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They Call It Powder Blue, Irish vs. Tar Heels News and Notes

By · October 15th, 2008 · 9 Comments · 2,683 views
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They Call It Powder Blue, Irish vs. Tar Heels News and Notes

You Call That A Tendency?

Charting the Irish offense from Saturday’s game against North Carolina leads to a painful—yet obvious—conclusion: Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Haywood telegraphs the pass. It is puzzling how the Irish still managed 383 yards through the air, a testament to the talent Notre Dame has on offense.

Disclaimer: The following analysis excludes the first two drives of the game (11 plays). I was unable to analyze this due to broadcasting/programming issues. Additionally, sacks were not counted as rushing attempts and the lost yardage from sacks wasn’t included in this analysis. It is expected that these 11 plays and the four sacks will not significantly alter the analysis or conclusions of said analysis.

Out of convenience I will use the personnel grouping nomenclature found here. The Irish ran only five personnel groupings against the Tar Heels: Jax, Half, Regular, Two Tites, and Goal Line. Nota Bene: multiple formations can be run out of each personnel grouping. These groupings merely denote which players take the field, not the formation used by the offensive coaching staff. A short summary of each package is as follows:

  • Jax: 1 TE, 4 WR
  • Half: 1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR
  • Regular: 1 RB, 1 FB, 1 TE, and 2 WR
  • Two Tites: 1 RB, 1 FB, 2 TE, and 1 WR
  • Goal Line: 1 RB, 1 FB, 3 TE

This is typical of head coach Charlie Weis’ offense. His game plans frequently involve only a few personnel groupings designed to generate the best mismatches on the field. Play packages are used within each grouping to convert down and distance situations.

The “heavy” (due to the number of fullbacks and tight ends used) groupings—Regular, Two Tites, and Goal Line—were used on only four plays, all of which were rushing attempts. Approximately 94 percent of plays utilized Jax or Half making them the two preferred personnel groupings.

The Irish were most effective throwing the ball out of Jax, averaging 8.9 yards per attempt out of this four wide receiver set. Excluding the two rushing attempts from the Two Tites personnel grouping, the most proficient running personnel was Half. The 14 rushing attempts out of Half managed 4.9 yards per carry.

Jax was used approximately 33 percent of the time, leaving Half as Haywood’s most popular choice. The Irish ran the one back, one tight end, three receiver personnel grouping on over 61 percent of their plays. Additionally, it was used with the quarterback under center and in the shotgun, as the Irish operated out of the gun (in Jax and Half) a little over half the time.

Similar to being predictably run oriented in the “heavy” formations, Notre Dame was also pass happy in their Jax package. Of the 22 times Jax was used Haywood called 19 passes (86.4 percent). The three run plays were a sneak and two quarterback draws by quarterback Jimmy Clausen. These plays were used to keep the defense honest, but the potential injury risk to Clausen wasn’t a wise decision.

Out of Half the Irish mixed it up a bit more, running on 34.1 percent of the plays and passing 65.9 percent of the time. However, when you exclude shotgun formations, the run/pass mix was almost even. So, while Clausen was under center in Half, the Irish were very balanced in their play-calling.

In the shotgun, things are dramatically different. Irrespective of personnel grouping and formation, Haywood called a pass nearly 95 percent of the time Clausen was not under center. With that type of predictability and nearly 60 percent of those passes coming in Jax (with no backs and tight ends to help in pass protection), it is surprising the Irish only gave up four sacks.

In Jax and Half, Notre Dame nearly always put multiple receivers to the wide side of the field. Even when the Irish used Half-Ace (single running back set behind the center), the slot receiver lined up to the wide side of the field an overwhelming majority of the time.

The Irish are, however, far less predictable on a down and distance basis.

Jax and Half were used on first and second down at roughly the same rate they were used for the game (i.e. the down was not an indicator of a particular personnel grouping).

This was mostly due to the offense Notre Dame employed. About a third of the drives the Irish stayed in Jax, running a no-huddle operation without changing personnel. The other two-thirds of drives were spent in Half (running the same no-huddle offense), so it isn’t surprising that the down wasn’t a strong indicator of personnel selection.

Notre Dame also mixed the run and pass play selection well based on down. Haywood called a pass on nearly 69 percent of the offensive plays. On first, second, and third down passes were called 70, 66.7, and 64.3 percent of the time, respectively. The play selection on each down closely mirrors that for the game.

Finally, the Irish offense wasn’t particularly predictable based on the down and distance. In short down and distance situations the Irish ran the ball nearly 89 percent of the time. When facing long down and distances, Haywood called a pass almost 88 percent of the time. Both of these trends are expected and, in most cases, even preferred. But with around five yards remaining for a first down, Notre Dame ran and passed the ball at a nearly even clip.

In summary, Notre Dame’s personnel grouping and formation (under center and shotgun) are tremendous indicators of whether the offense intends to run or pass, but Irish fans should take solace in the unpredictability of the offense on a down and distance basis.

So It’s A Spread Game Plan Eh?

Per the discussion above and the operation of the offense in the last two games, it has become increasingly clear that Weis and his offensive staff are determined to run a spread passing offense. This is primarily for two reasons.

First, it allows the Irish to get their best five offensive skill position players on the field. Notre Dame has talent and depth in its receiving corps but lacks numbers and experience at the tight end and full back positions. Clausen is also proving to be an exceptional talent at quarterback.

Wide receivers Golden Tate, Michael Floyd, and David Grimes create mismatches against virtually every team Notre Dame faces. Ditto for tight end Kyle Rudolph. And whether the Irish choose to go with a fourth wide receiver or a running back, Duval Kamara and Armando Allen also present their own problems for opposing defenses.

