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Adams: Notre Dame’s offensive philosophy is in need of drastic change

| Sunday, October 27, 2019

It’s a trend that’s been making its way through pretty much all sports. The old phrase “defense wins championships” is essentially moot in 2019.

In the MLB this season, 6,776 total home runs were hit, breaking the previous record set only two years ago of 6,105. In the NBA, teams are constantly breaking franchise records for 3-pointers attempted and made in a season as position-less basketball has become the norm. Even in the NFL, offenses have experienced an uptick with more and more teams becoming quarterback-centric.

Anna Mason | The Observer
Senior quarterback Ian Book suffers a tackle by the Michigan defense during Notre Dame’s 45-14 loss to the Wolverines on Saturday night.

The simple truth is that success in sports calls for offense, offense and more offense. This should have been made painfully evident to Notre Dame, far earlier than most. If the need for offensive innovation and revolutionizing wasn’t apparent to the Irish in 2012, a year their defense almost single-handedly led them to the national championship game — the offense averaged only 25.8 points per game — but came up short against Alabama, then it most certainly should be after Saturday night.

Put aside the final result. The fact that Notre Dame fell behind 17-0 to a Michigan team that has struggled all season to find a pulse offensively, even one that came back from a 21-7 halftime deficit at Penn State to lose 28-21, is incredibly disconcerting.

In all fairness, there are criticisms to be made against the defense and special teams units as well. At the very least, though, the defense has the excuse of youth at the linebacker position, especially considering the linebackers were forced to make plays as the torrential downpour led the Wolverines to rely heavily on the ground game.

But at the minimum, this Notre Dame offense should be able to make enough plays to keep the game close throughout and never require a massive comeback effort; that is, if the Irish are truly a national-championship-caliber team.

I get that the aforementioned rain played a factor, but they knew this was coming. If head coach Brian Kelly said they could crank the volume of their new indoor practice facility up to 120 decibels to prepare for Georgia, and they couldn’t turn on the sprinklers to simulate getting wet for Michigan, then it wasn’t worth the price tag.

And to be frank, the rain didn’t make taking offensive risks impossible. In the first quarter, senior quarterback Ian Book took a shot to Chase Claypool on the sideline and the senior wide receiver made an incredibly difficult catch for a first down.

In the second quarter, with the Irish in great field position, Claypool made another incredible catch to put Notre Dame in scoring position despite a defensive pass interference, but it was called back because of an ineligible receiver downfield (on a personal note, the stupidest penalty in the history of sports).

Even senior running back Tony Jones Jr. made an incredible catch falling down, so the Irish had personnel with the ability to make play. Junior tight end Cole Kmet didn’t even get a single target in the first half.

Instead of pushing the envelope and taking some risks that could have worked out, and a few of them likely would have given Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown’s penchant for bringing pressure and leaving his secondary on an island, Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long did what he’s done his entire Notre Dame tenure: he was conservative.

He chose to run the ball against a Michigan defense that had his number, and one that has had his number dating back to the final three quarters of last season’s season-opening Irish win over the Wolverines. After taking deep shots with then-Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush to wide receivers Miles Boykin and now-graduate student Chris Finke, Notre Dame went up 14-0 and their defense essentially took care of the rest. The Irish mustered only one more touchdown and a field goal, which was just enough for a defense that held Michigan to 10 offensive points and a special teams unit that gave up a kick return touchdown in the second half.

The same couldn’t be said four months later in a 30-3 Irish shellacking at the hands of Clemson.

This season, Notre Dame doesn’t have Drue Tranquill and Te’von Coney at linebacker, nor All-American Julian Love at cornerback; yet this offensive stagnation remains a recurring pattern. Notre Dame only went up 7-0 on Georgia because Claypool recovered a muffed punt in the red zone. They also had three straight three-and-outs that resulted in Georgia field goals and exhausted their defense.

The following week against Virginia at home, the Irish fell behind 17-14 at the half and had to rely on multiple fumble recoveries by the defense, one returned for a touchdown, to get a 35-20 win.

I could go on, but I think that six combined completions in the first half between the two teams speaks for itself as an embarrassment to Long and the offense. By the time you’ve dug yourself a 17-0 hole, more and more pressure is mounting on your defense as every second ticks off the game clock. Eventually they reach a breaking point, as disappointing as it is for former head coach Ara Parseghian’s words to no longer ring true.

Football is a cooperative effort; it’s about yin and yang. To see what happens without that balance, look no further than earlier in the day when Oklahoma lost to Kansas State by giving up 48 points. Or look a week prior when Texas nearly lost to Kansas at home by giving up 48 as well.

The only difference is that this Irish coaching staff refuses to open up the offense and take risks until it’s too late. It’s the mentality that’s held Georgia back under Kirby Smart.

Notre Dame’s defense made plays against the Wolverines early in the second half to keep the Irish in it, as they have done almost all season. But against a tough opponent, the offense let the team down as usual.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Hayden Adams

Hayden is the former sports editor of The Observer. When he's not working toward his four majors (physics and film, television & theatre) and three minors (journalism, ethics & democracy), you can probably find him hopelessly trying to save his beloved Zahm House from being wiped out. He plans to attend law school at a TBD location after graduation.

Contact Hayden