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DeFazio: 2021 is not the new 2020

| Friday, September 17, 2021

If there is anything that I can safely say about the 2021 football season, it is that it has already not gone as expected. Twice in a row now, I have almost had to eat my words, and my faith in Notre Dame football is proving to be somewhat unjustified. Twice in a row, I have had to watch two opponents that should have eased the Irish into the season almost topple them right out of the gate. It makes one question why nearly all hope has been dashed for an undefeated season like we fans enjoyed in 2020.

And therein lies the issue — the 2021 team is just not the same as last year, undefeated season and all. So why do they keep trying to play like they are?

Let’s start with some statistics. In 2020, the run game accounted for 47% of total offensive yardage, passing for 53%. In 2021, however, the team is averaging 341.5 passing yards per game and 440.0 total yards per game — that’s 77.6% of the gains attributed to passes over runs. 

Notre Dame went from a squad that was using both aspects of the offense fairly equally to one that is clearly heavy-handed in the passing department. This change was apparent from the start; in the season opener against FSU, the Irish averaged 2.76 yards per play in the 26 designed runs they enacted. Why continue to push the run game if it is failing in a game setting?

This is not to diminish the talent of the backfield. Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree especially have proven themselves to be exceptional athletes; they just haven’t been given the opportunity to showcase their abilities this season. The responsibility for that fact lies heavily with the offensive line, which is operating below average at best. Notre Dame has already dipped into its third-string reserves for a left tackle, and the discombobulation among the line has proven costly. The opponent’s defense glides through, coming straight for the quarterback and running backs before they can take a step towards the end zone.

The talent of the tight ends and wide receivers, then, begs to be acknowledged and used with the runningbacks essentially tied down. There is a wealth of ability in these position groups. The combination of Jack Coan, Michael Mayer and Kevin Austin, Jr. has been a sort of Bermuda Triangle for the Irish’s opponents, and Mayer and Austin, Jr. have a combined four of seven passing touchdowns scored so far. Why not utilize these groups to the fullest extent you can if it is proving to be so effective?

Not only this, but a large part of this change in philosophy is that Jack Coan and Ian Book are almost polar opposites in how they manage the field. While Book was known for his run game, Coan’s arm is his true strength. Instead of Coan himself, it is the ball that does the traveling. He hangs back and has an accurate aim for the longer throws; Rees should use Coan’s strong points instead of forcing something that does not work for who he is as a player. He is not the type of quarterback to escape the pocket and make his way downfield, and given how the offense is currently operating, he has run into some issues because of this. 

When the offensive line fails, Coan is almost defenseless.

The way I see it, having three years under Book has lulled the team into feeling a sense of consistency that is inconsistent with the current roster. If that is the type of game Kelly wants to play, then he’s going to have to restructure the offense. 

If those rushing yards are the main prerogative, then Tyler Buchner is probably the best bet to have at the helm. I will admit, I had a semi-flashback to 2020 when I saw #12 shoot across the field. Buchner’s game fits more easily into the offense that had been run during the Book era. 

And I hate to say it, but if that is the way the team is heading, Kyren Williams may need to take a back seat for a while in favor of Chris Tyree, at least until the offensive line sharpens up. They don’t call Tyree “The Jet” for nothing — he is No. 3 in CFB’s top five speeds from ball carriers, clocking in at 21.8 mph. He can use this ability to make up for the offensive line troubles. If there is an opening even starting to form, Tyree is usually through it, using that speed and agility to make it ten yards before anyone can catch up with him. Therefore, the running game will come at the cost of using talented returnees to the extent they were last year if the offensive line is not strengthened to the point of supporting the run game.

Even now, two games in, I cannot say for certain which route is the best to pursue. All I know is that Kelly better make a decision, and make it quickly before any other almost-upsets occur in the house that Rockne built.

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