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Irish offense needs to win first down

Sep 24, 2013, 2:05 PM EDT

Michigan State v Notre Dame Getty Images

We’ve focused quite a bit on the struggles Notre Dame had last week on third down and short. But after analyzing the last four games, the Irish’s production on first down has probably been the most been hit or miss part of the offense thus far. A deep dig into the first third of the season shows you a boom or bust pattern on first down, often times dictating whether or not a drive is successful.

When it comes to big plays, the majority of Notre Dame’s success has come on first down. Of the team’s twelve offensive plays of 25 yards or more, seven of them come on first down. On the flip side of that coin, there’s been far too many negative plays on first down for the Irish to reach their maximum offensive efficiency, with over 46 percent of the team’s first down plays going for two yards or less.

Let’s take a closer look at the Irish’s work on first down:


If you’re looking for an example of dynamic work on first down, the season opener has everything you’re looking for. The Irish had ten plays on first down that went for ten yards or more, including four plays that went for 20 yards or more.

The Irish averaged 11.71 yards per play on first down, far and away their best effort of the season. Throwing the football, Tommy Rees was 9 of 11 on first down. Running the ball, the Irish had seven plays of two yards or less, though the majority of them happened in the second half.

Four of the Irish’s most explosive plays this season came on first down — a big run by Amir Carlisle, a 51-yard catch and run by TJ Jones, another 26-yard catch by Jones and Troy Niklas’ 66-yard touchdown catch.

Final Stats: 28 first downs. 17 runs, 11 passes: 11.7 yards per play.


Notre Dame’s success on first down took a step backwards against Michigan, but the Irish still averaging a very solid 5.76 yards on first down. That number is mostly buoyed by some explosive plays that the Irish hit on first down, with ten plays going for more than ten yards. But even with the success, there was a lot of uneven play on first down, with 16 plays going for two yards or less on first down.

On the evening, Tommy Rees completed 14 of 25 passes on first down, a number that’s likely less accurate than the Irish coaching staff wanted. Especially considering the success Notre Dame had running the football on first down. The Irish had seven carries for 58 yards, a stunning 8.3 yards a carry that makes you question the almost 4:1 pass/run ratio on first down against the Wolverines.

After processing Kelly’s postgame comments about the offense missing on its share of plays, you start to understand why the head coach was so disappointed. Still, looking back at this game from this perspective, it makes you wonder if the game plan to beat the Wolverines through the air was the correct one.

Final Stats: 33 first downs. 7 runs, 26 passes: 5.8 yards per play.


The Boilermakers did a very good job shutting down the Irish offense on first down, with Notre Dame simply struggling through most of the first half. After appearing more than a little pass happy on first down, the offensive game plan featured more runs on first downs than passes, though that number is lifted by the final six first downs all being run plays, as the Irish effectively iced the game late.

The struggles the Irish had on first down are easy to notice when you look at the breakdown. Notre Dame had 17 first down plays of two yards or less, a staggering 57 percent. The first ten plays Notre Dame ran on first down went for less than five yards.

Only two plays make this game not a complete disaster on first down, the acrobatic 27-yard catch by TJ Jones that set up the Irish’s first touchdown in the third quarter and DaVaris Daniels’ 82-yard touchdown catch in the fourth. Outside of those two plays, the Irish averaged a miserable 2.85 yards per first down.

Final Stats: 30 first downs. 17 runs, 13 passes: 6.3 yards per play. 


Another game where it was really tough sledding for the Irish on first down. Over half of the plays Notre Dame ran on first down went for two yards or less. With Notre Dame running the ball on their last four first downs, the balance was still very good — 13 runs compared to 11 passes — probably misleading if you think back to your recollection of how often Notre Dame threw the football. But if there’s one big takeaway from this game it’s that the Irish really couldn’t get anything going, with only one big play made on first down, the 37-yard catch by freshman Will Fuller.

It’s amazing to see the difference in numbers between the game against the Spartans and everybody else. Outside of Fuller’s catch, the next longest play from scrimmage the Irish had on first down was nine yards. Rees dropped back to pass 11 times on first down, throwing for just 59 yards while completing just six passes, a pretty meager number when you take into consideration Fuller’s catch.

The Irish were no better running the ball, gaining just 29 yards on 13 carries, just 2.2 yards-per-carry. Those numbers weren’t much better in crunch time, with Notre Dame going backwards on two runs when trying to seal the deal, before Cam McDaniel broke through for the game-clinching run.

