What Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly found particularly distressing after Saturday’s 37-14 loss to Stanford was that the Irish were incapable of establishing the run early and unwilling to take advantage of drop-eight coverage later on.
"We know we can throw the football, provided we're prepared and put our kids in a good position to succeed," Kelly said Sunday. "I think we have to evolve a little bit further as to ‘where are we going in the running game’?"
Against the Cardinal, the Irish went nowhere, eking out just 44 yards on 23 carries. Down 19-6 in the third quarter, Kelly had no choice but to throw the ball to try and catch up. But after evaluating Notre Dame's first four games, he's unsatisfied with the ratio of average yards gained through the air (315) and on the ground (110).
"I'd like to have a little bit more balance," Kelly admitted. “That's not really where I want to be offensively as an identity in terms of run-pass. Those are some of the things that we're really looking carefully at."
Stanford invited Notre Dame quarterback Dayne Crist to venture beyond the line of scrimmage by loading defenders in the secondary. Kelly explained that after the junior took a significant shot to the head on a run against Michigan, perhaps Kelly's own unconscious fear of something similar happening again has kept Crist on a short leash.
"We felt like Dayne was a capable runner," Kelly said. "Losing him, obviously, against Michigan gave us great pause. We did something very conservative against Michigan State; he did not look comfortable running the football. We had a third-and-1 where we ran a little speed option play and he didn't look very comfortable. Then obviously yesterday, they dropped eight into coverage. If we ran quarterback draw as part of our offense, he probably would have been the leading rusher.
"I think more towards ‘let's make sure that we do things that are his strengths’ and running the football is not one of his strengths. I think it can be. Maybe there is a little bit of that in my mind that we're protecting Dayne and I don't know if we can continue to do that.”
Sophomore tailback Cierre Wood, who it was thought would challenge starter Armando Allen, has fallen off the grid in the last two weeks. Allen's production continues to slide and junior Jonas Gray pulled a groin against Stanford that will keep him out of Tuesday's practice, according to Kelly.
Suddenly, senior Robert Hughes, the biggest of the bunch at 5-foot-11, 245 pounds, is back in the mix.
"Yes," Kelly acknowledged. "Yeah, he's the next man. Robert would obviously have to be prepared and ready to go. If the opportunity arises for him, which it could now, he'll be ready to go."
Te'o towers above all
After distributing 21 tackles Saturday, sophomore inside linebacker Manti Te'o now leads the nation with 53 total stops. However, by the numbers, Notre Dame's defense is one of the worst in the country. Kelly continues to put little stock in the statistical breakdown.
"The ranking has very little to do with it; it's still about each individual game because the game is managed so differently from week to week based upon how an offense is set up to perform," he said. Again, what I look at ... is the rush defense. You can't start to put together a championship defense until you start to look at your rush defense. I think we're trending in the right way. We're not there yet, so I'm not going to get caught up in where we are nationally as much as what I see from week to week relative to our improvement."
Using Stanford as an example
It was only a few years ago that the Cardinal’s situation was similar to Notre Dame’s struggles. Stanford has since earned national respect for its toughness on both sides of the ball.
"If you look at the physicality that Stanford played with, their body types -- they were lean, athletic -- that's the model that I've built my programs on," Kelly said. "We're moving in that direction, where we want to be. “That's a pretty darn good football team and that's the way you want to look."