Irish offense needs to win first down


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. 

Plays behind the line of scrimmage critical for Irish D


There are plenty of good things you can say about Bob Diaco’s Fighting Irish defense from 2010. Playing in a new system with virtually the same guys that were part of a historically bad outfit, the unit grew to be one of the strengths of the team, playing sufficating football down the stretch as the Irish didn’t lose a game after Tulsa.

But if you’re looking for one important statistical category where the Irish didn’t match up, it was making plays behind the line of scrimmage. The Irish defense finished a mediocre 76th in tackles for loss (TFLs), putting up 68 on the season, an average of just over five a game.

The 2009 Irish, while finishing a woeful 86th in total defense managed to finish 55th in TFLs, making 73 in the last year of Charlie Weis/Jon Tenuta, leading you to wonder if the fundamental differences in CW & BK’s systems might have contributed to the lack of plays made behind the line of scrimmage. But that theory’s all but proven bunk when you consider Brian Kelly’s Cincinnati defense that was directed by Diaco finished 4th in the country with 110 TFLs in 2009, all with an incredibly inexperienced unit.

You can argue about the philosophies of defensive coordinators until you’re blue in the face. But one thing is certain after looking at the top dozen teams in college football. Each had someone that made more plays behind the line of scrimmage than Notre Dame, who was led by Darius Fleming and his 11 TFLs.

Here’s a quick look at the top 12 teams from 2010, looking at their TFLs and leading defensive playmaker:

No. 1 Auburn: 99 Total TFLs (DT Nick Fairley — 24.0)
No. 2 TCU: 75 Total TFLs (DE Wayne Daniels — 14.0)
No. 3 Oregon: 97 Total TFLs (DE Kenny Rowe — 16.5)
No. 4 Stanford: 71 Total TFLs (LB Chase Thomas — 11.5)
No. 5 Ohio State: 75 Total TFLs  (DT Cameron Heyward — 13.0)
No. 6 Oklahoma: 106 Total TFLs (DE Jeremy Beal — 19.0)
No. 7 Wisconsin: 66 Total TFLs (DE J.J. Watt — 21.0)
No. 8 LSU: 88 Total TFLs (DT Drake Nevis — 13.0)
No. 9 Boise State: 109 Total TFLs (Two players tied at 13.5)
No. 10 Alabama: 75 Total TFLs (LB Courtney Upshaw — 14.5)
No. 11 Nevada: 87 Total TFLs (LB Dontay Moch — 22.0)
No. 12 Arkansas: 95 Total TFLs (LB Jerry Franklin — 13.0)

Only Wisconsin finished with less TFLs than the Irish, and they had J.J. Watt, one of the Big Ten’s most dynamic players and a total defense that finished in the country’s top 20.

As Darius Fleming finds himself more comfortable in the Irish defense, expect Diaco to make more plays behind the line of scrimmage. This is the same system that gave a converted tight end in Connor Barwin the chance to flourish at a similar position to the one Fleming plays. Barwin’s 12 sacks during his final season in Cincinnati rocketed him up draft boards, turning into a second round pick. Can that be Fleming’s fate?

Notre Dame’s done a very good job of adding size and speed to the edges of their defense. The Irish will have an opportunity to confuse and attack defenses offenses with freshman Aaron Lynch ready to make his presence known as a pass-rusher.

More importantly, Diaco will have at his disposal a variety of very good stand-up edge players, with guys like Steve Filer being joined by young players like Prince Shembo and Ishaq Williams. Danny Spond also has a chance to make a ton of plays behind the line of scrimmage.

The Irish finished essentially middle-of-the-road in sacks, a category that all but tells the same story. With a secondary better versed for Chuck Martin’s system and a defensive line that’s older and wiser, Diaco should be able to take a defense struggling to get by in remedial classes last season and dial things up to an AP Level this year.

If the Irish can do that, expect everybody to graduate with honors.