Second, throwing the ball a high percentage of the time typically results in an early, and potentially substantial, lead. This puts opposing offenses in a difficult position, frequently causing them to abandon the run to play catch-up. Forcing opposing teams into a one-dimensional passing attack is a welcomed benefit for an Irish defense struggling to stop the run.

In other words, Weis is employing a complementary game plan, using the offense to cover the biggest weakness of the defense.

So what does this offensive philosophy mean? A spread passing attack certainly has its advantages, but what are the disadvantages and how will both factor into the outcome of future contests?

The positives of a spread passing offense are numerous. It creates space for the ball carrier/receiver, challenging opposing defenders to tackle well. It distributes the ball to all of the offensive personnel, making defenses account for every player. It gives the offense the ability to pick up nearly any down and distance such that playing behind the chains isn’t as large of a concern. And, as stated above, it allows the Irish to score early and often by airing it out and taking advantage of their talent at the skill positions. There aren’t many teams in the country with two good corners, let alone three or four that can match up with the personnel Notre Dame can field in the passing game.

But if Weis and Haywood intend to spread the field and throw the ball a high percentage of the time, they must protect Clausen. Additionally, based on the play-calling, the offensive line must do this while opposing defenses know they are passing and frequently without the tight ends and running backs involved in the pass protection scheme.

If this can be accomplished there is a high probability for success using this type spread attack. To date the Irish have only surrendered one sack per 24.3 pass attempts. Continued success protecting Clausen is imperative to future offensive production.

The disadvantages of the spread passing offense are an inability to control the clock, requisite high level of execution, and a predisposed difficulty to operate with a lead.

Such a pass-happy offense typically doesn’t chew the clock and a no-huddle operation exacerbates this problem. Over the past two games this hasn’t been an issue as Notre Dame has won the time of possession battle by about six minutes per game, largely due to efficient quarterback play.

So, while it is difficult, it isn’t impossible to maintain good ball control using this offense. This is imperative for an Irish defensive front that is small and lacks depth. Possessing the ball will go a long way in keeping them fresh.

The spread passing attack also requires a high level of execution. With a very young and relatively inexperienced team, this will typically result in unforced turnovers as those who watched the Michigan State and North Carolina games can attest. Avoiding these costly mistakes is a must moving forward. The fact that the Irish were in both games until the end speaks strongly to the level of talent on the roster.

Additionally, with a rushing game featuring personnel groupings that often give away the run/pass option, simply pounding it out late in the game and riding a lead to victory is a challenge. Opposing defenses have a distinct advantage knowing which dimension the Irish offense is employing. Haywood must become less predictable by personnel and formation, mixing the pass and run out of two back and/or two tight end formations.

Repeat Offender(s)?

The Irish defense continues to be guilty of the same transgressions. Namely, Notre Dame cannot stop the run, the secondary frequently plays too loose, and the Irish defenders do not tackle well. Poor tackling can be directly linked to the other two problem areas.

The Irish defense is frequently in good position to bring down opposing ball carries only to give up yards after contact. This directly contributes to their inability to slow opponent’s rushing attacks. More indirectly responsible is the personnel package used by the Notre Dame defense.

The Irish use a hybrid safety/outside linebacker like Harrison Smith as their answer to the spread offense. Against teams that spend the majority of the time in three or more wide receiver personnel packages this is acceptable and appropriate. The additional speed helps contain opposing receivers in space.

Against teams that employ more traditional offensive sets, Smith becomes a liability. Unable to shed blocks against larger, more physical players, Smith struggles to effectively contribute stopping the run.

The Irish secondary also struggle in coverage, particularly on the outside. The cushion in the secondary creates space that makes bringing down receivers an unnecessarily difficult proposition. This is directly evident in yards after the catch. But the Irish are also indirectly missing out on turnover and sack opportunities.

Notre Dame employs an aggressive scheme on defense, blitzing from all over the field a high percentage of the time. This style is aimed at playing on the offense’s side of the line of scrimmage and pressuring the opposing quarterback.

The apposite offensive counterpunch is a short passing game designed to quickly get the ball out of the quarterback’s hand. Giving large cushions to opposing receivers not only allows opponents to successfully execute this game plan, it also voids potential opportunities for interceptions and sacks.

Yes, the front four on the defense line lack great talent and size. But that doesn’t translate into nearly five yards per carry or only seven sacks. It isn’t that they are facing powerful, effective, running football teams that make their living on the ground. And it isn’t like teams are loosening them up with the pass.

In short, the Irish aren’t merely ineffective defending the run and getting to opposing quarterbacks. They are inept in both areas and there is no excuse for it.

The culprit seems to be a dichotomy of scheme.

Defensive coordinator Corwin Brown is a 3-4 guy who likes to play man on the outside, have the front three tie up the offensive line, and let the interior linebackers run.

Assistant head coach Jon Tenuta likes to run a four man front that attacks the gaps to stop the run and pressures from all angles to disrupt the pass. Rather than play man in the secondary, Tenuta prefers to rotate over in zone to prevent opposing quarterbacks from getting a pre-snap read on the blitz.

The combination of these two philosophies has resulted in a defense that doesn’t play tight in coverage, prohibits linebackers from aggressively attacking the line of scrimmage, and leaves Irish defenders thinking far more than they react.

Perhaps even more troubling is the inability of the Irish defense to minimize or negate the most proficient facet of opposing offenses. Notre Dame couldn’t stop Purdue’s short passing game. They couldn’t slow down Stanford’s running attack. And they couldn’t prevent North Carolina receiver Hakeem Nicks from hauling in more than 70 percent of the Tar Heels passing yards.

This problem isn’t talent. Rather, it is poor coaching by a staff that is indecisive with game adjustments and reluctant to commit to one style of play.

Furthermore

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