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A more focused playbook could key a more consistent Notre Dame offense

Notre Dame was on upset alert for most of the afternoon, but finished strong to defeat Vanderbilt and start the season 3-0.

Brian Kelly knows who will make the plays for Notre Dame, he just isn’t sure when they will make them. The Irish offense has established who its playmakers are — primarily senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, the receiver duo of senior Miles Boykin and junior Chase Claypool, sophomore running back Jafar Armstrong when junior back Tony Jones isn’t in a physical groove, and a litany of tight ends. It has not found the needed consistency from them, though.

“Consistency” was, quite literally, the first word Notre Dame’s head coach offered when asked about the Irish offense Sunday.

“We have to be executing a lot better,” Kelly said. “We’re at a point right now from an offensive standpoint that we know who our players are going to be. We have to get them to execute better play-in and play-out. Our offense is certainly capable of playing much better.”

To facilitate finding that capability, the Irish could dial back the playbook a touch to focus on calls that have proven effective. Kelly insists this is what leads to Notre Dame’s success at the start of games — the Irish have moved the ball efficiently and scored on their opening drive each game this season — rather than an exact script. Notre Dame opens its Saturdays by relying on what it knows works, what it looked at most in practice, what became routine through repetition.

“We have to be more focused on execution,” Kelly said. “Maybe we have to be a little bit more cognizant of how we execute. Maybe at times we just come back to what we’re doing well.

“If we’re executing, we’re difficult to stop. … We could probably pare down what we’re doing and just stick with some of the things we’re executing and I think we can be a better offense.”

The need for a better offense arrives imminently. Wake Forest averages 36 points per game. The Demon Deacons have been humming on that side of the ball since the season’s first week. The Irish might be able to hold them to half that, but it will be the tallest order the defense has faced yet.

“We got to play with the same physicality that we did in week one and week three,” Kelly said. “That’s pretty clear. Just need to be a little more consistent. We have really good spurts on both sides of the ball offensively and defensively.

“When you go on the road, you have to play much more consistent for four quarters. That will be the challenge to this group this week, we’ll need consistent play for four quarters on the road.”

Everyone is familiar with the red zone, from the 20-yard line to the goal line. Kelly often refers to the “blue zone” when discussing situations where Notre Dame turns to junior quarterback Ian Book. Kelly defines the blue zone as the 5-yard line to the goal line, an area where the Irish are more likely to take the snap from under center and/or incorporate jumbo packages with multiple tight ends, an area where top-end arm strength is no longer a priority.

“That’s where the run-pass opportunities from direct snap really fit Ian Book’s game,” Kelly said.

The Irish have scored four touchdowns from the blue zone this season on four trips. Book’s touchdown pass to fifth-year senior Nic Weishar against the Commodores was a prime example of the package. It looked like a running play, or a read-option play for Book to ponder. Instead it necessitated a touch pass over the coverage to Weishar in the back of the end zone.

Three starts into his career, junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg arguably put together his best performance to date Saturday, in part due to his first two including multiple pressures allowed. A focus on the running game Saturday played to Eichenberg’s strengths.

“There’s a couple of things in pass protection that he continues to work on in terms of recognition,” Kelly said. “But his physicality was there in particular in the run game. His zone blocking was outstanding.”

8 … 7 … 6.5
Notre Dame remained No. 8 in both the consequence-less Coaches and AP polls this week, with Stanford jumping up to No. 7 in each. While the Cardinal hardly impressed with a 30-10 win over UC Davis, its 31-10 handling of San Diego State to open the season looks more impressive now thanks to the Aztecs defeat of No. 23 Arizona State late Saturday night.

The Irish opened as seven-point favorites at Wake Forest this weekend, with the line quickly oscillating between seven and 6.5 points.

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