Final Stats: 24 first downs. 13 runs, 11 passes: 3.7 yards-per play. 

  1. tburke9601 - Sep 24, 2013 at 2:23 PM

    I’ll be honest I didnt even read the article yet, but I believe the key is to win all the downs. If you are facing a 3rd and 1 and can’t pick it up running the ball, then something is seriously wrong. Looking back to last year we struggled with short yardage situations. We really need a big bodied bruiser to get in on short yardage or goal line situations, someone like Jonas Gray his senior year. Everytime he was in the backfield on short yardage I knew we were gonna get a first down or a touchdown. The last 2 years, we just have not had the RB to fill those shoes.

    • 808raiderinparadise - Sep 24, 2013 at 5:42 PM

      Brian Kelly needs a FB so bad, painfully obvious with Rees not a run threat the snigleback run plays are easily blown-up.

  2. cpfirish - Sep 24, 2013 at 2:25 PM

    Hey let’s all face it…. Our offense is bad!! Missing Golson big time.
    Have a bunch of great talent, but can’t seem to get it rolling. Daniels, and jones are two if the best receivers in football, just need a QB that can get them the ball. Plus we have TN at tight end we should be un stoppable.
    Would really like to see Folston and Bryant get the brunt of the carries.
    Any news on Golson and what his plans are for returning to the team??
    We lose the nest two out of three games..

    • mayo1010 - Sep 25, 2013 at 9:30 AM

      Are you going to man up when they don’t lose the next 2 of 3? Or are you going to be like C4 and be a woman when proven wrong?

  3. irishwilliamsport - Sep 24, 2013 at 2:50 PM

    Golson will be back and enrolled in January.

    The play calling in general makes no sense, can’t understand it.

    We haven’t had consistent play from the QB week in and week out over the years since Jimmy Clausen left and Quinn before him where you knew every week you can count on the QB and that’s the bottom line with this team, Tommy is all we have right now and to be honest after 4 years should be able to carry the offense at times but that’s not happening. I expect Golson to be rusty when he comes back and have to compete with Zaire for the job. Deshone Kizer will be here next year also. Don’t be surprised to see Hendrix back for insurance purposes.

  4. bernhtp - Sep 24, 2013 at 3:06 PM

    The average yards per play is far less relevant than the median. For example, you have plays of 1, 34, 2, 3, 2 yards with an average of 8.4, but you’re still punting after only one first down. Of course, when you have an 82-yard TD pass, it counts for a lot, but consistency is a big plus.

    Oklahoma will certainly follow the Rees-defense book and expand their normally 3-man front. They will take away the run and short pass and make Tommy beat them deep. If Tommy has a great day, it will again be a big win for the Irish. Otherwise, it will be tough slogging as usual.

    The often-cited strength of Rees – checking into the right plays – may also be exploited as a defensive strategy. Give Tommy the single-coverage deep look and dare him to take it. MSU did this to good effect. While Daniels and Jones are very good receivers, their abilities still don’t get you to risk jump-all throws like Floyd did. Hence the over-the-shoulder sideline throws that are very difficult to hit, especially for someone that is throwing at his arm-strength maximum.

    • nudeman - Sep 24, 2013 at 3:22 PM

      What are the chances Tommy “has a great day”? 10%?
      He has shown nothing to make me believe he’ll have a great day against a team like OK.

      Thumbs down, just below. Rack ’em up, boys

      • bernhtp - Sep 24, 2013 at 5:03 PM

        The MSU corners were really good and the wind made it more difficult for him so your 10% might be a bit low, but I don’t believe the real number is nearly high enough.

        I don’t know how prolific OK offense will be against our D, but if they start shredding us like Gardner did, Kelly will need to open the playbook and take some risks.

      • dickasman - Sep 24, 2013 at 7:13 PM

        Nude, what pregame grade would you give Rees? D-? Is Zaire healthy now or what?

    • dillonbigred - Sep 24, 2013 at 3:33 PM

      I knew my Statistics class would help me sometime, I knew what the median was. I agree completely, and even with them crowding the box, I have to believe there is, or should be, something else open. If TR didn’t hold the ball so long, maybe he could connect on some intermediate throws. He almost waited too long on the TD throw. And if he threw quicker, maybe the tight ends wouldn’t have to kept in to block. Those catches on the deep sideline throws are great to watch, but not the numerous incompletions and 3 and outs.

