.2 yards per carry against two Top 40 run defenses last fall. The last two seasons are the worst during the Kelly tenure from a yards per carry standpoint, and the 2019 season was the worst of the Kelly era from a yards per game standpoint. The only season that was close was Kelly’s first season.

Rush Offense

That level of production is unacceptable for an offense that can put the talent on the field that Notre Dame can. Notre Dame had the size, talent and experience to be a really good line this season, but from the beginning of the season the unit was far too erratic. It had some bright moments (USC, Duke), but for the most part it relied on being talented, with technique often lacking.

It is also a far cry from where the unit was the previous two seasons. In 2016-17, Notre Dame averaged 184.0 rushing yards per game and 5.1 yards per rush against Top 40 run defenses.

There were far too many excuses made for the lack of production from the line the last two seasons. Inexperience is a poor excuse, as is using injuries. The 2019 line underachieved long before Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey went down with injuries.

Oklahoma lost four starting offensive linemen from last season, and all four were drafted between the 2nd and 4th rounds of the 2019 NFL Draft. Yet Oklahoma was still able to manage 260.0 rushing yards and 6.4 yards per rush this season. Even if you take out the 1,217 yards that quarterback Jalen Hurts generated, Oklahoma still averaged 170.5 rushing yards per game (sacks, team runs removed). Notre Dame’s entire offense averaged just 184.6 rushing yards per game, with four returning starters.

Notre Dame lacks the talent at running back of other top teams, but the backfield is good enough for the run game to have been much better than it was this season. The inability to run the ball against the better defenses places the offense well behind other top programs that are competing for championships.

Screen Shot 2019-12-02 at 6.08.01 PM

This graph breaks down how Notre Dame and other top teams fare in the run game against Top 50 run defenses. As you can see, Notre Dame is way behind other top offenses. 

While its admirable that Notre Dame’s offensive line protected relatively well in the pass game this season, good coaches get their lines to play well in both areas. Notre Dame’s run game struggles this season weren’t about talent, they were about a line that doesn’t play with the necessary force or technique needed.

Far too often the Irish line looked unprepared to handle the line games that defenses were throwing at the unit, and rarely were they able to adjust on the fly. Instead of using their size and talent to their advantage, far too frequently the line caught defenders instead of coming off the ball with force. Combo blocks often struggled to get to the second level in those games, another technique issue.

There were flashes of this unit playing to its potential, but those instances were far too infrequent, and usually against inferior opponents. Notre Dame averaged 267.0 rushing yards and 6.4 yards per carry in five games against opponents that ranked No. 75 or higher in run defense. 

Offensive coordinator Chip Long had to rely on using creativity and gimmick plays to generate runs instead of being able to rely on running behind his talented line. Notre Dame had 242 rushing yards from its wide receivers, and sophomore wide receiver Braden Lenzy had the two longest runs of the season. On neither play was the line a factor in the success of the play.

A good chunk of Notre Dame’s rushing yards also came from quarterback scrambles in the pass game. Against Stanford, for example, Notre Dame converted a 4th-and-2 on a 26-yard quarterback scramble on a called pass play.

There was a lot of smoke and mirrors to the run game success this season, and those types of runs rarely work against better run defenses, which explains why the offense failed to move the ball on the ground against the better teams on the schedule.

Last season, Notre Dame had to rely on big plays in the run game, which is why the unit was so inefficient.

Simply put, Notre Dame’s run game needs to get a lot better. For that to happen, the play of the offensive line must get a lot better. For that to happen, the unit must be coached much better than it has the last two seasons. Until changes are made, changes beyond just "coaching a little better" or "playing a little harder," the Irish will continue to fall short of how good it should be on offense.

Notre Dame will return all five starting linemen in 2020, and it will have plenty of skill talent coming back, even if quarterback Ian Book and tight end Cole Kmet leave for the NFL. If the line plays to its potential the 2020 offense could be elite, but if the line doesn't play to its potential the Irish will once again fall short of the standard.

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Comments (46)
No. 1-22
maloy49
maloy49

Coach, you certainly called it in an earlier thread when you said BK would be bragging about the Stanford run numbers. This team had an offensive identity in 2017. That identify was watered down last year and nowhere to be found this year.

Mikej82
Mikej82

So let’s be honest do we think Quinn can get the job done? He is recruiting well, but it doesn’t seem like guys are getting better.

rick467
rick467

The o-line was pushed around all year. No good runs between the tackles at all. Need a new o-line coach now

SDS123
SDS123

All I can offer is my eye test. We are deficient in o line play.

chamgel
chamgel

I know Quinn is a better coach than BVG, but I these situations are very similar. Both Quinn and BVG followed coaches that were heavy on teaching fundamentals, and the further BVG’s tenure got away from Diaco’s the more and more you saw those fundamental getting worse, we’re seeing the same with Quinn the further his tenure gets away from Heistand’s .

Much like after 2015, it is clear to many outside the Gug that a change needs to be made. This offense has been successful in spite of the offensive line, not because of it. The fact that the unit, as talented as it is, has become one that Long has to scheme to protect instead of lean on should tell Kelly everything he needs to know about the job Jeff Quinn is doing.

CMac54
CMac54

With all due respect to the rb room, we need to recruit better. If you can't see the line isn't the problem and it's the backs, you shouldn't be writing for SI. No offense but when we have to convert wr to rbs at ND therein lies the problem.

Matt0315
Matt0315

who are some oline coaches you would want to see ND entertain if they were to move on from Quinn?

