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Things We Learned: Efficient, up-tempo offense here to stay for Notre Dame, just in time

Sam Howell and a potent Tar Heel offense were game, but Kyren Williams' electric 91-yard TD run in the fourth quarter and clutch stops from the Irish D were enough to give Notre Dame a 44-34 win over North Carolina.

Brian Kelly saw fit to repeat the adjective.

“It’s an improving football team,” he said after Notre Dame beat North Carolina 44-34 on Saturday, an undeniable fact as well as the intention of nearly any season.

A college football team should improve as the year goes on, as first-year players get experience, as surprises move up the depth chart, as unexpected strengths develop. Of course, all too few teams actually do improve. Case in point, the now 4-4 Tar Heels.

“I just like the position that we’re in, we’re getting better each and every week,” Kelly said.

For the Irish, that constant improvement took nearly half the season to kick into full gear, partly because its starting position was misleadingly encouraging.

Jack Coan’s season highs for completions, attempts, yards and touchdowns all still come from the season opener, when he went 26-of-35 for 366 yards and four touchdowns at Florida State. There was, albeit momentarily by the word’s truest definition of for a moment, Heisman hype around the Wisconsin transfer. Notre Dame had good reason to believe it had a downfield passing attack to enjoy. To pull from a postgame column then …

“Notre Dame threw the ball all around the field against the Seminoles, starting with the opening drive’s four pass attempts and four completions for 82 yards and a touchdown, and ending with quarterback Jack Coan’s two third-quarter touchdown passes to stake the Irish to the large lead they would eventually need.”

That would not last, obviously. In the three weeks encompassing the Purdue, Wisconsin and Cincinnati games, Coan would complete only 53.7 percent of his passes at a downfield rate of 6.04 yards per attempt. (In the opener, he averaged 10.5 yards per attempt.) Those games were not the anomaly, the opener was.

“We were dumb,” Kelly said this weekend. “We were using a lot of the skills that he had, but we have found, obviously, a niche where he feels really comfortable.

“... I don’t know that he threw, we were talking about it, he never threw (what) we call a bubble throw, the perimeter bubble. He never threw that before. But he’s accurate and the ball comes out quickly, and you can see what happens when you get it into those skill guys’ hands, they turn those into big plays.

That bubble throw turned freshman receiver Lorenzo Styles loose for a 40-yard gain on Saturday. Implementing it more is a sign Notre Dame’s coaching staff is not — and really, never was, given the encouraging results of that opener — dumb.

It is also a sign this up-tempo offense is here to stay for the No. 8 Irish (7-1).

It will be especially needed against Navy (2-6), lest Notre Dame risk Saturday afternoon (3:30 ET; NBC) become a six-possession affair that the Midshipmen may steal.

“Efficiency is also about being smart in how we play the game in terms of play calling,” Kelly said. “Efficiency is both coaching and playing. I think we have to be really good at both.

“You don’t want to put yourself behind the chains. You want to make sure that you’re putting yourself in good position, but you don’t want five- or six-minute drives, either, because that shortens the game and plays into their hands, as well.”

Notre Dame did not realize its idealized offense in time to beat Cincinnati — though the Bearcats played so well in early October, it may not have mattered — but it did find it in time so that it should not sweat Navy.

The offense that could not get out of its own way through those three weeks of Coan’s inefficiency would have struggled against the Midshipmen, falling behind on one possession leading to the exact situation Navy’s triple-option clock-chewing prefers.

The offense that is here to stay for the Irish, that was not a one-hit-wonder coming off the idle week against USC, should propel Notre Dame past the Midshipmen with ease, just as it largely did with the Trojans and the Tar Heels.

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