Here’s a startling statistic: 34 percent of Notre Dame’s 344 points have come in the first quarter, while only 13 percent have come in the fourth quarter.
Starting strong was, oddly enough, a problem for the Irish offense in 2015, which featured the best offense of Brian Kelly's tenure in South Bend. But Notre Dame has scored first in every one of its 2016 games except for that Hurricane Matthew-caused quagmire at N.C. State, and has taken double-digit leads in the first halves against Nevada (25 points) Duke (14 points), Syracuse (10 points), Stanford (10 points), Miami (20 points), Army (31 points) and Virginia Tech (17 points).
The Irish lost to Duke, Stanford and Virginia Tech, and squandered that 20-point advantage against Miami only to eke out a narrow win.
So while Notre Dame has to take a hard look at its defense this offseason, Brian Kelly also has to find a way to smooth out the team’s offensive production over all four quarters.
“When you're 4-7, I think you have to evaluate everything,” Kelly said. “I don't think I sit here right now with all of those answers for you, other than certainly we've talked about players and executing, but coaches are part of the evaluation process, as well, and I have to be able to evaluate our coaches critically, as well.
“I’m not prepared to do that at this moment, but I can tell you that no stone will be unturned, and we will look for improvement in all areas.”
Notre Dame’s quarter-by-quarter offensive breakdown is certainly a point of concern, though:
First quarter: 10.5 points per game, No. 3 S&P+
Second quarter: 8.5 points per game, No. 58 S&P+
Third quarter: 7.2 points per game, No. 59 S&P+
Fourth quarter: 4.2 points per game, No. 77 S&P+
That could be a sign that Notre Dame’s scripted plays work well, but that the Irish have struggled to make in-game adjustments. Kelly said last week Notre Dame scripts out 20 plays, depending on down and distance, to begin every game, and will repeat ones that were successful as the game goes on.
“I think that you can go back to those quite a bit,” Kelly said. “And they become certainly relevant. Some get scratched off the sheet during the game for different reasons, might be personnel, might be a different front or coverage. But I would say that those plays usually stay very relevant throughout the game.”
Against Virginia Tech, Notre Dame jumped out to a 17-0 lead by averaging 6.9 yards per play in 25 first quarter plays and 7.9 yards per play fun 16 second quarter plays, and took a 24-14 lead into halftime. The Irish averaged 9.2 yards per play in the third quarter, but only ran 11 plays — and one of those was Josh Adams’ explosive touchdown run, which accounted for 67 of the team’s 101 yards that quarter. The fourth quarter was abysmal, with Notre Dame coughing up the lead and gaining only 2.7 yards per play.
It’s not just coaching/gameplanning/playcalling, of course, that’s contributed to these in-game offensive regressions. Poor execution has been a problem, especially for an inconsistent, often unreliable Irish running game. Quarterback DeShone Kizer has missed some throws, too, and has been victimized by some drops that could’ve helped steer the Irish offense to better second-half numbers.
But when Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford sit down at the end of the season to figure out what went wrong, evaluating their gameplanning and in-game playcalling will have to be at the top of the agenda.
“Too many cooks at that point really creates problems,” Kelly said. “So I'm trying the best I can to offer some solutions, but you really have to trust in the play calling. And the execution, quite frankly is part of that.
“So play calling, execution. We had some opportunities we didn't convert. You know, really a tale of two paths. Obviously offensively (against Virginia Tech) we got it going very well in the first half; in the second half we weren't as sharp.”