Notre Dame Football: Breaking Down the Tempo of the Irish Offense
As the Notre Dame Fighting Irish close down the 2011 season and head into 2012, one major adjustment looms for Brian Kelly's offense: Tempo.
This is the first in a three-part series examining the offensive tempo at Notre Dame. For this edition, we'll establish the statistical standard for what Kelly wants to achieve. We'll break down the pace of recent Irish offenses and examine a couple of points of comparison outside of South Bend.
Next week, we'll examine why tempo is so important. The following week, we'll take a look at what the Irish can do to pick up the pace next season.
This article will reference per-play statistics as a way to illustrate the efficiency of each offense. Before we get knee-deep in the numbers, let's set up a couple of benchmarks for those stats.
The best offenses in the nation will deliver around seven yards per play. Anything above six is excellent.
Points per play will vary based on the tempo of the offense, but in general, anything over 0.50 is great.
With that in mind, let's dive in.
The Slow Dance: 2009 Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Average Time of Possession: 31:54
Offensive Plays Per Game: 71
Offensive Plays Per Minute: 2.2
Yards Gained Per Play: 6.4
Points Scored Per Play: 0.43
Tempo was never a concern for Charlie Weis. The man who promised "a decided schematic advantage" could care less what the defense was doing. Weis was content to let his opponents set themselves and substitute all they wanted, supremely confident that his schemes would prevail no matter what.
His quarterbacks were allowed to adjust at the line if the defense presented a particularly opportunistic coverage, but save for the occasional quarterback sneak, Weis rarely had his offense hustling to the line to catch the opponent off guard.
In 2009, that approach was successful because Weis had an experienced, talented quarterback to run his system. Jimmy Clausen ran it well, leading an offense that ranked 14th in the nation in time of possession to over 30 points per game. The Irish weren't going to win any track meets, but scoring 0.43 points per play is a solid level of production.
The New System: 2010 Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Average Time of Possession: 27:56
Offensive Plays Per Game: 69
Offensive Plays Per Minute: 2.5
Yards Gained Per Play: 5.5
Points Scored Per Play: 0.38
Brian Kelly arrived in South Bend in 2010 with his uptempo spread system in tow. After Kelly's run of unprecedented success with the Cincinnati Bearcats (more on that later), Irish fans had high hopes for what his offense could accomplish right away.
Even as his quarterback talent was downgraded from Jimmy Clausen to the combination of Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees, Kelly was able to achieve some improvement in tempo, cutting down his team's time of possession and significantly increasing its number of plays per minute.
Unfortunately, while the shift to the spread resulted in a faster pace on offense, the underlying numbers indicate an offense that just couldn't sustain drives. On a per-play basis, Kelly's first season at Notre Dame yielded declines in both yardage and points.
The Learning Curve: 2011 Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Average Time of Possession: 29:53
Offensive Plays Per Game: 70
Offensive Plays Per Minute: 2.3
Yards Gained Per Play: 5.9
Points Scored Per Play: 0.42
While Kelly's second season at the helm did produce a significant increase in time of possession, it wasn't all on the coach.
Tommy Rees' lack of improvisational ability forced Kelly into a strategic shift that sacrificed tempo to ensure that the offense wouldn't be stuck in plays doomed by the defense's pre-snap alignment.
It made the offense more effective on a per-play basis, but the secondary reads lengthened the amount of time between the set and the snap.
Kelly said so himself:
"We have to be careful. We can play fairly quickly. We're forcing the tempo. We're up there, giving Tommy plenty of time to get in the right play more than we're pushing the tempo. It's really the quarterback that dictates the kind of tempo you play at."
Notre Dame was still able to score at a pretty decent clip this season, but the offense clearly wasn't operating at its peak.
The Gold Standard: 2011 Oregon Ducks
Average Time of Possession: 24:55
Offensive Plays Per Game: 73
Offensive Plays Per Minute: 2.9
Yards Gained Per Play: 7.2
Points Scored Per Play: 0.64
Nobody in college football pushes the tempo like Chip Kelly's Oregon Ducks.
The Ducks are the nation's hardest team to play against, exhausting offenses with a seemingly never-ending stream of shifty, speedy game-breakers.
Oregon values pace above all else.
The Ducks famously refuse to take timeouts during their two-minute drill, knowing that the toll their accelerated pace takes on a defense holds more value than a clock stoppage that would allow both teams to catch their breath.
This season, Oregon scored an average of 1.85 points per minute of offensive possession. If that rate were extrapolated over an average total time of possession (30 minutes), the Ducks would average 56 points per game.
The Attainable Goal: 2009 Cincinnati Bearcats
Average Time of Possession: 25:46
Offensive Plays Per Game: 64
Offensive Plays Per Minute: 2.5
Yards Gained Per Play: 7.0
Points Scored Per Play: 0.60
Here it is, the example to which all Irish fans can aspire: A Brian Kelly-coached team with experienced, athletic quarterbacks capable of running his uptempo spread system to its fullest extent.
Cincinnati never had elite talent at the skill positions, but still managed to generate strong per-play production at a clip of 2.5 plays per minute.
A weak Big East schedule certainly helped to boost those numbers, Cincinnati averaged a full half-yard better per play against conference opponents.
However, even against tougher opponents, Notre Dame's more explosive skill players would bridge the gap and allow Kelly's Irish offense to reach, or even eclipse, the numbers it produced with the Bearcats.
That is, if Kelly can find a quarterback.