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Run/Pass mix a difficult balancing act

Oct 14, 2010, 2:39 PM EDT

If you’re looking for a debate among Notre Dame football fans, there’s none more enjoyable than the run/pass balance in Brian Kelly’s offensive system. While people have to be pleased with the steady progress from quarterback Dayne Crist, the transformation of Armando Allen during his senior season has made him the offensive MVP of the first-half of the season. It’s that breakthrough that has people begging for more Allen to be infused into the offense, a seemingly logical request. 

Earlier today, the guys at NDNation had an editorial on winning via the run game, with the premise being that the Irish probably cost themselves a chance at having a much better than .500 record with their unwillingness to run the football.

From The Rock Report:

More troubling is Kelly’s dogged adherence to pass the ball with a team
that can’t execute the passing game yet at the level needed to succeed. 
If the purpose is to develop the offense at the expense of winning
games, that’s a mistake.  Kelly seems to be force feeding the passing
spread despite his own rhetoric about the importance of a run game…

That the offense is sputtering sans an effective run game and putting
inordinate pressure on the defense is no surprise, what is surprising
(or disappointing) is Kelly’s failure to adjust.  As Coach Molnar said,
when this offense goes three and out, it’s ugly to watch.  Fits and
starts on offense are the norm in year one of a new system with a new
quarterback and Notre Dame has better options.

Against Pittsburgh, the offense looked very good while mixing the
pass and the run.  Not Holtzian, but certainly good enough to beat the
teams on our schedule save Stanford. The mystery is why Kelly defaulted
back to the pass when the play mix was working so well.  Notre Dame
performed well when not put in obvious passing downs and poorly when
forced into passing situations.  The difference was stark in terms of
yards per play and points…

What’s frustrating is that Notre Dame could be looking at a BCS game if
Kelly had followed through on his plan.  When Crist went down against
Michigan, Kelly put in Rees who promptly threw an interception.  I have
little doubt that with a commitment to running the ball,  Notre Dame
would be sitting at 5-1, which is also a backhanded compliment, btw.

In theory, I would agree with just about everything written. Generally speaking, having a solid running game is good for business.

Going hand in hand with the game-mix complaint is criticism of Kelly coming from a camp that deems him a “system coach.” Their argument contends that Kelly’s forcing a team that’s better suited to do other things into being a pass-first, spread attack. Again, on the surface level, there’s merit to this as well. 

That said, there are some easy rebuttals out there if you’re looking for them. Take for one, Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit, who had this to say about Kelly and his Notre Dame team:

“I think what he does better than almost every other spread guy out
there, he utilizes his talent and he does different things within his
system,” Cubit said. “He’s played with a lot of different quarterbacks.
Some guys try to put a round peg in a square hole, ‘I’m going to run my
system no matter what,’ and I don’t think he does that.”

Cubit’s a nuanced head coach that’s battled against Kelly and broken down coaches’ tape, noticing that the Irish attack isn’t what Kelly did with his offenses at Cincinnati and Central Michigan.

Another rebuttal comes courtesy of some statistical work done by Anthony Pilcher at the tremendous website Anthony broke every drive this year, specifically looking at the run/pass mix:

      Touchdown drives this year:
8.5 yards per play
39.8/60.3 run/pass split
77.5 percent completion rate
7.3 yards per first down play
39.7/60.3 run/pass split on first down
5.4 yards per first down run
8.4 yards per first down pass
5.1-yard average distance on third down

      Scoring (touchdown and field goal) drives this year:
7.5 yards per play
37/63 run/pass split
68.4 percent completion rate
7.7 yards per first down play
37.4/62.6 run/pass split on first down
6.2 yards per first down run
8.6 yards per first down pass
5.9-yard average distance on third down

      Non-scoring drives this year:
3.5 yards per play
39.9/60.1 run/pass split
45.5 percent completion rate
335 yards per first down play
50.5/49.5 run/pass split on first down
3.3 yards per first down run
3.0 yards per first down pass
8.7-yard average distance on third down

I think most would be surprised that Kelly’s scoring drives have a 40/60 run-pass mix, and his non-scoring drives do a better job with balance —  a near-perfect 50/50 run-pass mix. Basically — you can argue that the Irish shouldn’t be running the ball more. 

That said, if you’re looking for a reason why the Irish offense isn’t scoring, it’s their success rate on first down. The Irish average over seven yards per first down on drives where they score, and only three yards on drives that they don’t. The result is an ugly average of 3rd and 8 on non-scoring drives and a much more manageable average of 3rd and 5 when they do.

Boiled down quite simply, the Irish are suffering from an execution problem, not a balance one, something just about every Irish fan — and especially Brian Kelly — has noticed.  

  1. TLNDMA - Oct 14, 2010 at 5:36 PM

    Eveyone would like a better run game. That being said, if Crist doesn’t get hurt against Michigan and we stop the fake field goal vs. MSU we’re 5-1. A couple less turnovers and we’re 5-1.
    Armando Allen is running better. That’s on Kelly. Dayne Crist, not being able to be totally utilized in the run game hurts. This team hasn’t run the ball any better than it is now in a few years. Why would anyone think the running game could carry this team?

