SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame assistant football coaches Michael Haywood and Ron Powlus sat in the team’s offices and watched game films, breaking down each of the Irish’s 24 third-down plays this year looking for a solution for one of the team’s biggest problems in 2008.
“We came in and addressed the team and said this is what happened and this is the reason why,” said Haywood, the offensive coordinator. “We have to get better. What we have to do is develop a core of third-down calls which they are more consistent with, that they are more confident with. That’s where we’re headed this week.”
In its first two games, Notre Dame has converted 6 of 24 third downs (25 percent) to rank 112th in the country. The Irish are the lowest-ranked third-down team with a winning record, and the teams below them are a combined 3-17, including the Irish’s two opponents this year, Michigan and San Diego State.
Since 2005, when Notre Dame converted 48.9 percent of its third-down chances (No. 7 nationally), the Irish have been free falling.
In 2006, they dropped to 39.6 percent (tied for 52nd) and slumped to 31.1 percent in 2007 (111th).
For all the improvements Notre Dame’s offense has made so far this season – a 2-0 record, improved route running by Golden Tate and better blocking by the offensive line – its third-down conversion rate has become an eyesore.
Michigan State, meanwhile, has converted 36.4 percent of its third downs.
In other words, if Notre Dame doesn’t improve it’ll end up hurting them against good quick-strike opposing offenses (read: USC, Purdue and North Carolina) when the Irish will want to keep those units off the field.
At this rate, they won’t.
“It definitely inhibits your offense and stifles some potential drives that could lead to points,” Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis said. “I think we have to get to some staples on third down that the team goes in there and says I’m glad they called that play because we know we’re going to get five yards.”
Sophomore quarterback Jimmy Clausen said the down shouldn’t matter and whether he likes the play shouldn’t matter.
“There’s certain plays in the game plan that I feel real comfortable about,” Clausen said. “I don’t think it’s just the third-down plays, first, second down, and you know, whatever presents itself.”
The priority is to make sure Clausen’s comfort level and Haywood’s play calls are in the same range.
“We have to establish a mentality on third down similar to first down or to two minute or all those other areas, where we’re in a comfort zone,” Weis said. “Where, when we get third-and-5, we’re going to call this play and we know it’s going to work.
“Right now, we don’t have that same type of confidence.”