  5. dickasman - Sep 24, 2013 at 3:18 PM

    We need a new QB to get the opposing defense to at least think about a possibility of some kind of threat, we need to go Obama on their a$$. Is Zaire healthy enough to at least get in there for a play or two? I’d imagine he’s had more than ample time to study the playbook. Not that we re running any difficult plays out there. It’s playground kindergarten Sht out there, my gramma could run it.

    I’m sick of tommy gets us into right plays BS, enuff z nuff. Right plays or not, at some point you’ve got to produce.

  6. irish4006 - Sep 24, 2013 at 3:32 PM

    “Still, looking back at this game from this perspective, it makes you wonder if the game plan to beat the Wolverines through the air was the correct one.”

    When I was watching the game, my feeling was that TR got played a little bit by UM. A lot of times, he got a look, audibled, made adjustments and got a different look after our offensive adjustments. He went through with the play anyway. Is it possible that a lot of those passes were TR calling the play and not the coaches? He did not play particularly poorly in the game but a lot of times, in my humble layman’s opinion, he made some changes pre-snap which were probably unnecessary. When the team sees a run, jams the box and we still get 5 yards out of it, it not only wears them down but also demoralizes the defense. You can look back to the Stanford and Navy games from 2011… we saw the run, made all the adjustments in the world, and still couldn’t stop them. Got totally outplayed post snap.

    We can probably do the same to a lot of the teams on our schedule if we stick to a plan and are disciplined enough. During the UM game, I remember thinking to myself, “Who does he think he is, Peyton Manning?”, because it sure looked like Peyton running the Colts (not the Broncos which is a much more balanced team) offense with a lot less success.

    • bb90grad - Sep 24, 2013 at 3:52 PM

      Agreed, TR never saw a pre snap look he didn’t try to check out of.

      Looked specifically in other games this weekend for the amount of changing at the line and didn’t see it.

      Of course I’m not a coach’s son so…

  7. mediocrebob - Sep 24, 2013 at 4:01 PM

    If they make the decision to put Zaire in, it better not be just for a few plays. If he uses his eligibility, should just play him and get his experience. IMO, too early to throw in the towel on the season. If the Irish win 9 games this season, it’s a huge success.

    If they get a win this Saturday, which I think will be tough, who knows? I’m more disappointed in the abandonment of the run and inability to pound it. I don’t think Cam or GA3 are going to get it done against the big boys. I’d like to see more Bryant and Folston as well. If not, BK already wasted a year with them.

  8. sm29irish - Sep 24, 2013 at 4:18 PM

    I don’t know if there is anything to this but does anyone else think the Greg Byrant situation is odd? Could Kelly be holding him out on purpose to unleash him for the upcoming tough stretch of games? It just seems weird to have your 5 star running sitting on the bench watching the running game struggle like it is. The definition if insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting different results. This is what our play calling and running game looks like right now. At least give Bryant and Folston an opportunity because at this point it can’t get any worse or predictable. How can Wisconsin put up 388 rushing yards against Purdue and we only manage 91 most of which came on the last drive. Now maybe Bryant really is the 5th running back but how do u know unless u at least give him a shot. GO IRISH!

    • nudeman - Sep 24, 2013 at 4:36 PM

      First, what would “unleashing” him on OK do? It’s not like they’ve never seen a good RB before

      Second, this stuff gets asked all the time and it’s nonsense.
      After Temple and the Xanax performance the offense put up, the chatter was “we’re saving our best stuff for Michigan”. Turns out they weren’t.

      Now, after 4 lousy offensive performances, you’re saying they’ve been saving Bryant?

      They’re not saving anybody for anything. CFB is a “win now” proposition.
      If Kelly thought Bryant could have helped them the last 3 weeks when they damn near lost all 3 games, he’d have been on the field.

      I’d guess the reason he hasn’t played much is because he’s having trouble with blocking or route running assignments or some crap like that.

      • sm29irish - Sep 24, 2013 at 4:54 PM

        I did not say I think they are saving him but rather just posed it as question because I truely don’t understand why he has not seen the field more. I do agree with you and understand that CFB is a win now proposition and that he could be having trouble blocking or with route running assignments like you mentioned. However, why not at least give him a shot in short yardage situations where pass protection and route running aren’t as important. There is a reason Sheldon Day is quoted as saying, “Greg Bryant is the hardest player to tackle on the team.” I don’t know about you but that’s the kind of statement that makes me wonder why he’s not on the field more in short yardage situations.

