Run/Pass mix a difficult balancing act

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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 ClashmoreMike.com. 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.