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Midseason Review: The Notre Dame Run Game

This picture is AWESOME.
This picture is AWESOME.

Since Notre Dame's bye week conveniently coincided with the midpoint of the season, I thought I'd use the time off to do a study of Notre Dame's running game.

The spread offense is unique in the fact that it can take on many different forms, from the pass-happy Air Raid attacks, to the ground-based option offenses seen at Oregon or at WVU and Michigan under Rich Rodriquez.  Those examples show the extreme forms the spread can take, but the spread in a very general sense can be molded to fit the talent around it.  I think Missouri is a good example.  They were a spread-to-run team when Brad Smith played quarterback, but when he left for the NFL and Chase Daniels took over, the offense moved towards spread-to-pass.  Blaine Gabbert and his NFL-style arm completed that transformation.

I think Irish fans are seeing that adaption taking place.  When Kelly arrived, I think he expected to throw the ball a lot.  Notre Dame built its offense on the passing game under Charlie Weis and never really had an effective running game.  So early in Kelly's first season, we saw the Irish throw the ball more often than they ran it.  When Dayne Crist got hurt and Tommy Rees took over, it forced Kelly to take stock of his team and adapt to his true freshman quarterback.  He put a bigger load on the running game, and the offense responded with some very good rushing performances at the end of the year.

So with a veteran offensive line and an electric playmaker at running back, Kelly decided to put a lot more emphasis on the running game this year, and it's paid dividends - the Irish are averaging 194 yards rushing a game and could potentially break 2,000 yards on the season.  Kelly deserves a lot of credit for taking advantage of the talent on this team and not trying to force them to be something they're not.

So how are the Irish gaining these yards?   I looked at Notre Dame's first six games of the season and charted their running plays.  This won't be like my usual breakdowns with pictures and arrows (since I've broken down almost all of the plays I'll be talking about anyway); instead, I'll be looking at the numbers the Irish produced in each game so far.

The Irish run game isn't anything out of the ordinary.  It begins with the inside and outside zone and includes a good number of power runs complimented by traps, counters and draws.  That's a pretty generic statement; probably every team from Alabama to Oregon could say the same thing.

Let's look at a breakdown of the main plays the Irish run and then a few words about each play.

Play Attempts Yards YPC
Inside Zone 32 110 3.4
Outside Zone 17 33 1.9
Pin and Pull 10 75 7.5
Power 31 198 5.9
Counter 10 123 12.3


A few notes: I only counted plays that weren't during "garbage time" when the Irish were up big and running out the clock or had the backups in.  Also, don't take these numbers as absolute.  There's always the chance of error, especially when I'm the one compiling the numbers. And of course, this isn't an exhaustive list (more on that later).

Inside Zone - 32 carries, 3.4ypc

(useful information can be found here)

This has been the most used play for the Irish so far this season.  This surprised me at first because I expected the outside zone to be the frontrunner, but the more I thought about, the more it made sense.

The rest of the Irish run game is built on getting the running backs outside to the edge.  Even the power and trap plays take the backs to the edge of the line.  Outside of a two tight end iso play Notre Dame debuted against Michigan (and has sense pretty much abandoned with the injury to Mike Ragone), the run game lacks many true running plays up the middle.

The inside zone, therefore, provides a nice compliment to the rest of the Irish run game.  With the rest of the running plays going outside, it can punish defenses for flowing outside when they see a handoff.  Look at this inside zone from the Pitt game:


The defense flows so hard to the outside that Zach Martin comes all the way over from his left tackle spot to seal the edge for Cierre Wood.

Outside Zone - 17 carries, 1.9ypc

(useful information can be found here and here)

This play surprised me also, both in the lack of attempts and the lack of success.  I kind of assumed this is the play the Irish had been hanging their hat on this season.

To me, this play seems perfect for the Irish running backs.  It gets them to the outside, it takes advantage of our freakishly athletic offensive line, and it allows them to pick and choose their spots before hitting a crease.  As Mike Mayock would say, "Patience to the hole, explosion through the hole."

The problem, surprisingly, is blocking.  Seemingly every time the Irish have run the outside zone, someone has gotten beat or missed a block.

So while the outside zone hasn't had much success, the Irish have gotten some good yardage from...

Pin and Pull - 10 carries, 7.5ypc

(useful information can be found here and here)


The pin and pull is a variant of the outside zone.  The line still zone blocks, but this time two linemen pull to the outside.  Any combination of the center, guard, and tackle has pulled on this play for Notre Dame.  It's hard to find 300 pound behemoths that can get to the outside and throw a block, but Notre Dame is lucky to have several players of that caliber.