  2. jan - Oct 14, 2010 at 5:37 PM

    Interesting analysis – I was surprised that the % split was 40/60 – with run being that high. BTW, tho I agree with your observations, I think you slightly misquoted the stats. Non scoring drives were 50/50 run/pass on first downs only…the 40/60 ratio seems consistent for all downs in drives whether leading to a score or not.
    While the numbers are interesting, I’m not sure that they point to any serious conclusions by themselves. Play (and audibles) are being called based on field position, defensive sets, clock management, existing score, personnel on the field, etc.
    I agree with your conclusion that execution is the key. I believe that the Irish are getting better at this factor each week as their experience within the system continues to grow.

  3. Taylor - Oct 14, 2010 at 6:46 PM

    Negatron is one of the board mods at DaNation, KA. You should know that. Keep up the good work, I look forward to the live blogs every week.
    Also, do you know why the ND game this week is starting an hour earlier? Maybe just a note about the different start time would be great!

  4. Danno27 - Oct 14, 2010 at 7:51 PM

    Jan I think I agree with you on at least one point – the raw pass/run numbers themselves don’t necessarily point to one conclusion or another, especially when you have to keep account of all the other variables that go into play-calling.
    That said, the main takeaway from this post is a call for level-headedness in the debate over running vs. passing. As Taylor points out, NEGATRON lurks at NDN. Go Irish! btw, Keith did you hear that Barry Sanders Jr. is coming to the Army game? I’m giddy contemplating the possibilities. Check out his highlight tape. Don’t have the link on me, but it’s ridiculous.

  5. dom - Oct 15, 2010 at 12:00 AM

    I really do believe that run first to set up the pass kind of offenses work much better and have more success than the offense that coach Kelly runs and offensive football is more than simply trying to score points in whatever way possible. Being an ND fan, I really do hope BK can deliver a NC to South Bend with this offense. That being said a running football team, not a passing football team wears defenses down so in the 4th quarter they can take over the game and dominate. Running teams control time of possession to keep their defenses off the field for long periods of time. Please don’t tell me how last year Cincinnati was last in time of possession and won all their games and that means that time of possession does not matter. Put Cincinnati in the SEC or Pac10 and they loose 3-4 games last year (did you see Florida treat Cincy like a pop warner team in the bowl game?)If ND really has aspirations of being the best in the country (and that means beating top SEC, Pac10, and Big12 schools) and not just shooting for a 10-2 mark every 3rd or 4th year and getting smoked in a major bowl game they better be able to run the football when it matters ie in the 4th quarter or on 4th and short. Unfortunately, I really don’t see that happening and this is why I have come to the realization that ND will not be “back” any time soon.

  6. TLNDMA - Oct 15, 2010 at 5:53 AM

    Dom, ND succeeded on ALL their third and shorts vs. Pitt, when they ran the ball last week. I believe there were at least six.
    I too am from the old school in this regard. But I do think that Kelly has been susscessful with this offense everywhere he has been and he should be given time to fully implement it. Then we can judge.
    As far as the Fla. game, I have to think that Kelly not being there had to have a negative effect on Cincy, as well as Cincy not having the personell to match up. BTW, didn’t Fla win the NC with Chris Leak running the spread?

  7. Art Vandelay - Oct 15, 2010 at 1:56 PM

    I would like to see more imbalance in the win – loss column. Run, pass, whatever just get us there. 3-3 is like kissing your sister.

  8. ugetwutuask4 - Oct 15, 2010 at 8:51 PM

    Coach Kelly knows how to develop QB’s and coaches them to play to their strengths and not their weaknesses but he’s also had to hold back and keep Dayne from running the ball on QB option plays to keep him from getting injured. Dayne has the competence of where the ball needs to go in the spread. He’s good at recognizing when to tuck the ball and run on the option or hand/pitch the ball off but at the same time he is human and he’s just coming off major knee surgery, less not forget. So, he has the legs to run the option and the ability to do so, however his strength is passing. Now, if Dayne would not have dinged himself up in the Michigan game running the ball and were it not for Armando being a little banged up, I do believe Dayne’s rushing stats and the team RB’s rushing stats as a whole would look a lot more differently than they do right now, in terms of run/pass ratio, yards, etc. Which would allow Coach Kelly the ability to open up the play book a little more, if you will. At Cinnci Coach Kelly proved he could do the job whether he had a QB like Pike throwing for first downs or Collaros doing it with the run/passing attack. No example can better signify what a couple, or even a few years of implementing your system can do for a program more than Michigan. All the critics were swarming around Ann Arbor waiting to behead Rich Rod. Now a quarterback, just one simple ‘ol, plain, stinking, quarterback named “Shoelace” Robinson has satisfied the appetites of those vultures for a while. Why? Because he’s a change of pace and is a threat to run the ball like a RB. Once Coach Kelly finds that perfect dual-threat at QB, ie Bubba Starling had he committed; ND Nation and bandwagon jumpers won’t care what play is called whether it’s a run or a pass! Anyone who doesn’t realize this year’s ND team is a much better “TEAM” than last years, or should I say realizes the change in attitude that this years team has taken, is uncivilized. The only problem I see is what Coach Kelly calls a lack of playing a “clean” game on both sides of the ball for 4 quarters. Which is a product of getting acclimated to a new system on both sides of the ball. Were it not for that, we would have be having conversations about how dominant our offense is, with all the weapons we have!

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