What does Brian Kelly have up his sleeve for this fall? (Photo courtesy: USA Today Sports)
In retrospect, Notre Dame’s return in 2012 to the upper echelon of the college football world came in unlikely fashion.
Aside from the occasional scalping, such as the one ND put on Miami, the Fighting Irish rarely dominated any of their opponents, winning six games by a touchdown or less. With all those close finishes, ND fans undoubtedly felt like some echoes were finally waking up after all those years laying dormant.
In fact, those thrilling wins derived less from divine intervention and more from a spare brand of fundamental football.
The defense, of course, was stout, allowing 12.8 points per game. Offensively, the Irish played at a pretty standard pace, according to SBNation’s Bill Connelly, and used a game plan that skewed to the run to hold the ball for about 32 minutes per game. ND ran the ball effectively on first down, picking up a healthy 5.35 yards a clip, which enabled coach Brian Kelly to keep his play-calling balanced and manage drives by avoiding obvious passing situations. Meanwhile, shifty quarterback Everett Golson and flex tight end Tyler Eifert gave the Irish multi-dimensional weapons while operating out of power spread looks.
The methodical Irish O produced a mere 25.8 points per game (80th nationally). That isn't to say that ND’s offense was bad a year ago. To the contrary, it was one of the most efficient in the country. This year, however, looks like a leprechaun of a different color.
For starters, it goes without saying (and, yet, I’m saying it) that the loss of Golson for the season changes the complexion of the offense significantly. The stats may suggest that the drop-off between Golson and Rees isn’t that big, but then you actually watch them play. Golson simply provides a more dynamic presence behind center. He poses an additional threat to defenses with his ability to make plays with his feet, which loosens everything up for the guys around him.
There’s also the matter of ball security. Throughout his career Rees’ throws have been picked off at a rate of roughly one in every 25 attempts, double that of Golson. The drop in interceptions from 17 in 2011 to eight a year ago contributed substantially to ND cutting its turnovers in half between seasons.
While it may not have created as much buzz as Golson’s, Eifert's departure looms equally large in South Bend. It wasn’t just that the versatile TE was ND’s most productive receiver last year – he also proved to be the team’s most dependable target in tight spots. Of Eifert’s 50 catches in ‘12, 13 came on third down. He converted 11 of those 13 grabs into first downs, more than anyone else on the roster.
All in all, the combined losses of Golson, Eifert, two starters on the offensive line, and workhorse running backs Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood rachet up the pressure on new play caller Chuck Martin to reconfigure the Irish’s plan of attack in the fall. The D will still be salty, but the offense appears poised to take some big steps back.
If this squad comes close to replicating last year’s campaign, it might be time to accept that ND is getting some help from above.