      • nudeman - Sep 24, 2013 at 5:00 PM

        Yes, agree 100%. I wish he was playing.
        And I’m aware of that Sheldon Day comment, so it makes you wonder why he isn’t
        Maybe it’s just as simple as they’re throwing 30+ times per game and there aren’t enough carries to go around.

        This requires some projection because we really haven’t seen much of either of the frosh, but taking that liberty I’d say their best backs are, in order
        Bryant or Folston
        Folston or Bryant
        Mahone, who I wish we’d get a look at some time

  9. 4horsemenrideagain - Sep 24, 2013 at 4:47 PM

    i’d love to have TR call some dummy audibles that look like they’re shifting players around and changing the play but are really just trying to get the D to tip their hand and adjust to what the D sees happening. of course, it would also help if ND didn’t snap the ball at :01 on the play clock every down, as well as mixing up the cadence a bit. one or two times of having a D-line jump offsides goes a long way to keeping them honest and from getting a monster jump off snap. oh, and since i’m airing all of my grievances here, i also hate the gold shoes. they’re terrible.

    • idratherbeinsouthbend - Sep 25, 2013 at 4:17 PM

      Some on these boards would claim that every audible TR makes is a “dummy” audible :)

  10. sm29irish - Sep 24, 2013 at 5:29 PM

    Yeah I agree Nude. Your running back order ( although hard to project at this point like u said) seems in my opinion spot on. I think Amir would be electric if he were to see more time in the slot similar to how Golden Tate played the position. Give the bulk of carries to Bryant and Folston with a little Mahone mixed in. I can’t see any way how that wouldn’t be an upgrade to our current situation. I love Cam’s effort and heart but I don’t think that will be enough against elite competition.

  11. cpfirish - Sep 24, 2013 at 8:36 PM

    Folston and Bryant will end up transferring after this season because Brian Kelly is to dam dumb to play them. Sometimes I don’t understand that guy. Kinda makes me wonder?? I am sorry to say this but GAIII is junk!! Horrible.!! C’mon Brian Kelly get it together.!

    • idratherbeinsouthbend - Sep 25, 2013 at 4:28 PM

      What, pray tell, does kelly’s lack of knowledge regarding dam’s (and any other water barriers_ have to do with playing freshman running backs?

      Also, is calling somebody “dam dumb” situational irony or verbal irony….I forget?

      Look, cpfirish, and the rest of the doubting BK world….I don’t agree with some of the decisions that the guy makes either….BUT…ask yourself a couple of reflective questions.

      1) Do you really think that BK is doing things contrary to the best interests of the team?

      2) Do you really think that your perspective on who should play, what plays should be called, etc. is better than BK’s?

      I realize that it’s fun to complain about all of this shit, but disagreeing with the decisions is one thing. Claiming that you know better than BK is something completely different.

      Call it arrogance or ignorance or a combination of both, but the comments that seem to infer that the poster knows more than BK are just tiresome (except for the ones from dickasman, cause nobody takes him seriously anyway).

  12. viktory2013 - Sep 25, 2013 at 1:18 AM

    I think Kelly simply doesn’t like Bryant and won’t play him for that reason alone. Kelly wins games wherever he goes, but by his own method and nothing but. I think he didn’t much care for Dayne Crist because of his fragility, and pulled the plug at first opportunity. Can McDaniel is a gutty little back and seems to be the only one actually going head first, but doesn’t have the physical ability to make a difference. Atkinson (unlike his dad) is afraid of contact and will always play at half speed, and Carlisle caught a few hits and is leery of injuring himself again. Bryant can do as least as well and probably better than those boys, but Kelly seems very willing to let him sit. At the risk of sounding redundant, none of them will shine much until quarterback spot adds another dimension to the offense other than lobbing up balls hoping one of our guys pulls it down. The first time Zaire scrambles for a first down, Oklahoma’s defense will be looking at each other and be whispering “Oh shit, here we go again…” Then suddenly they’re not bunched in the box and Carlisle and McDaniel now have gaps to run through, and they forget about T.J. Jones or Troy Niklas over the middle, then it becomes contagious and the defense gets a weed up their ass and suddenly begins making stops one after another and sacks on third down. It’s the domino effect gentlemen. I’ve seen it many times since 1965. At the very least, I’m sure Zaire can complete 14 out of 34 passes too.

