Notre Dame headed into Death Valley this past Saturday looking to rely on their experienced and talented offensive line, but were greeted with a defense looking to sell out and do everything they could to make first-time road starter Deshone Kizer beat them through the air. Today we will take a look at why the Irish struggled with running the ball early and discuss the adjustments that were made. We will also take a look at the controversial final play call and find out what went wrong.
Tigers Keyed on the Run
The first play we will look at is from the end of the first quarter, and is a great example of the decisions made by Clemson and the issues it caused the Notre Dame running attack. Consistently throughout the game, Clemson made an effort to always bring one extra defender into the box against the run, as well as let the front seven loose, shooting gaps and not concerning themselves with reading and reacting. The Tigers were essentially in a run blitz on every play, and it caused a lot of miscues by the Irish offensive line.
The first play we will look at is a zone read with a backside horn block by the tight end/H-back. The read on this play is a give, so it allows us to look at a pretty stock zone read play.
This is a standard zone read play to the right, with a "horn" block to lead for the QB should he pull the ball, after reading the defensive end (orange box). Presnap, we can see that Clemson is already walking down their strong safety (blue circle) into the box to play a middle linebacker position. This gives them seven defenders against six blockers in the run game (I usually refer to this as "going +1"), so they should always have one free defender to make a play. The offensive line will perform usual zone blocking technique, which results in two double teams of the interior defensive linemen up to the linebackers (strong safety in this case).
First, we can see this is the correct read by Deshone Kizer to give the ball, as the defensive end (orange box) has stayed wide, and not crashed in on the inside zone handoff. We can also see the first signs of Clemson's other adjustment to stop the Irish rushing attack, as the strong safety who came into the box is already to the line of scrimmage. With defenders from the second level shooting gaps, it gives offensive linemen a split-second less time to come off of double teams, which magnifies any mistakes in technique or timing. In this case, left guard Quentin Nelson has come off of his double team a split second late and isn't able to square up on the strong safety at the point of attack. Note that on the playside the strong lane opened up for CJ Prosise - if the backside of this play is blocked up correctly, he should be able to press his blocks to setup the playside linebacker (#10, Boulware) and make a good gain through the intended gap.
Since Nelson was unable to seal the backside, however, Prosise must immediately shoot for the hole. This makes Steve Elmer's job of getting off of the double team up to Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware (green box) much harder. If Prosise presses the block, Boulware will stay out of the hole longer, and make Elmer's block much easier. Prosise runs into traffic and is wrapped up for no gain.
Early Adjustments for the Irish
What can be done against a defense that is bringing extra defenders and shooting upfield if you still want to run the ball? A few different things are usually called on in this type of situation, and the first play of the second quarter provides a great example of two tools offensive coordinators have in their toolbox: trap/wham blocking and additional blockers to the point of attack.
Wham (and trap) blocking look to punish defenders from shooting upfield aggressively, opening up large holes as defenders think they're unblocked and open themselves up to the blocker coming across the formation. In this play, it also proves to be an extra blocker brought into the formation, with now seven blockers against seven defenders. Bringing an extra blocker to the point of attack (as in a power-o blocking scheme) nullifies numerical advantages from the defense, but here, bringing the extra blocker in frees up the backside tackle Mike McGlinchey to immediately head to the second level. Another small adjustment to note is the formation -- Notre Dame is lined up under center in a single back Ace formation. Again, when defenses are shooting up against the run, every split second counts, and giving Prosise another step or two to read the defense and potentially let his blocks develop may prove advantageous.
We can see here, right after the handoff, that all of the offensive linemen and the move tight end have successfully made their blocks. No one is hung up on a double team, and the only free Clemson defenders are the free safety, who has shot down, and the backside nickel back, who is out of the play. Plenty of room to operate for CJ Prosise, who picks up a nice gain for the first time in the game.
The Irish would continue to use trap blocks throughout the rest of the game to modest success, up until they were forced into throwing the ball late in the game.
Right Play, Right Time, Right Execution
Following a hectic few minutes, Notre Dame finds themselves on the three yard line ready to cap off a drive and continue their momentum. With their difficulties running the ball, it wouldn't be surprising to see a pass called, but instead they took a page from Clemson's playbook and called Kizer's number.
The play is a QB Stretch Lead, a great short-yardage call that hits quicker than a power blocking scheme. Pre-snap, everything is lined up perfectly for the Irish's playcall. Playside, the Irish have 4 blockers for 4 defenders, and have outside leverage on both the tackle and linebacker. CJ Prosise is responsible for blocking the strong safety through the hole, and his job is mostly to slow down the last defender enough for the QB to get the yardage needed.
This image gives a great snapshot of (mostly) everything going well for this play: playside tackle Mike McGlinchey (green circle) is free and clear to block the middle linebacker; CJ Prosise (blue line) is in great position to attack the strong safety filling the hole; playside guard Steve Elmer (yellow box) has sealed off the tackle from reaching the play. About the only thing that's gone wrong on this play is the block of the tight end Nic Weishar (red circle). Luckily, he held the block just barely long enough for Kizer to get past it through the hole.
Most important to take from this play is the position of Steve Elmer in this screenshot. He has completely sealed the playside tackle and gotten to his outside, making the hole for the quarterback to cut up into as soon as possible.
Right Play? Right Time? Wrong Execution
Look familiar? Ball on the three, shotgun formation, must score play. The Irish went right back to the well for the most important play of the game, as they had success with it the only other time they ran it earlier in the fourth quarter. We all know the outcome of this play, but what went wrong? Pre-snap, we see a very similar situation to the earlier play. The only difference is the linebackers have each shifted one gap toward the strongside of the formation, essentially bringing Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware (#10) into the play. With the new alignment, center Nick Martin and right guard Steve Elmer are going to have to double team up to Boulware to cut off the pursuit. As it is drawn up, this can be a successful play if executed well.
After the snap, we can see the issue. Nick Martin and Steve Elmer (red circle) are hung up on the playside tackle Carlos Watkins, and Steve Elmer isn't able to get up to the second level to block Ben Boulware (yellow box). There's still hope if Martin and Elmer can drive the tackle back and wash both him and Boulware out of the play, but the position of the tackle doesn't make that likely: arms extended, legs under him, in a good spot. Carlos Watkins is eating up this double team perfectly.
Here's where it falls apart from the double team. Kizer has reached where he should be cutting upfield, but the backside of the play hasn't been sealed. Steve Elmer (red circle) is finally looking to move up to the second level, but Prosise (blue circle) has already gotten through the hole and blocked the first thing he saw to the inside (what he's supposed to do), which is linebacker Ben Boulware. This leaves the strong safety (yellow box) totally unblocked to fill the hole.
The final damning evidence - playside tackle Carlos Watkins is further down the line than center Nick Martin, who was tasked with getting to the outside of Watkins on this play. Watkins made an amazing individual effort on this play that made everything else fall apart for the Irish.
Overall, there is plenty to take from this game for the Irish, specifically for the offensive line, as each player across the front had several rough plays against a tough Clemson defense. Luckily for them, Deshone Kizer showed that he has the skills to compete against teams that sell out against the run, but he was hampered in this game by bad turnovers and inclement weather. Moving forward through the rest of the season, I'd expect to see a lot of teams adopt the Clemson gameplan until Kizer makes the defense pay for it. Something to keep an eye on, especially against the lowly but dangerous types (Navy, Temple, and BC) who will likely throw the kitchen sink at the Irish to try and get a victory.