Maybe our linemen are just better in space, but the pulling linemen always seem to throw good blocks on this play, which has led to big gains.

Power - 36 carries, 5.9ypc

(useful information can be found here and here)

Note that when I say "power," I'm referring to several different plays.  Lumped into this is the Power O, which the Irish have run only a small number of times.  This category mostly consists of a play the Irish run out both four receiver sets and with a tight end on the line.

In this play, the center, backside guard, backside tackle, or h-back pulls and leads the running back through the hole between the playside guard and tackle.  It's similar to a Power O, but doesn't require a tight end or fullback.  An example can be seen here:


After snapping the ball, Braxton Cave pulled from his center spot and and led Cierre Wood through the B gap between Zach Martin and Chris Watt.

I don't know this for sure, but like the pin and pull where the pulling linemen is determined by the defense's alignment, I believe the decision on who pulls on this play is determined by the defense.  It's hard to tell where defensive linemen line up with respect to the offensive line, so I can't say that for sure, but that's my theory.  The Irish have only run power with the h-back acting as the lead blocker a few times, but those were clearly predetermined.

I have also seen plays where the pulling guard has gone through the A gap between the center and guard instead of the B gap or through the C gap if the play is run towards the strong side with a tight end on the line.  I don't know if that's by design, but it could be because there wasn't much of a hole in the B gap and the lineman just decided to hit the A or C gap instead.  Either way, the play is functionally the same.

One other thing I've noticed is the fact that literally every one of the starters on the offensive line is being asked to pull as a lead blocker.  Last season, Zach Martin was basically the designated pulling lineman.  Chris Stewart, Taylor Dever, and Cave pulled sometimes, but not much, and I can't remember Trevor Robinson ever pulling last season.  This season, every starting offensive lineman is being asked to get outside and throw a block at some point during a game.  Maybe Kelly didn't trust them last season or maybe they're all just more comfortable in this new system, but I've been impressed with this aspect of the offensive line's play.

The power play is another play that lets the Irish running backs get outside.  It is technically an inside run, but it still gets the backs outside and offers a chance to bounce the play outside.  It has been one of Notre Dame's more successful running plays, but that 5.9ypc number is a little skewed because it includes Cierre Wood's 55 yard touchdown against Purdue.  Without that run, the number drops to a still respectable 4.5ypc.

Counter - 10 carries, 12.3ypc

(useful information can be found here)

This number is actually skewed low because I did not include Andrew Hendrix's 78 yard run off of a QB counter against Air Force because I deemed that to be during garbage time.

I've always liked this play because the Irish always seem to get good yardage with it, and the 12.3 yards the Irish have averaged on this play support that.

Except for when the QB runs it, the Irish always run this play with a tight end on the line.  The tackle to the strong (TE) side is always the pulling lineman.  This gets the defense aligned away from the direction of the play and is designed to get the linebackers to at least momentarily hesitate before reacting to the play.  That bit of misdirection is what makes this play successful.

As I mentioned, the Irish have run this play a few times with Andrew Hendrix carrying the ball.  The Irish didn't use a tight end and used the running back to block the defensive end as the tackle pulled, which can be seen here:


I'm sure everyone has heard the saying that running with the quarterback gives you an additional blocker.  That's what you can see here.  The running back acts as the tight end on the play, allowing Kelly to line up another receiver outside which draws away another defender.  That means less defenders in the box and more room to run.


So that's a rundown of the main plays the Irish use in their running game.  This isn't comprehensive, of course.  There are other plays, such as traps, draws, or tosses that I didn't cover.  Either the Irish don't run those plays very often, or I would consider them a constraint play and not really a base running play.

A good example of a constraint play the Irish use fairly often is what I call the side pitch.  The Irish have used it about once a game, but the purpose of that play is to punish the defensive end for crashing too hard on the quarterback.  If he doesn't crash, the play doesn't work.  An offense can't be built on constraint plays; they're only used to keep the defense honest.

So if you want a simple one sentence summary, the Irish running game is built on zone runs, both inside and outside, but also employs a lot of power runs.  There's no secret to the spread offense running game.  If you see teams like Oregon run a funky read/option/misdirection play, chances are they are just taking a simple play, usually a zone, and giving it a different look.  The same applies for Notre Dame.  Brian Kelly isn't doing anything out of the ordinary, he just does it from the shotgun instead of under center.

The Irish have been running the ball very well this year and I hope this breakdown gives you an idea of what the Notre Dame run game consists of and what plays to look out for.