Things We Learned, Part II: Notre Dame turns to creativity to spark its offense, to inconsistent but productive results

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Notre Dame has not needed to be creative during its four-year resurgence. The Irish could line up and run through nearly anyone they played, and when they couldn’t, no amount of creativity was going to close the gap between Notre Dame and Alabama or full-strength Clemson.

But that smashmouth offense kept the Irish from breaking through into college football’s top tier. When the offense could not run through an opponent, it had little recourse. Thus, just like on defense, Notre Dame’s offense is transitioning on the fly.

That transition has not been entirely smooth, and it was not in the 27-13 Irish victory on Saturday against Purdue, but Notre Dame (3-0) showed progress by gaining 343 yards and 5.2 yards per play — a number that jumps to 5.6 if discounting the two Irish three-and-outs in the final minutes intended to simply burn clock.

“We took a step forward today,” quarterback Jack Coan said. “We played a more complete game, but at the end of the day, I think we need to focus on being more consistent, whether it’s in the passing game, my part, (or) in the running game, as well. If we’re consistent through a whole game, we’re going to be a pretty difficult offense to stop.”

That progress, the “step forward,” came more in scheme than in production. Entering the weekend, Notre Dame had averaged 6.07 yards per play and scored 36.5 points per game. Its first three drives against the Boilermakers totaled six yards on 10 plays. The Irish never strung together consecutive drives of at least 50 yards.

There was not consistency, but when things did click for a few moments, long-term concepts resonated.

“As an offense running the ball, it’s going to come,” junior running back Kyren Williams said. “We’re not worried about it. As you saw today, those runs started getting bigger and bigger after we kept driving the ball. As a mentality as an offense, we’re there, we have to have that mentality that we’re going to drive people off the ball.”

The idea of wearing opponents down with the run to break through in the second half is a throwback to Notre Dame’s successes these last four-plus seasons. And when it came time for the Irish to run the four-minute drill — eat clock to close the game — that has won them many games en route to two Playoff berths in the last three years, they were arguably too good.

Williams did not intend to score on a 51-yard stop-and-go run, the first play of a drive that should have instead taken 10 plays to cover half the field.

“I was really just trying to get yards,” Williams said. “We were gonna milk the clock, we were gonna run the ball until we just couldn’t anymore, until we scored.”

The highlight focuses on Williams’ ability to shed a few downfield tacklers that have undoubtedly cringed through film study this week, but the play began thanks to solid blocking by the offensive line, including freshman tackle Joe Alt, a former high school tight end still transitioning into a collegiate offensive lineman’s body who lined up as the interior of two tight ends attached on the left side of the line. (From the bottom of the screen, fifth-year receiver Avery Davis in the slot, senior tight end George Takacs on the end of the line, then Alt wearing No. 45 before getting to the traditional offensive line starting with sophomore left tackle Tosh Baker.)

Turning to two additional blockers to break open a run is something Notre Dame has not done this season as it tries to capitalize on the downfield threats of senior receivers Kevin Austin and Braden Lenzy, and junior tight end Michael Mayer, but it is a remnant of past success, one Williams relished, both for its obvious gains and for the change of pace compared to the rest of his season.

“I know that whole side Joe was on was getting cracked down into the other side,” he said. “It reminded me a lot of last year when we had (tight end) Tommy Tremble doing that, just taking people out of the play, out of their cleats, really taking them 2-3 yards [downfield].

“It’s really fun seeing that, and I’m glad for Joe. He’s getting experience, he’s getting opportunities on the O-line to prove himself.”

Those extra blockers were also needed in the passing game, oftentimes occupying Williams instead of him excelling as a receiver. Purdue defensive end George Karlaftis finished with only two tackles, including 1.5 for loss, but his presence was felt throughout the game. From the very first snap, devoting attention to Karlaftis resulted in a linebacker coming unblocked on a blitz and sacking Coan for a loss of nine yards.

“I was not going to let him wreck the day for us,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “We had to do some things that, from an offense, it’s not a beauty show for me. … We just want to find a way to score enough points.”

The Irish needed to adjust.

“[Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees] did a great job of finding ways — they brought a lot of pressure,” Kelly said. “They really forced our hand early when we were doubling George, they brought the inside ‘backer.

“It was a chess match, and I thought Tommy did a great job of figuring it out, where we could get matchups.”

Those matchups did not include Mayer, finishing with one catch for five yards on three targets. They hardly included Austin, at least when it came to production, as multiple downfield shots fell incomplete, eight targets yielding no completions. Could that have been a byproduct of the Boilermakers’ pressure, from the very first snap, eventually tallying seven tackles for loss, particularly given sophomore Michael Carmody’s sprained ankle meant third-stringer Tosh Baker got the start at left tackle? Coan acknowledged the possibility.

“I might have been (rushed),” he said. “I might have been a little impatient in the beginning, trying not to take sacks, get the ball out of my hands. I have to be more patient.”

Without a rhythm with Austin and with Mayer helping block when he wasn’t getting bracketed by multiple defenders, Notre Dame found chunk plays in Williams and fifth-year receiver Avery Davis, not to mention sophomore running back Chris Tyree’s 55 total yards from scrimmage.

“There are enough guys to go around that we can still be a really good offense if you take a Mike Mayer away,” Kelly said.

It was not a really good offense on Saturday, but it was good enough, and it showed levels of creativity not previously seen. As long as the offensive line is relying on piecemeal efforts — while Baker played well, the rotation on the interior of the line further suggests the Irish are far from a dominant front — some schemes here and twists there will be needed to make it a really good offense.

There is no sign of a quick fix for Notre Dame. Mixing and matching an offensive line is a deeper problem than simply swapping quarterbacks a la the 2018 fix that catapulted the Irish to the Playoff. But Notre Dame has the pieces. To use Kelly’s analogy, they may be more knights and bishops than rooks and queens, but plenty of games have been won with knights and bishops.

It takes a creative player to do so, one well-versed in forks and pins, but that attack can often be the most difficult to defend.

“Don’t knock us yet,” Davis said. “Those guys are special in the locker room.”