This happened a lot on Saturday. (Photo by Barry Cronin/Getty Images)
Welcome to my first X’s & O’s review of the 2012 season. For those you who are new to the blog, after every game I’ll breakdown anything that catches my eye – offensive or defensive strategy, pivotal plays, or even new plays or formations that I found interesting. And thanks to the wonders of technology (and NDSPREAD), I’ll have video of the plays I’m highlighting to help illustrate my points.
As OFD’s most loyal readers will recall, I usually write about how the Notre Dame defense fared after we play a service academy. I’m an unabashed option fanboy, so I like looking at how the Irish defend it.
But this time around I’m foregoing the defensive breakdown and focusing on the offensive side of the ball.
Why? Because Notre Dame used their patented "Manti Te’o Kills Everything" 4-3 defense Diaco perfected after the debacle in 2010 and there’s nothing new to cover, and because there’s a lot to talk about with the debuts of Everett Golson at quarterback and Chuck Martin at offensive coordinator. You could even say Saturday’s game was the next step in the evolution of Brian Kelly’s offense…
There were a lot of questions about how the offense would look going into the game against Navy. Specifically, how was Kelly planning on using the talented tight ends and running backs on the Irish roster? How multiple would they be and would they spread the field or pound the ball?
Well, there the Irish certainly used a lot of tight ends. NDtex at HLS has a nice breakdown of the personnel packages Kelly used against Navy, and it involved a lot of Eifert, Koyack, and Niklas. As NDtex points out, the Irish had two or three tight ends on the field almost 80% of the time in the first half.
But how did the Irish use those tight ends?
The obvious answer is to pound the ball. The Irish ended the day with twice as many rushing attempts as pass attempts (harrumph). Their most-used play was the inside zone.
The inside zone is perfect for this type of game. There’s nothing fancy and very little finesse to it; you block the guy in front of you and if there’s no one there you find someone to block. The Irish used this play to shove Navy up and down the field all day.
They even went full-on Stanford and lined up with three tight ends in a true jumbo formation on third downs and inside the red zone.
Again, they didn’t do anything fancy when they lined up like this, just some inside zone…
…and Power O.
The key to these plays is the direction in which the running back goes. In my post on Tuesday about the offense under Rees, I talked about how the position of the running back can tip off the defense to the direction of a play when running out of the shotgun. In the same way, the position of the tight end in the backfield in this situation could potentially broadcast the play to the defense before the snap.
But the inside zone play goes to the side opposite the tight end, while Power O goes the side with the tight end. It’s a very minor detail, but it prevents the defense from shifting to one side pre-snap and slanting post-snap. Both plays do go to the side the receiver lines up on, so we’ll see if the coaching staff makes any changes in the future.
All of those tight ends make for a very dangerous play-action game, especially when the Irish are running the ball as well as they did against Navy. Here’s a play-action pass Notre Dame used to great effect on Saturday:
Let’s break this down.
Commenter pburns2010 explained how this play works for us in the comments to Murtaugh’s game review:
This play splits the field in half and creates a very easy read.
The play-action takes advantage of the strong running game the Irish established on Saturday. This play looks exactly like an inside zone, until Niklas and Eifert don’t block anyone and slip out into the flat.
Look at how the Navy defenders react to the play-action. Every single linebacker gets sucked in towards the line, and the safety bites hard on the fake. This creates a lot of room for Niklas and Eifert.
Golson makes the easy throw to Niklas, who’s tripped up just short of the end zone.
If the Irish continue to run the ball well all season, these play-action passes could be big-gainers in this offense.
Next, while Golson spent a lot of time under center and only had one official carry on the day – and it was a sack – we did see him run a little zone read.
George Atkinson’s 56-yard touchdown was actually an outside zone read.
Golson reads the backside outside linebacker as opposed to the defensive end.
You can see the lane that opens up in front of Golson. But the linebacker stays in his gap and Golson correctly hands the ball off. As Eric pointed out, you can see the Navy linebacker hesitate, respecting Golson’s ability to run. That’s not something we’ve seen at all under Brian Kelly.
This play is a more traditional zone read. Golson reads the outside linebacker playing near the line. Notice how wide the linebacker is positioned.
A couple things happen here.
First, though it appears the linebacker crashes on the running back, he still stays wide, so Golson hands the ball off to Cam McDaniel. Golson probably could have kept the ball and picked up yards since the linebacker’s momentum would have been carrying him away from Golson, but it was still a good read.
Second, Troy Niklas completely misses his block. This is an outside zone, so his first step should be in the direction of the play. Instead, he down blocks on the defensive end, allowing the blitzing cornerback an unimpeded path to the running back.
Cam, meanwhile, calmly jukes the defender out of his jock and turns the corner for a nice gain. Pretty good play for a cornerback.
Finally, we saw an interesting series of plays on Saturday. I don’t know if there’s a name for it, so I call it the "fly sweep series."
The play looks like this:
There are three possible directions this play can go.
First, the slot receiver comes over on a fly sweep (yellow arrow). When the quarterback receives the snap, he can flip the ball to him. By doing this, if the slot receiver drops the ball, it’s an incompletion, not a fumble.
If the slot receiver doesn’t get the ball, the quarterback can hand the ball off to the running back on an inside zone (red arrow). The offensive line always blocks for an inside zone so as not to give the play away.
Finally, the quarterback can keep the ball and go up the middle (blue arrow).
I don’t know what determines who gets the ball on this play. It could be the ball carrier is predetermined in the playcall, or the quarterback could be reading one or more defenders.
You can see how this play attacks the entire field. The fly sweep attacks outside one way, the inside zone attacks the other way, and the quarterback keep attacks up the middle. The play can go anywhere. The Irish didn’t have a lot of success with this play, so we’ll see if the coaches keep going to it.
This play was popularized recently in West Virginia under the direction of Dana Holgorsen, but this play has been around for a few years. Utah used it when they played Notre Dame in 2010. They used a straight handoff on the fly sweep though; Holgorsen is credited with adding the little pitch on the sweep action.
So that’s what we saw on Saturday: lots of tight ends and a lot of running the ball. The Irish were actually pretty vanilla against the much smaller Navy defense. On the ground, it was a lot of inside zone, a little outside zone with some zone read, and some Power O. In the air, it was swing passes to the running backs, screen plays, and the occasional play-action.
The Irish obviously excel at running the ball, so I think we’ll see Kelly continue to pound the ball all season. What will be interesting to see is how he goes about it.
Against the smaller and less talented teams, I think you’ll see more of what we saw against Navy: heavy sets and pounding the ball from under center. Against faster defenses where those inside runs may not be as effective, we can spread teams out and use reads and option plays with our plethora of running backs.
The Irish are in a unique position where they can change their identity on the fly. The talent and depth at tight end (even with Alex Welch gone for the season) allows Notre Dame to be a power running team like Stanford. But the speed at running back and, yes, quarterback also lets them be more of a spread team like Oregon.
There’s a lot to be excited about in this new version of the offense, and it will be fun to track it throughout the season.