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Leftovers & Links: On Notre Dame’s continued struggles running the ball & stopping the run

After a slow start offensively, Notre Dame finally showcased how potent its attack can be, as it was firing on all cylinders against New Mexico in the Irish's home opener.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — As well as No. 7 Notre Dame’s offense played in scoring 66 points and gaining 591 yards against New Mexico on Saturday, it was far from perfect. In particular, the Irish (2-0) struggled on third downs, although the greatest issue may not have been short-yardage situations.

Disregarding time with backup quarterbacks at the helm, Notre Dame converted only one of seven third downs, but it then went for it on three of the subsequent fourth downs, converting all three. In one form or another, those drives continued as if the Irish had converted the initial third-down attempt.

“Some of it is set up for fourth down,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the 66-14 victory. “Our analytics, some of it might be getting some of it back on third down to set up a fourth-down play.”

On these seven, in particular, that logic may have been a stretch — though Kelly had not yet had the luxury of flipping through a play-by-play sheet or watching film. The three which led to fourth-down attempts were all 3rd-and-shorts of two or fewer yards. Two rushes from senior running back Tony Jones yielded no gains and one goal-line dive from senior quarterback Ian Book went nowhere.

It is hard to argue Notre Dame would not have rather converted those third downs and, for that matter, should have against an overmatched Lobos defense.

“Obviously those are the things that we’re going to have to continue to work on,” Kelly said. “We’re certainly not a finished product by any means. We know the things that have to improve as a football team. I think everybody in the NFL and college football knows that their short yardage has got to be efficient.”

The Irish will need to be much more efficient against Georgia’s front-seven, one of the best defenses in the country. This week’s updated SP+ rankings slot the Bulldogs’ defense as No. 7 in the country. (Michigan’s defense sits at No. 1.)

Those 3rd-and-shorts eventually became first downs, though. Even the one 3rd-and-medium of the bunch, a 3rd-and-6 on Notre Dame’s second drive, resulted in a first down when Book pondered running the ball, going so far as to tuck it momentarily, before spotting sophomore receiver Lawrence Keys open on a deep out for a 15-yard gain.

The third-and-longs, however, never stood genuine chances. A 3rd-and-17 resulted in Book rushing for eight yards. 3rd-and-14? An incomplete pass for fifth-year receiver Chis Finke. Ditto for 3rd-and-9. But was the issue the ineffectiveness on downs with low expected conversion rates in the first place or on the preceding plays? The Irish did not simply fail to move toward the chains on those first and second downs; they moved backward.

A seven-yard sack on a second down, a Jones rush brought down four yards behind the line of scrimmage on a second down, and a two-yard loss for freshman running back Kyren Williams on a first down all put Notre Dame behind the chains long before those third-down struggles.

Maybe more frustrating for offensive coordinator Chip Long, the first two situations were preceded by Book missing an open Chase Claypool — first on a deep route in which either Claypool strayed too far inside and looked over his inside shoulder while Book’s pass angled toward the sideline and then later on an out route in which Book led Claypool by a half stride too much, the senior receiver able to get only a finger or a two on the pass.

Going 1-of-7 on third downs with Book behind center is not a recipe for success. Continuing three of those drives with fourth-down conversions reduces some of the trouble, but that still leaves three instances of stalled drives. Those third downs had little hope of succeeding due to failures earlier in the sets of downs.

Admittedly, those failures trace to the same spot as those stymied 3rd-and-shorts, at least on the surface. Book, Jones and Williams were all tackled behind the line of scrimmage because something went awry up front.

“That will be something that we’ll spend time on over the next couple of days and look at the things that we need to do to be better in those areas,” Kelly said.

Such troubles are part of the reason the 59- and 54-yard jet sweep touchdowns from junior running back Avery Davis and Finke, respectively, stood out. They were moments of design that led to the ball carrier getting around the corner, something which was otherwise a difficulty.

“We needed to get the ball outside,” Kelly said Sunday afternoon. “It was very difficult to run the ball inside. The ball needed to get out on the perimeter. As you can see, it was pretty easy once the ball got out on the perimeter.”

Be it via better offensive line play, more reliance on specific schematics or some combination of both, Notre Dame will need to not fall behind the chains in Athens as it did Saturday in South Bend.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 14 New Mexico at Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 14: Notre Dame Fighting Irish linebacker Asmar Bilal (22) battles with New Mexico Lobos offensive lineman Jacob Jankoviak (66) in game action during a college football game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the New Mexico Lobos on September 14, 2019 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Not to mention run defense struggles.
Before diving too far into another area needing improvement, let’s acknowledge the positive of the performance from fifth-year linebacker Asmar Bilal, notching a career high with eight tackles, including two for loss. At halftime, he had six of those tackles, again including both of those behind the line of scrimmage. It was the most active he has ever been in an Irish uniform, now at a position which theoretically does not demand as much as his did at Rover a year ago, going to show the leaps of improvement finally seen. (Insert “It was New Mexico” disclaimer here.)

It was Bilal’s misfortune to take that step forward on a day marked by an offensive explosion, leading all the postgame questions to focus on the newcomers who reached the end zone. By Sunday afternoon, most attention had already shifted to the trip to Georgia. Given the rare chance to praise Bilal for a tangible contribution, Kelly was never prompted.

He was prompted to discuss the run defense as a whole, still a question mark after giving up 212 rushing yards to the Lobos, including a 47-yard touchdown just before halftime and a 37-yard score midway through the fourth quarter.

“We were disappointed with some poor defensive structure where the ball got outside the defense,” Kelly said Sunday. “That can’t happen against anybody. It can’t happen against Georgia because those plays are going for touchdowns.

“That’s attention to detail stuff you know you can’t have against anybody. I think our guys will learn from it and know that each and every play against a team like Georgia, if you’re not on it, all 11 players playing together great run defense, a guy like (D’Andre Swift) is going to take it to the end zone.”

As Kelly said back in August when discussing Notre Dame’s unknowns: It’s about running the ball and stopping the run.

If the Irish find success in the latter this week, Bilal will presumably be owed even more credit. If they find success in short-yardage situations, the oft-criticized offensive line will have proven itself.

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