Big chunk plays. They are a key part of Brian Kelly’s offense, a unit that prides itself on eating up large chunks of yardage in both the running game and through the air.
The Irish have had their fair share of big playmakers. Receivers like Michael Floyd and TJ Jones. Tight end Tyler Eifert. Running back George Atkinson had big-play potential every time he touched the football.
But no Notre Dame football team has produced big plays at the rate of this 2015 offense. And through four games, the Irish have already set season-highs for the Kelly era, a trend the Irish coaching staff hopes continues through the next few critical weeks of the season.
Notre Dame has scored seven touchdowns this season of at least 50 yards, more than any other season under Kelly, passing the 2012 team who had six 50-plus yard scores. They’ve come from big play-machines Will Fuller and C.J. Prosise, through the air and on the ground, and from a talented group of freshmen, with CJ Sanders, Josh Adams and Brandon Wimbush all getting into the act.
Kelly was asked about this success on Tuesday, and he talked about how the Irish have managed to create so many big plays. And it’s been a surprising mix of not just throwing the football deep, but getting big runs from Prosise, who has shown home-run speed when he hits the second level.
“Not to take away anything from our backs over the last couple of years. They’re very good backs. But C.J. has another gear that he can kick into,” Kelly said. “And then the utilization of Will Fuller, certainly, in his ability to get over the top of most defenders.”
That duo will be front and center on Saturday, likely the two biggest factors (outside of quarterback DeShone Kizer) in the Irish offensive attack. And as we speculate about game plans and Clemson’s strategy to slow-down Notre Dame’s offense, it’s hard not to think about some of Notre Dame’s matchups with the ultra-aggressive Michigan State defense over the past couple of years.
While the weather will likely determine how effective the passing game will be, assuming a safety-first passing attack for Kizer might be foolish. With Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables likely stacking the box and daring Kizer to beat his unit, Kelly could take a page from his Spartans playbook, attacking it vertically and throwing the ball to his one-on-one matchups on the edge.
Here’s what Kelly said in late 2013 about playing Michigan State, with the Irish providing the lone blemish on the Spartans’ Rose Bowl-winning 13-1 season.
“You try to get big-chunk plays,” Kelly said. They’re just not going to give up enough for you to win playing that kind of game. They’re just too good up front. They commit so much to the front in terms of safety support. You got to try and get the ball outside and do the best you can and try to get big chunk plays.”
Clemson’s defensive line is talented. But it isn’t the one that was anchored by Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett. So you’ve got to think Kelly is confident that his offensive line can continue opening holes for Prosise, who has gone five-yards without being touched on 24 of his 74 carries.
The strength of the Tigers defense is its back seven. But that was the same with Michigan State’s “no-fly zone” secondary. And Kelly showed a willingness to take shots with his receiving corps, and he earned five pass interference flags for his efforts in 2013.
Will the flags fly as easily in Memorial Stadium? Probably not. But then again, they likely won’t have to, with Notre Dame’s ground game in a much better place today than it was in 2013.
But as Brent Venables likely picks his poison—challenging Kizer to beat his defense in his first start outside of Notre Dame Stadium—it’ll leave some oppotunities down the field for the Irish.
Kelly believes his team can continue making big plays. If they do on Saturday, it’ll likely mean Notre Dame is leaving Death Valley 5-0.