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Monardo: Offensive flexibility could be enough for Irish (Sept. 23)

Joseph Monardo | Sunday, September 22, 2013

 

While Notre Dame’s defense took a notable step toward establishing its identity by limiting Michigan State to 13 points and 254 yards, the offense seemingly took a step backward, struggling to 224 yards behind an unimpressive performance from quarterback Tommy Rees.

No, it was not pretty. Nor was it exciting. But it was enough for the win, just what Notre Dame needed. And it was just what Irish coach Brian Kelly thought it would be. 

“If you would have asked me last week about what this kind of game was going to be, it wasn’t going to be a beauty contest,” Kelly said afterward. “I felt like it was going to be this kind of game.”

Michigan State entered the matchup with the top-ranked defense, both in terms of yards allowed and opponent pass-efficiency rating, and an offense that had surpassed the 300-yard threshold only once in three games. Notre Dame, meanwhile, was the predecessor to a team that reached the national championship game largely on the prowess of the defense. The point is, everyone expected the defenses to rule the day, and that is exactly what we got. 

Still, the statistics from Notre Dame’s offensive showing were underwhelming. Rees completed only 14 of 34 attempts for 142 yards while Notre Dame’s running backs combined for only 82 yards. 

The meager production seems to suggest a critical lack of identity for the Irish offense. After all, Notre Dame put only 17 points on the board while benefiting from 115 penalty yards, more than half as many yards as they tallied themselves. The running game still has not come into its own, and the passing attack that had been so proficient was wildly inefficient and unproductive. 

But those looking for this Irish offense to establish a strong identity should change their expectations. Notre Dame will not develop a running game that will carry them through the remainder of the season. Rees and his receivers will not turn into a high-powered attack that will blow teams out of the water. But they won’t have to.

Against the Spartans, the Irish showed once again they can do exactly what it takes to win a game. They have done it 15 times in their last 16 regular-season opportunities, and they will likely find a way to do it several more times this season. The offense can put enough production together to squeeze by their opponents; it just won’t be with a consistent identity. 

Against the Spartans, Notre Dame passed the ball again and again, but not because that is what the team’s offensive identity is. The Irish challenged Michigan State’s cornerbacks repeatedly because it offered them the best chance to win against an extremely solid defensive team.

“You have to win throwing the football against Michigan State,” Kelly said. “You’re not going to win running the football against them.

“Those safeties are downhill. Those linebackers are in the box. Those are nine guys hawking the run game. It’s tough sledding in there.”

The propensity for pass interference calls to go against Michigan State’s isolated corners provided even more incentive for Notre Dame to push the ball down the field over the top. 

“When you know that the quarterback is going to throw it back shoulder, the defensive back does not know where it is, you have an advantage in that situation,” Kelly said.

That Notre Dame’s offense lacks an apparent identity is not a problem. The ability of Kelly and the rest of the Irish to piece together a winning performance based on the matchup can be just as powerful as the capacity to dominate a game in any single facet. What they lack in style and mastery they can make up for with flexibility and responsiveness to what the opponent offers them. 

Whether it will be enough to earn a berth in a BCS bowl is difficult to say, but the Irish are better off working with what they have rather than fabricating an identity.

Contact Joseph Monardo at jmonardo@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.