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Notre Dame vs. Tulsa: Keys to an Irish Win

By · October 28th, 2010 · 8 Comments
Notre Dame vs. Tulsa: Keys to an Irish Win

Notre Dame returns home Saturday before getting a much-needed bye week. The Irish are beset with injuries on both sides of the ball and the team’s psyche is undoubtedly fragile after the decisive loss to Navy. After reeling off three-straight victories, head coach Brian Kelly’s team took a big step back in East Rutherford.

Notre Dame stands at 4-4 with four games remaining in the regular season. Three of the final four opponents—including Tulsa who the Irish host Saturday—rank in the top 30 in rushing, passing and scoring offense. Notre Dame desperately needs to win two of these games, as getting bowl eligible and gaining the extra practice time is imperative for continued development.

The meeting Saturday will be the first between Notre Dame and Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane enter the contest at 4-3 with wins over Bowling Green, (FCS) Central Arkansas, Memphis, and Tulane, and losses to East Carolina, Oklahoma State, and SMU. Tulsa’s seven opponents form the 96th toughest AVR strength of schedule.

Tulsa, Version 2010

Tulsa is coached by Todd Graham who owns a fairly distinguished resume. Graham is in his fourth year leading the Golden Hurricane and has compiled a 30-17 (0.638) overall record, an 18-12 (0.600) conference record, and a 12-5 (0.706) non-conference record. Graham’s teams also won at least a share of the Conference USA Western Division Title with back-to-back 10-win seasons in 2007 and 2008.

During Graham’s tenure Tulsa has certainly been known for offense. The Golden Hurricane ranked 6th in scoring in 2007, 2nd in 2008 (behind record-setting Oklahoma), and currently rank 13th this season. Last year the unit struggled (44), but a host of injuries along the offensive line hurt the continuity of the front five.

Tulsa’s defense, however, is another matter entirely. Graham’s defensive unit ranked 100th in points per game allowed in 2007, 75th in 2008, 74th in 2009, and currently rank 81st this year.

Part of the success on offense, at least this season, comes from ball protection. Tulsa ranks 17th in turnover margin (+6) having forced 2.1 takeaways per game (25th ranking) while only surrendering one turnover per 61 plays (12).


The 2010 Golden Hurricane offense does far more than score points. The unit is balanced (221.6 rushing yards per game, 270 passing yards per game), effective (8th in yards per game at 491.6), and efficient (6.3 yards per play, 27th). But perhaps most impressive is the ability to sustain drives. Tulsa is 12th in the country in third down efficiency (50.9 percent), 3rd in red zone appearances per game (5.4), and 5th in plays per game (78.4).

Herb Hand and Chad Morris share the coordinating duties with Hand also coaching the offensive line and Morris tutoring the quarterbacks. Hand has been at Tulsa since Graham came on board in 2007 while Morris is in his first year with the team.

Hand and Morris employ a similar, albeit not identical, scheme to that of Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzhan. Tulsa operates out of a spread package, distributes the ball to all of their personnel, and forces defenses to defend the whole field—five players have 24 or more rush attempts and eight have caught at least 10 passes.

Hand and Morris have plenty of playmakers at their disposal but the offense runs through quarterback G. J. Kinne. The Texas transfer has rushed 52 times at 5.3 yards per carry (excluding sacks), completed nearly 60 percent of his passes for 1,855 yards (7.3 yards per attempt), and scored 19 touchdowns. Kinne led the team in rush attempts last season and threw the ball well, but improvement from the front five has really allowed him to distribute the ball and make plays.

Most of the improvement upfront has been due to consistency in the lineup. Tulsa had nine offensive linemen start at least one game in 2009, but have started only six this year. Tyler Holmes, Clint Anderson, Trent Dupy, Stetson Burnett, Brian DeShane, and Brandon Thomas have all played well in 2010, as Tulsa has improved dramatically protecting the quarterback. The front five surrendered one sack every 8.5 pass attempts in 2009 but have only allowed one per 28.9 attempts (24) thus far this year.

Apart from Kinne, running backs Ja’Terian Douglas, Trey Watts, and Alex Singleton share the bulk of the carries while running back Charles Clay is the teams leading pass catcher. Douglas and Watts are smaller, more agile backs, while Singleton and Clay provide plenty of power.

Douglas, Watts and Singleton have combined for 745 yards and 10 touchdowns on only 133 rushes (5.6 yards per attempt) and are all capable options, but the big play threat in the running game is junior wide receiver Damaris Johnson. Johnson, who also serves as a kickoff and punt returner, led the country in all-purpose yards last season and is 13th in the same category this year. The speedy and shifty wideout averages a gaudy 10.8 yards per rush attempt and is second on the team with four rushing touchdowns.

