In a perfect world, No. 9/10 Notre Dame (4-0) continues to play great defense while the offense grows and matures at a steady if not an accelerated pace.
Before you know it, you have a defense that opponents can’t score against and an offense that stands on its own two feet.
The Irish aren’t there yet, not with a sophomore quarterback who was yanked from the Michigan game midway through the second quarter, and not with a junior quarterback whose 2012 sample size is still too small to assure that he’s put last year’s turnover problems behind him.
“Clearly, we want to be more of an offense that can have big-play capabilities because we need to score more points,” said Brian Kelly at his Tuesday press conference, previewing Notre Dame’s clash with Miami (4-1) in Soldier Field Saturday night.
“We’re not scoring enough points.”
The Irish have managed just 53 points in the last three games. That’s the bad news. The good news is that those last three opponents - Purdue, Michigan State and Michigan - have scored just 26 points. Throw in Navy’s 10 points in the season-opener and only No. 1-rated Alabama and No. 15/13-ranked TCU have allowed fewer points through the first month of the season.
But in Kelly, the Irish have one of the most productive play-callers in today’s game. His 2009 Cincinnati squad averaged 38.6 points per game en route to a 12-0 regular season and a trip to the Orange Bowl. Two years earlier, the Bearcats improved from 21.1 points per game prior to his arrival to 36.3 in Kelly’s first season.
Sitting around and being content to let the defense carry the load is not in Kelly’s offensive DNA pool. He wants a fast tempo and the ability to score at a breakneck pace. First and foremost, however, Kelly is a head coach, and the head coach in him is not going to put the cart before the horse.
“It’s been our theme: we’re going to be careful with the football,” said Kelly, whose 2012 squad has reduced its turnovers from 15 through four games a year ago to just four at the one-third mark of the 2012 regular season.
Kelly has played it both ways. While his Cincinnati offense was racking up 447 yards per game in ’09, his defense was allowing only 75 yards less. The Bearcats’ defensive coordinator at the time was Bob Diaco, the same guy who has turned Notre Dame’s defense into a terror in 2012.
“It has a lot to do with how you manage the game,” Kelly said. “Looking back on some of the teams I had at Cincinnati, and Bob was my defensive coordinator, it was, ‘Hold on, we’re going to try to out-score them.’
“You go through those times where you manage the game accordingly. (At Cincinnati), we were going to make sure that our defense was on a long field because if they’re on a long field, they’ve got a chance to take it away and give us better field position or give it back to us. It makes an impact in how you manage and call a game.”
With Everett Golson still the starter in Game Five against Miami, the Irish are caught in the middle. Golson has directed the Irish to a mere 40 points in the last three games totaling a little more than nine quarters of playing time. Tommy Rees, who himself has led the Irish to just 13 points (three vs. Purdue, 10 vs. Michigan), suddenly has become the stabilizing presence in the Irish offense.
“We ran it fast last year and you saw what happened: we got a lot of speeding tickets,” Kelly quipped. “Until we’re ready to amp it up so to speak, we’re going to be careful with the football.”
That means going back to Golson as the starter, who has done more positive things in his playing time than negative, although the most recent performance is the one that sticks in the mind until new data alters the perception. Rees remains Kelly’s security blanket.
In Golson, the Irish have a dynamic athlete with a big arm, the ability to extend plays, and a good feel for the game - after the football has been snapped. In Rees, the Irish have the lock-down closer with 16 games of starting experience.
Part of the reason Notre Dame’s offense improved its rushing attack from 4.0 yards per carry and 126.6 yards rushing per game in 2010 to 4.8 yards per carry and 160.4 yards rushing per game in 2011 was Rees’ ability to check the offense into a more advantageous play.
“Tommy’s strength was and still continues to be getting us in very good plays,” Kelly said. “His weakness was he turned the football over, and we were balancing that all year in terms of the net benefits.
“But he continues to be a guy that can always get us in the optimum looks -- particularly when you’re in the spread - (with) the ability to get you running the football to the best looks.
“Everett is still developing those skills. He’s not where Tommy is. That’s where we want to get Everett.”
Kelly says that Golson is “still cooking, and we’ve taken him out of the oven,” which is why Golson’s checks at the line of scrimmage are limited from a running play to a running play and a pass play to a pass play.
“We generally like to start (a young quarterback on) run-to-run, pass-to-pass (checks),” Kelly said. “When you start to go from run to pass, you’ve graduated to the next level. You’ve gone from the 101 to the 201 level.
“We’re not there in all circumstances; we are in some. But he’s still cooking. He’s still learning to get to that next level to make those checks.”
Until that happens, Kelly will continue to lean heavily on Notre Dame’s defense, which will face its greatest challenge to date against a Miami offense that is averaging 35.6 points per game and 328.4 yards passing per game.
It remains a system of checks and balances until the offense - particularly the quarterbacks -- get up to speed.