Identity Theft

Last year's Irish defense dominated in close

A punishing running game? Balance? Pass-first? Play fast? Milk the clock and hammer behind three running backs? Two tights? No 'Backs? Bend-but-don't break? Stout up front, conservative in the back seven? Notre Dame's 2013 identity could go a number of ways with 10 games remaining. The only certainty after two contests down and a 1-1 mark? They don't have one.

"When they put that ball down on the one-yard line, that s--- 'aint over man. We're gonna play." -- Zeke Motta after a goal line stand last November at USC.

There's a line from the 2001 film Training Day that applies well to fans of Notre Dame football in 2013: "It's not what you know, it's what you can prove."

Irish faithful thought they knew at least one essential truth heading into head coach Brian Kelly's fourth season: the defense -- so dominant in 2012's run to 12-0 -- would be a definitive strength.

It's early (very), but on-field evidence suggests otherwise:

  • The team's goal line defense that has seen seven snaps inside its 5-yard-line with three resulting in touchdowns and three more in penalties
  • The front seven that's combined for two sacks in eight quarters
  • The unit has surrendered six touchdowns with just eight quarters played, and exacerbating the issue...
  • The offense has shown a pass-run ratio of 80-54, suggesting the grab-bagging days of early 2010 and all of 2011 have returned.

What in the name of Zeke Motta and Theo Riddick is going on around here?

Notre Dame's offense has again proved it can move the football, if not later enjoy the fruits of their labor. The Fighting Irish defense plays better in the second half than the first, but it can't avoid costly errors -- both mental and physical -- when an opponent sniffs its goal line.

They've passed with success (669 yards). They've run with success (5.3 yards per carry). But neither method of transport is one on which the 2013 Irish offense can hang its hat.

In fact, the best choice at present appears to be predicated on what the other team's defense shows, not what the offense intends.

Kelly noted earlier this week that a remarkable 52-19 pass-run ratio in Ann Arbor wasn't his initial intention.

"There's eight (defenders) on the line of scrimmage," he said of Michigan's defense. "If the box is plus-one and plus-two, there's not much of a running game.  When we had two-shell (coverage) and we had the ability to run the ball, we ran the ball effectively.  And then we got behind.  We were down two scores.  We had to speed the game up and throw the football."

The latter theme does not bode well for the Irish, now 2-7 under Kelly when the offense attempts 30 rushes or fewer.

"Look, I want balance just like everybody else in America wants balance," he said. "We have to throw the ball effectively when we are called upon to throw the ball, and we have to run the ball effectively when we are called upon to run effectively. You know, balance is this panacea that everyone looks for, but you need to win football games and whatever it takes to win football games, we'd better be good at it.  We'd better be good at scoring points running the ball, and we'd better be good at throwing the ball when the situations call for it."

Then again, scoring 42 shouldn't be required…

Kelly shouldered the blame for Saturday's loss, putting it on missed opportunities by the offensive he designed. But Bob Diaco -- the nation's best assistant last season -- oversaw a defense that surrendered not only 41 points and 480 yards, but one that no-showed in the red zone: four trips for the Wolverines, four touchdowns.

(Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner has directed 26 drives into opponents' red zones -- the Wolverines have scored on each, including 23 touchdowns.)

We're just going to go out and do what we do," said cornerback and team captain Bennett Jackson. "We had a mis-fit, lack of communication on a play and they got in the end zone. It's not that this year's defense is any worse, it's that we didn't execute the way we should have in an early game. It was an eye opener for everybody."

Also opening eyes is the secondary's propensity for untimely penalties. Four of the five pass interference calls over the first two games have occurred in the red zone, three in the end zone thus setting up the opponent with first and goal at the two. Each resulted in touchdowns.

"It's (better) hand placement. We worked a lot on that this week, not hanging on so much," Jackson said. "But you can't play less aggressive. We're taught to play aggressive. When the ball's in the air you attack the ball and we need to work on proper hand placement."

Senior All-America nose guard Louis Nix too noticed something in his film review of last Saturday's defeat. A defense he didn't recognize.

"When we watched film and evaluated it, we made a lot of mistakes, we didn't play Notre Dame football," Nix said. "I feel that will set us in the right direction, because I know I don't want to lose again."

Slow and Steady? Or Efficient?

The talk of the football world today is former Oregon coach Chip Kelly and his blitzkrieg offense making its way to the NFL. It's a method Notre Dame's Kelly used with great success at Cincinnati and first employed in 2010 when he arrived in South Bend. It's since stepped aside in favor of a methodical pace in which the starting quarterback surveys the defense before deciding on the appropriate course of action.

"Call and Ball" it is not.

"I think with the personnel that we have and the quarterback that we have, we are not a team that really can run a lot of the read-option," Kelly said. "A lot of the stuff that's meant for real fast tempo, you need a quarterback that is going to be a run threat as well.  ommy is not a run threat. Where he's going to make up for it is getting us in the right plays.

"So our tempo is get to the line of scrimmage, give us enough time to get into the right plays.  Tempo can be interpreted in different fashions. Let's give him enough time on the clock where we can get into some good checks."

As stated multiple times in our season previews, Notre Dame's offense has consistently evolved under Kelly. Beginning in 2010, Kelly debuted with a fast-paced, pass-first approach that resulted in a 4-5 start. He ended with a conservative, between-the-tackles running game and reliance on defense en route to a 4-0 finish.

In 2011, pass-first reappeared. So too did defeat: 0-2, then 4-2 and a bottom-out effort that included just 14 carries vs. USC. The seasons' first seven games included 270 pass attempts, the final six just 198.

Last fall the Irish were more consistent in their approach, but the season's first four contests (all wins) saw rushing totals of 293, 52, 122, and 94 yards. The next eight? 376 (Miami), 150, 270, 215, 231, 184, 221, and 222, respectively.

Notre Dame has to run successfully to earn a BCS Bowl berth, of that there is no doubt. But Kelly's 2013 Irish, sans a running option at quarterback to augment the effort, will be challenged to beat teams through the air as well.

"I wouldn't say that we're that far away from being very efficient at it," said Kelly of passing against defenses loading the box. "I would welcome it every single week  I think we're close, if not right there.  I mean, we're a step away here; we're an alignment away here or there.

"I have absolutely no question in my mind that if you want to play us that way, with Tommy Rees, you will pay for it."

The likes of Purdue, Air Force, and Navy probably will. Beyond that, a proving ground remains.

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