Joining Damaris in the receiving corps are Trae Johnson, Thomas Roberson, and Ricky Johnson. These three receivers, along with Damaris Johnson, have combined for 74 receptions and 923 receiving yards (12.5 yards per reception). Kinne also likes to get his running backs involved in the passing game. Clay is tied for the team lead in receptions with 27 as he and Watts have hauled in 43 passes for 459 yards (10.7 yards per reception) and seven touchdowns.

See the tables below for an in-depth look at the 2010 Golden Hurricane offense (the Opponent Average and Opponent Average Rank columns refer to Tulsa’s 2010 opponents excluding Central Arkansas).

2010 Tulsa Offensive Efficiency

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2010 Tulsa Total Offense

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2010 Tulsa Rushing Offense

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2010 Tulsa Passing Offense

[table id=460 /]


While the offense is one of the best in the country, the defense leaves a bit to be desired.

Tulsa ranks 81st in points per game (28.9), 108th in yards per game (443.3), and 100th in yards per play (6.1). The defense surrendered 51 points to East Carolina and 71 to Oklahoma State—the only top 20 offenses they have faced—and have allowed more yards than their opponents’ average in every game but one (Memphis).

The numbers against the run are respectable at 113.1 yards per game and only 3.5 yards per attempt, but Tulsa hasn’t faced many strong rushing offenses and have only defended 32.6 rush attempts per game (21). Against the pass, however, the Golden Hurricane defense has really struggled.

Similar to the offense, Paul Randolph and Keith Patterson act as co-defensive coordinators. Randolph is in his fourth year, following Graham from Rice, while Patterson is in his eighth season. The Golden Hurricane run a 3-3-5 defense that Randolph first developed and implemented at Rice and subsequently brought to Tulsa.

The three-man front has been shuffled a bit during the season but Cory Dorris, Odrick Ray, and Tryunn Walker have seen the most action while Derrick Jackson has also seen duty at nose guard. Walker is explosive off the line and leads the team in tackles for a loss (7.5) and sacks (3.5), but overall the unit lacks size (average of 6′-3″, 272 pounds) and hasn’t generated significant production.

The linebacker corps features the two most active players on the defense in senior Tanner Antle and sophomore Curnelius Arnick. Antle and Arnick are the top two tacklers on the team and have combined for 118 stops, 11 tackles for a loss, and four sacks. The third linebacker spot has experienced a bit of rotation during the season but Shawn Jackson has seen the most action and is second on the team in tackles for a loss with seven.

Marco Nelson is the most active member of Tulsa’s secondary leading the unit with 47 tackles and tied with fellow defensive back Dexter McCoil for a team-leading three interceptions. John Flanders and Lowell Rose also start in the secondary, while the fifth position has mostly been manned by Brian Moore.

See the tables below for an in-depth look at the 2010 Golden Hurricane defense (the Opponent Average and Opponent Average Rank columns refer to Tulsa’s 2010 opponents excluding Central Arkansas).

2010 Tulsa Defensive Efficiency

[table id=461 /]

2010 Tulsa Total Defense

[table id=462 /]

2010 Tulsa Rushing Defense

[table id=463 /]

2010 Tulsa Passing Defense

[table id=464 /]

Adding It All Up

Tulsa will be the most balanced offense the Irish have faced all year and could also be the most explosive. The unit ranks 2nd in the country in 10-plus yard gains from scrimmage, and they gash opponents on the ground and through the air. Additionally, Tulsa has generated 55 explosive gains—nearly eight per game—at 25.8 yards per play, 13 of which have gone for touchdowns.

But aside from Tulsa’s balance and big play threat(s), the primary challenge defending Kinne and company is how they use their personnel. Hand and Morris have plenty of flexibility at the skill positions and the improved play of the offensive line has promoted ball distribution by opening up running lanes and affording Kinne time to go downfield. The scheme and style of play puts pressure on opposing defenses by forcing then to defend the width and depth of the field.

Defensively, Tulsa struggles on multiple fronts. The unit is 115th in the country in 10-plus yard plays allowed and tied for 109th in 20-plus yard plays allowed. Most of the damage has come through the air as the Golden Hurricane defense has surrendered 12 passing scores of 20-plus yards and ranks dead last in 10-plus yard pass plays allowed. Against the run, the unit is largely untested—Oklahoma State is the only top 35 rushing offense Tulsa has faced—but most teams have chosen to exploit a suspect secondary.