Csnpm
Csnpm

With NDs ability to recruit offensive linemen and tight ends we should be one of the premier running teams in the country (Wisconsin only better) with enough skill to at least be competitive with the top teams. The fact that we have not been that way is really a shame. Hopefully BK sees what could be and makes some coaching and philosophy changes.

Jherbeck91
Jherbeck91

I go back and forth on BKs comments about the line. How much weight do we actually put in his comments? Is he truly blind to the issues on the OL and thinks we’re almost there? Or does he recognize to a certain degree it’s not good enough and there needs to be improvement?

He always falls back on the outlying performances and cites the yardage which we all know is BS. Really appreciate the stats and analytics used in this article to make a point rather than looking at season totals of yards.

Fedman 1946
Fedman 1946

I have always looked at four major components for the failure of a run game:

(1) Poor offensive line play

(2) Poor running back play with backs unable to find the holes, too slow to hit the holes and inability to make defenders miss at the 2nd level.

(3) Poor structure of the offensive scheme

(4) Ineffective play calling

In your opinion what percentage for each of these components are at fault for the failure of the Irish run game this season.

ejsjr
ejsjr

Kelly was heavily criticized for hiring a buddy when he tapped Jeff Quinn as the O-line coach. Performance has confirmed that criticism. Having to constantly convert wide receivers to running backs has also been a problem, but ND has addressed that by hiring Lance Taylor. Now it’s time for a little more creative destruction by hiring a new O-line coach.

KMoore-24
KMoore-24

Well we most certainly couldn't run the ball versus Michigan when we needed to. We couldn't do anything versus Michigan. Brian Kelly as much as I like him has taken this program as far as he can take it. With him here we will always be in that good and not great tier of football programs.

Chief1
Chief1

Coach I’m kinda surprisedGeorgia’s numbers on that stat. By all accounts they have a great line and one especially geared to the run and their numbers seemed comparable to NDs

Kcndmis97
Kcndmis97

Any chance we can get Steve Addazio to coach OL? He’s coached at ND before and was the OL coach under Urban at Fla. He would be a big upgrade given the way BC has run the ball.

One-eyed jack
One-eyed jack

Seems like there’s always a hole in BK’s teams. BVG, lack of elite conditioning coach, etc. But the running game is the chronic one. Don’t think this coach truly appreciates power running game. Power running should be one of Notre Dame’s signature elements, given recruiting strengths, diverse opponents, weather in South Bend, etc. Hence team often has soft identity and tries to out-scheme top opponents.

Jacob15
Jacob15

What does/should a 2020 ND OL look like if there’s much needed competition? I know they should return a lot of experience.

ChitownSam
ChitownSam

On the podcast, you've noted many times that drawing attention to the poor OL play is not a call to change the OL coach. However, when it's pointed out that the talent is there and the problem is poor technique and preparation, what other conclusion can be drawn?

6for6
6for6

Following a link from NDNation so I think I understand both sides of the coin. Why it took so long for me to find you Bryan, is disappointing. Well constructed article unlike almost all I see. I expect you took far more than five minutes to put this together, which is probably four more than most in 'news feeds'. There are myriad reasons for the regression in the OLine production. It all began when HH left the program (felt really bad for the kids coming in because he was the best and they didn't deserve to be left in the lurch, but that's coaches and timing), and the replacement has not measured up. I realize ND didn't run the ball much better at home v UGA than they did on the road but, as your graphics show, the overall performance has dropped significantly. When your best rusher is the QB at ND, that's a serious issue. Poor recruiting is another symptom. Not trying to compare their ability, but Charlie Weis could get 5*'s in droves (Rivals). Daelen Hayes in 2016 and Quentin Nelson in 2014 are the last ND has gotten. I don't know enough about it but when you get about the same amount of 3's as 4's at ND, that's a problem. Laziness? Uninspiring? Competition? Whatever the case, it's severely lacking. I know this was supposed to be concentrated on the OLine but I had to expand it. There are so many things wrong with this program from when I became a fan in 1988 (brother is a '92 grad), that I felt the need to rant. They all start at the top.

Pjtdomer
Pjtdomer

Great article. Is there any truth to the rumor that chip long wanted a different offensive line coach but Kelly overruled him for Quinn?

Any chance we could get heistand back if the bears can their coaching staff?

JBMH
JBMH

Kelly will say what he has to say publicly. He’s not going to undress his players or coaches to the media nor should he. Behind closed doors is where he and Long should decide which direction to go when it comes to the OL coach and that discussion should be open and honest. Quinn has had 2 years to prove himself with on field results. The talent will always be there. They need a Clark Lea level OL coach that will have synergy with Long...

JBMH
JBMH

Brian, it’s cool that you aren’t a “fire the coach guy” because when a coach gets fired it affects alot of people. With that being said, hypothetically, who are some OL coaches out there that you would have on your staff if you were a head coach?

Sapte24
Sapte24

Bryan, I understand why you don’t advocate for firing coaches, having been one yourself and because we are talking about someone’s livelihood. However, from a pure assessment standpoint, can you not say that Quinn is not getting the necessary and expected results from talented players and that Harry H was? If so, a staffing change is needed after 2 years of underperforming.

To me, this is another BVG situation where a specific coach’s players aren’t able to execute at the level of their talent. Knowing how you felt about BVG, I am surprised that you don’t at least say, ND needs someone else coaching the line. When Quinn was in his last role, there was no obvious evidence that he was negatively affecting the program, so a move to another role might be appropriate rather than firing Quinn. But honestly, don’t you believe that a new line coach is needed?


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