Nearly Automatic

Our fifth camp preview focuses on Notre Dame's third-and-short offense, a highly undervalued aspect of the Irish that enjoyed a 10-game run of success to end the 2011 season.

In lieu of garden-variety rankings of each position group, Irisheyes.com introduces "The Guts" -- an inside look at 10 aspects of the Irish paramount to the season's success. They include:

(If your first question is, "What about turnovers?" they'll be covered within each aspect of the game detailed above. )

For details on each category, read our introduction column, here.

Today's focus is the team's short-yardage offense, or 3rd Down situations in which the offense needs three yards or fewer to move the stick.

Think Brian Kelly's offense needs a true power back? Think again….

3rd and Short: An impressive mix

Notre Dame faced 57 third-and-short situations (3 yards or fewer) last fall and converted on a remarkable 41 of the 57 attempts. A pass was called -- or the quarterback checked to a passing play at the line of scrimmage -- in 20 such situations. The Irish converted a whopping 15 of the 20, suffering two interceptions.

The targets included:

  • Michael Floyd: 7 first downs in 10 third-and-short pass attempts. One was intercepted to end the game vs. USC.
  • Tyler Eifert: 7 first downs in 8 third-and-short pass attempts.
  • T.J. Jones caught his only pass on third-and-short (at Wake) while Theo Riddick's was caught short of the sticks (Stanford).

The Irish were then 26 of 37 rushing the football in third-and-short situations. On two of the failures, the Irish suffered fumbles that resulted in full-field defensive touchdowns, exacerbating the situation. Departed graduate Jonas Gray converted 8 of his 11 chances into first downs while returning senior Cierre Wood was successful on 12 of 17 -- impressive in that he began the season just 3 for 7 in such situations vs. USF and Michigan, losing yardage on hits before he reached scrimmage each time.

(Tommy Rees was 3 for 3 on QB keepers and Andrew Hendrix converted his only attempt. Dayne Crist was famously 0-1 with a fumble returned for score vs. USC. George Atkinson's opportunities were all long after games had been decided, finishing 2 for 3.)

Notre Dame also committed three penalties on third-and-short: a delay of game and two false starts (both on Chris Watt, incidentally). The offense nonetheless converted two of the three situations on ensuing third-and-long pass plays.

What does it mean for 2012?

First, that I've undervalued Notre Dame's short-yardage offense and its remarkable execution.

Second, that the Irish must stay out of 3rd and 4 situations, as that extra yard between the offense and the first down marker resulted in a far lower success rate: just 7 for 17 last fall (41.1%) including a shoddy 5 of 13 passing effort with an interception (and score).

Notre Dame converted 2 of its 4 opportunities on 3rd and 4 when it ran the football, though one of the failures was a sack of Andrew Hendrix vs. Stanford, technically a run in the college game. In other words, including that sack, the Irish ran on just three occasions when facing 3rd and 4 all of last year.

Kelly's offense was far above average on 3rd Down last season, 19th nationally, converting 46.5% (81 of 174) of its chances. But remove the 41 of 57 effort on third-and-short detailed above (a 71.9% success rate), and the Irish were just 40 of 117 on 3rd down (34.1%).

(The Irish were 6 for 6 overall on fourth down last fall, including a 4 for 4 effort rushing with two sneaks by Tommy Rees.)

Notre Dame's offense benefited from third-and-short while failing consistently when needing four yards or more to keep a drive alive.

Yet another reason to assume Notre Dame will run more than it passes in 2012…especially with a mobile quarterback at the controls.

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