One thing that has bothered me since Brian Kelly took over as head coach has been our lack of offensive identity. We started out as an up-tempo spread team early in 2010 but then slowed everything way, way down when Tommy Rees took over. Last year, we weren't really a passing team even though we had Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert, and though we ran the ball well at times, we struggled to run against the better defenses we played. Whether it was due to inexperience or personnel, there really wasn't anything you could point to and say "That. That is what Notre Dame does well on offense."
But halfway into this season, I think we're finally starting to see the offense form an identity as a power rushing team. The offense has swung a bit between conservative Tressel Ball and (relatively) wide-open spread, but Kelly has decided he's going to run the ball and he's going to run the ball a lot.
Let's compare this season to the previous two.
There's obviously been a huge uptick in the number of carries this season with the yards per carry more or less staying on par with last year. The only game this season where the Irish threw the ball more than they ran it was against Purdue, and even then the split was 34 rushes to 39 passes (with the obvious caveat that sacks and scrambles on called pass plays show up as rushes in the box score).
So that's what we are: a running team. Sure, we'll spread teams out and run some zone read or the occasional QB draw or option play when Golson is playing quarterback, but we typically have two tight ends in the game and have picked up a lot of yards running between the tackles.
After bulldozing Navy, the running game sputtered a bit against the trio of Big Ten teams on the schedule but has picked up since then with dominating performances against Miami and BYU and a better-than-it-looks-on-paper game against Stanford.
I think the difference between those games and the B1G games is the ability of the offensive linemen to get to the second level and block the linebackers and the vision of the running backs. Purdue and Michigan were able to stop the Irish running game by stacking the box and letting unblocked defenders wreak havoc. BYU played a similar style of defense, but the difference between double digit rushing yards and 270 rushing yards was the linemen getting to the linebackers and the running backs turning two yard runs into six or seven yard runs.
These plays are all from the second half when Kelly made it clear he had no interest in putting the ball in the air.
First let's look at the defense BYU showed.
Astute readers will recognize this as the same formation Purdue showed against Notre Dame back in September. However, in this situation, there is not an extra defender since the Irish have two tight ends on the line. The Cougars used this a lot against the Irish's two tight end formations.
All five the plays in the video feature that "orbit" motion from one of the outside receivers. If you watch closely, you'll notice how that motion caused a BYU defender (usually a safety) to freeze momentarily to respect the deep handoff. NDTex at HLS has a nice summary of this.
But let's talk about the job the offensive line did.
The Irish didn't do anything fancy with these orbit motion runs, running only inside zone and power O off of it. The first play is an inside zone. BYU's two middle linebackers diagnose the play early and crash hard on the right side of the line.
However, this just opens up a cutback lane to Theo Riddick's left. Look at the lane Zach Martin and Chris Watt open up and the block Braxton Cave throws on the linebacker. It looks like there's an unblocked defender who could be trouble, but he hesitated on the orbit motion and doesn't touch Riddick until he's five yards past the line of scrimmage.
The next play is another inside zone.
Be sure to watch Zach Martin in the video. It's hard to do justice with pictures how he's able to change direction and square up on a defender in one motion.
Again, there's another unblocked defender, but never fear.
Mike Golic clears out a defender, which gives Riddick more room to move. Theo makes a nice cut, and the Cougar defender is left grabbing mostly air.
In the third play, the Irish switch to power O.
Again, watch the video to get the full effect, but Zach Martin does another nice job here. He and Watt block down on the play to seal off the inside, but then Martin gets off the double team and throws a block on a linebacker instantly. Golic does a nice pulling on the play. Troy Niklas gets his feet tangled up and can't get to the linebacker, who brings Cierre Wood down for a gain of only four yards. Otherwise, Wood probably would have scored.
The fourth play is another power O run. If you watch the linebackers, they read the play and attack the play side again. Once again, this opens up a lane in the are they vacated.
Mike Mayock points out Zach Martin for the job he did on this play (there seems to be a theme here...) but the blocking is perfect everywhere. Golic does a nice job pulling through the hole, Watt gets to the outside linebacker, Cave and Lombard seal the right side and the tight ends seal the backside. And then Riddick one-on-one against a defender is always going to be in Riddick's favor.
The final play goes back to the inside zone. Notre Dame is running the clock out and BYU has their entire defense within seven yards of the line of scrimmage.
The Cougars sell out as soon as they see the play is going to the right. But Martin and Ben Koyack(!) collapse the whole left side of the line. Chris Watt does a great job getting up to the linebacker, and the safety was easy prey for Tyler Eifert, as he had to stop and respect the orbit motion. Wood breaks a big run that more or less sealed the game for the Irish.
After a bit of a rough patch earlier in the year, it appears the offensive line is staring to gel. The zone blocking appears to be a little crisper and the running backs are seeing the holes and cutback lanes better.
I won't declare things fixed, but it's nice to see the line open up holes against a very good BYU defense. And even when the Irish weren't running the ball particularly well against Michigan State and Michigan, they were able to pick up yards at the end of the game when they needed them the most. It appears the soul-crushing drive at the end of games has become a staple in the Irish offense.
The true test will come this weekend against the Sooners. Notre Dame has had the most success against the smaller defenses they've faced - Navy, Miami, and BYU. Oklahoma has pretty typical size along their defensive line but their linebackers are on the small side. If Zach Martin and company can move those defensive linemen and get up to the linebackers, there should be room for Wood/Riddick/Atkinson to operate.
The Irish need to stick to their new-found identity if they want to pull off a win in Norman.