Keys to Winning


  1. Pass early, often and downfield. The Irish offense ranks 4th in 10-plus yard pass plays, while Tulsa ranks last. It is strength on weakness for Notre Dame, particularly if wide receiver Michael Floyd returns and provides a strong deep threat for quarterback Dayne Crist.
  2. Use the run to move the chains. Passing may be the best way to move the ball against the Golden Hurricane defense, but scoring quickly puts the Golden Hurricane offense back on the field. Tulsa can score plenty of points and the Irish offense must sustain drives to keep the ball out of Kinne’s hands. Kelly has called a run on 63 percent of short yardage plays and converted a first down at a rate if 75.8 percent. Similarly, 68.2 percent of third and short plays have been runs which have moved the chains 86.7 percent of the time. Notre Dame’s offensive line has a size advantage over a smaller defensive front that has struggled against the run in these situations, and the Irish offense needs to do its part to prevent Tulsa from having a host of possessions.
  3. Don’t force the ball. Crist has shown a tendency to force passes, particularly last week and especially when the Irish fall behind. Points off turnovers have been an Achilles’ heel for Notre Dame this season and Tulsa has proven capable of capitalizing on opponents’ mistakes. The Golden Hurricane offense has turned six fumbles and nine interceptions into 58 points (3.9 points per turnover) and averages 8.3 points per game off turnovers.


  1. The game will be won (or lost) in the trenches. At 6′-3″, 296 pounds, Tulsa’s offensive line isn’t overly imposing, but they do operate well in space. Against a balanced team defensive coordinator Bob Diaco can’t afford to drop an extra defender into the box or send too many pass rushers. Guess wrong, and Tulsa will burn you for a big play. For the Irish to have any chance in this contest, they must be able to manage the game upfront without committing extra defenders.
  2. Don’t give up the big play. Tulsa’s big play production is critical to their success. The unit has 28 scoring drives on which they have generated 32 big plays compared to 12 explosive gains on 44 non-scoring possessions. Additionally, explosive scoring plays have accounted for over 38 percent of the touchdown production and the two lowest scoring games came against Oklahoma State (28 points) and SMU (18)—the common denominator in both contests was low big play production and no touchdowns from explosive gains. Without these plays Tulsa struggles to get into the red zone, the unit averages 5.4 appearances per game but only had seven trips against the Cowboys and Mustangs combined. Damaris Johnson and Ja’Terian Douglas have combined for 14 explosive runs, while Ricky Johnson, Charles Clay, and Jameel Owens have combined for 15 explosive receptions. All five should be a focus of the Irish defense.
  3. Defend the run first. Hand and Morris want to run the ball. Tulsa has a 60.8/39.2 run/pass split on open downs (5.9 yards per rush attempt) and a 65.1/34.9 split on first down (6.3 yards per carry). Compared to the per-attempt pass averages in the same situations—6.6 on open downs, 6.8 on first down—the run gives a nearly equal return with less risk. Additionally, Kinne may have 1,855 passing yards to his credit, but he ranks 54th in interceptions and only 41st in pass efficiency. Shutting down the run and forcing closed play-calling situations gives the Irish defense the best chance for success.


Defensively, Diaco will have his work cut out for him. The mismanagement of the Navy game has likely cost him collateral with his troops and the Irish face a formidable offense. To make matters worse, Diaco can’t afford to second-guess himself against such an explosive opponent.

Tulsa’s ball distribution and balance are equally problematic and can only be defended with strong fundamentals and sound technique. Although the Irish appeared improved in both during their three-game winning streak, neither were on display against Navy.

But the biggest concern in this game is the loss of Ian Williams. For the most part, the Irish defensive line has held their own this season and Williams was a big part of that. Notre Dame needs to be able to pressure Kinne and contain the running game without committing extra defenders and the play of Sean Cwynar and Haffis Williams will be a determining factor in the outcome.

On the other side of the ball, Crist should be able to exploit a weak secondary provided he doesn’t commit turnovers and the offense doesn’t kill drives with unforced errors. Kelly will also need to exercise patience with his play-calling to minimize possessions and keep the Tulsa offense on the sideline.

The game has all the makings of a shootout, but the deck is stacked against Notre Dame. The Irish won’t field a strong defensive front, the lack of depth in the secondary likely means using a base 3-4 alignment rather than the nickel and dime packages needed to matchup against Tulsa’s multiple receiver personnel, and inconsistency on offense won’t allow Kelly’s squad to keep pace.

Notre Dame 30, Tulsa 36



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