    • mayo1010 - Sep 25, 2013 at 9:41 AM

      You are kidding me right dude? LMFAO!!!

    • irish4me - Sep 25, 2013 at 10:13 AM

      I’m also quite sure that Zaire can complete 14 out of 34 passes, but how many of those to the other team? Young kids tend to try to do too much and make mistakes that cost games in a close contest. If we were 1-3 instead of 3-1, I’d say what have we got to lose? But that isn’t the case and try to remember it was windy out there last saturday.

    • idratherbeinsouthbend - Sep 25, 2013 at 4:38 PM

      Viktory, i heard the same thing. Doesn’t like the Bryant kid so he’s not gonna play him (dripping with sarcasm)….CAUSE THIS IS EIGHTH GRADE?! WTF R U TALKING ABOUT!

  13. danirish - Sep 25, 2013 at 10:01 AM

    I tire of this constant talk about transfers. PLay with who you have. Last week, Auburn and LSU played each other – both teams started a qb that at one time wore the uniform of the University of Georgia 9my “real” alma mata”). Shaq Evans is catching passes for UCLA and at one time, Troy Aikman was all the rage in Oklahoma. Wait until Bryant hits his first SOuth Bend winter (being from Florida)
    Another article linked in from Kelley talks about Bryant getting into the game – if I had to guess, he is an awesome runner, but may be struggling with the blocking scheme/playbook like nudeman suggested earlier. If he transfers after his freshman year then I have a hard time being mad – you still have several years of play.

    I think, IMHO, it is all about play calling – I don’t mean “dynamic” playcalling like end runs and trick plays – that’s FSU crap, I’m talking about 3rd and 1, putting a qb that runs like a drunk cow on rollerskates and then throwing deep hoping for a PI. Maybe GAIII is awesome but the play calling is holding all of the rb’s back? Play calling and poor tackling are the only things bothering me. Well that and my teacher salary in the state of NC.

    In the end – just win baby! GO IRISH!

    • ohioirish - Sep 25, 2013 at 11:29 AM

      danirish, I have to agree with most of what you say. I agree that the playcalling has been questionable, but what bothers me more is the execution of said plays.

      In the Purdue game we couldn’t run the ball for 4 1/2 quarters. Then with 7:22 left we are able to run off a 13 play drive to run out the clock – 10 runs to Cam, 1 Pass to Daniels, and two kneel downs. Purdue said they knew what play we were going to run before we ran it. So why could they stop the run for 4 1/2 quarters and then give up 42 yards on one drive when the entire free world knew we were going to run. That accounted for almost 1/2 of our rushing total. I’m scratching my head on this one.

      Ohio Irish.

      • ohioirish - Sep 25, 2013 at 11:33 AM

        Sorry, should read 3 1/2 quarters.

        Ohio Irish

      • idratherbeinsouthbend - Sep 25, 2013 at 4:31 PM

        maybe it should have read 3 1/2 quarters, but “4 1/2 quarters” was probably more effective getting your point across :)

  14. bb90grad - Sep 25, 2013 at 10:11 AM

    Please say you have your Natnl Board Cert; that’s good for at least a few more clams.

    • idratherbeinsouthbend - Sep 25, 2013 at 4:32 PM

      I have my Natnl Board Cert

      where can i pick up my clams?

      • bb90grad - Sep 26, 2013 at 10:11 AM

        You have to move into the District Office as Asst Super for that one.

      • bb90grad - Sep 26, 2013 at 10:13 AM

        Plus your Masters and Dr Ed of course. Don’t tell you that as an undergrad do they?

  15. mediocrebob - Sep 25, 2013 at 1:11 PM


    I’m sorry. Just wondering where you get this inside scoop? BK isn’t playing Bryant bc he doesn’t like him? That’s interesting stuff. BK told me that he likes Bryant quite a bit. He must be playing games with us. I’ll shoot him a text and see what’s going on here.

    • idratherbeinsouthbend - Sep 25, 2013 at 4:33 PM

      Can you text him for me and ask if i can get an invite to the next charity golf event with Lou Holtz…since you’re already texting him anyway.

  16. mediocrebob - Sep 25, 2013 at 8:47 PM


    He said you’re in if Ara backs out.

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