Blue and Gold Illustrated

April 2020

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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54 APRIL 2020 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED O ne truly becomes the Notre Dame football head coach when just enough success has been achieved that it doesn't quite mea- sure up to immense standards. Now in his 11th season with the Fighting Irish, Brian Kelly received a taste of it following the initial spring practice March 5 prior to spring break. What seemed like an innocuous question from a reporter about im- proving the offensive line — specifi- cally when it comes to running the ball — struck a nerve in Kelly, espe- cially after producing a 33-6 record the past three years (sixth best in the Football Bowl Subdivision), includ- ing 11-2 last season. "I don't know that we were that bad last year," he shot back with a tad of irritation. "We scored a lot of points. There seems to be this narra- tive out there that we weren't very good at running the football. We were a pretty good offense last year." And therein lies the crux. Similar to the familiar "just okay is not okay" AT&T commercials, "pretty good" is not good enough for the championship aspirations the program espouses. Indeed, the 36.8 points averaged last year were the highest in the Kelly era — and even better than what any of the 13 NCAA-recognized national champions at Notre Dame from 1919-88 achieved. However, entering the 2020s, de- fense in football often is more about damage control than dominance. The final scores of the six College Football Playoff championship matchups some- what provide that indication: 42-20, 45-40, 35-31, 26-23, 44-16 and 42-25. That does not even include semi- final scores such as 42-35, 54-48 (two overtimes) or 45-34, among others. More and more, there is an Arena League-like feel to the game. LSU, the 2019 national champions, averaged 48.4 points per game while Alabama was at 47.2, and in their regular-season showdown the Tigers toppled the Crimson Tide 46-41. The "defense wins champion- ships" bromide now more so means "hopefully we can stop you one more time from scoring than you stop us." Ohio State was at 46.9 points per contest, Clemson 43.9 and Oklahoma in a "down" year managed 42.1. That has become the rule, not exception, among championship contenders. Where maybe a decade ago 30- to 35-point outputs were still darn good, the mid-40s are the new standard — and not just padding that figure against inferior personnel or teams. At the end of this September, Notre Dame likely will be around 40-45 points per contest and 500 yards per game after having faced Navy (52-20 score last year), Arkansas (allowed 36.8 points per game last season, 124th among 130 teams), Wake For- est (56-27 win two years ago) and Western Michigan (permitted 51 and 52 points to its two lone Power Five foes last year, Michigan State and Syracuse). But just like the 2019 Fighting Irish season was going to be judged on three games (at Georgia, USC and at Michigan), the 2020 campaign like- wise will be measured primarily on what is accomplished versus Wiscon- sin, Clemson and at USC. Unless, of course, an upset occurs, which the Irish have been excellent at avoiding the past three years. Still, just like in 2019, those are the three foes on the slate where Notre Dame can be classified either as a "pick 'em" or even an underdog. Once you become a pretty darn good top-six to top-15 level program like Notre Dame has the past three years, the stakes rise, which is any coach- ing staff's ambition. Consequently, failures become more magnified than successes, which in many ways is a compliment and human nature. So while the 33 wins are laudable, in the six losses the repeated theme is the offense lacking the firepower — or even power game — to win such shootouts to reach the first tier. In those six defeats the Irish aver- aged 13.5 points, never eclipsing 20, and rushed for 81.6 yards per game. While Pro Football Focus did grade Notre Dame's offensive line last year as the FBS's second-best pass-block- ing unit — once again demonstrat- ing that a team achieves what it em- phasizes — the question centers on whether the offense can balance that with a potent ground attack against top-flight opposition. With a third-year starting quarter- back (a first under Kelly) and 114 ca- reer starts returning along the offen- sive line (the most in program history from what we've researched), the onus will be on the offense — espe- cially first-time coordinator Tommy Rees and line coach Jeff Quinn, often the lightning rod of critics — to be more than just pretty good. "There is this kind of pervasive feeling that the offensive line has to get better," Kelly said. "I got to get better. The wide receivers have got to get better. … We can get off that train of the offensive line has to get better. Everybody has to get better." That's more than a "pretty good" summation. ✦ Offense/Line Has Not Yet Run Its Course THE FIFTH QUARTER LOU SOMOGYI Senior Editor Lou Somogyi has been at Blue & Gold Illustrated since July 1985. He can be reached at In their six defeats over the past three years — all against top-flight competition — the Fighting Irish averaged only 81.6 rushing yards and 13.5 points per game. PHOTO BY J. SISSON/WPG

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