And then there was one.
In 2008, the most widely used group of runs in the playbook was the Ride series. Besting the Toss, Jab, Draw, and Sprint series, the Ride series embodies the spirit of "Pound It" because they are straightforward runs designed to attack the heart of the defense through both zone and man blocking schemes. It's important to note at this time that these runs are not listed in the partial Patriots playbook that was used to classify the other Irish running plays, although the term Ride was seen often as it related to play action passes. Because of Ride's absence from that playbook, a copy of Dan Henning's playbook from the Carolina Panthers was procured to complete this research. Both Henning and Charlie Weis coached together under Bill Parcells with the New York Jets, and there are too many similarities between their offenses to ignore. Nonetheless, not being able to cross reference runs directly with the Weis playbook leaves room for error. Please keep that in mind as you continue reading.
From this series, Charlie Weis could call five runs: a strongside inside zone, a weakside inside zone, a trap run with zone blocking, a strongside isolation play, and a weakside isolation play. Three of those runs dominated the playcall sheet.
Ride 34/35 Zone
The first run in the series is the inside zone play to the strongside of the formation. There are several key distinctions from the outside zone. First, the linemen don't all move laterally as much as they do for an outside zone play. Secondly, the quarterback takes a sharper angle to hand the ball off, whereas with the outside zone his goal is to get as deep and wide as possible. Last, the halfback's take-off angle is understandably wider on an outside zone play. For a visual, compare the two runs in this example.
The Irish tended to use this inside zone play with bigger backs or multiple tight end personnel groupings and sometimes both. In fact, Ride 34/35 Zone was the only run where carries were not dominated by Darius Walker. Of the 39 times it was called in 2005, Walker toted the ball 19 times, while Travis Thomas and Rashon Powers-Neal each received ten carries. Nearly half of the time they ran this play, three tight ends were on the field. As an individual run, not the series, it was the most popular run in 2005. At the same time, it was called only eight times in the last six games; contrast that with 31 times in the first half of the season.
|2005||Two Tites ||Detroit||New York||Half||Totals|
|Ride 34 Zone ||6 - 4.7 ||6 - -0.2 ||9 - 3.1 ||1 - 1.0 ||22 - 2.6 |
|Ride 35 Zone ||2 - 8.5 ||4 - 3.0 ||10 - 4.1 ||1 - 14.0 ||17 - 4.9 |
Heading into 2006, the Irish lost Powers-Neal to the NFL as a free agent and Thomas to the linebacking corps, although he would occasionally line up in the offensive backfield from time to time. While steady blocking Marcus Freeman moved from the third tight end role to the second, the third tight end position was now commandeered by freshmen Konrad Reuland and Will Yeatman. A few times the Irish even used an offensive lineman in that spot. Last, freshman Sam Young stepped into the starting line-up at right tackle while returning linemen like Dan Santucci, Bob Morton, and John Sullivan stopped rotating and settled in at permanent spots. Given Ride 34/35 Zone's decreasing usage as the '05 season progressed, and the smaller, more athletic offensive line paired with a smaller halfback, it didn't take a rocket scientist to predict the play would be used even less.
|2006||Half||Detroit||New York||Two Tites ||Total|
|Ride 34 Zone ||5 - 2.8 ||2 - 1.0 ||6 - 3.0 ||-- ||13 - 2.6 |
|Ride 35 Zone ||5 - 4.8 ||-- ||1 - 3.0 ||1 - 2.0 ||7 - 4.1 |
The increase in Half and decrease in other groupings make obvious sense. The struggles running right are also not surprising given the combo of Morton and Young. The Irish moved away from trying to pound the ball inside, in part because they were less successful, as these '05 and '06 clips, placed in chronological order, illustrate.
And then there was 2008. Stronger, more massive offensive line? Check. Bigger halfbacks? Check. Multiple tight ends? Check. Even after Mike Ragone suffered a season-ending knee injury, Will Yeatman was suspended, and Luke Schmidt's concussions kept him out, the Irish called Ride 34/35 Zone over and over again.
|2008||Half||Regular||Detroit||New York ||Goal Line ||Total|
|Ride 34 Zone ||31 - 4.6 ||10 - 3.6 ||9 - 3.4 ||3 - 3.3 ||2 - -1.0 ||55 - 4.0 |
|Ride 35 Zone ||13 - 3.6 ||4 - 1.5 ||5 - 1.6 ||2 - 5.0 ||-- ||24 - 3.0 |
Similar to another popular run from 2008, Sprint 38/39, the Irish ran the ball with more authority to the right side and struggled going left. Then again, remove three big plays (16, 21, 16) against lowly Purdue, and then running to the right (3.2 ypc) wasn't much better than running left. Breaking it down between the halfbacks isn't much better, except for Allen's performance against Purdue.
|Ride 34 Zone ||20 - 5.6 ||23 - 3.1 ||6 - 1.7 |
|Ride 35 Zone ||5 - 4.0 ||14 - 2.7 ||4 - 3.0 |
Take out Allen's runs against over-matched Purdue and Navy, and his stats look a lot like those for Hughes and Aldridge. Fourteen carries, 43 yards, 3.1 yards per carry. The inside zone was an effective run in those games, and Mike Haywood/Weis kept calling its number. But why didn't it work in the other games? Take a look for yourself.
Ride 32/33 Wham
The next running play is another inside zone run, but where it differs is that it involves trapping one of the interior defensive linemen with a wham block by the fullback or tight end. What that means is that an interior offensive linemen will release to the second level by not blocking a defensive tackle, who keeps charging into the backfield. The fullback or tight end will stun him momentarily (wham!), which allows the back enough time to hit the hole. Meanwhile, the trapping lineman downfield has hopefully tied up a linebacker. The diagram to the right provides a solid example.
Like the previous play, this run peaked in 2005 but then faded away the following year. In fact, as Ride 34/35 Zone's usage plummeted over the second half of the 2005 season, Ride 32/33 Wham's increased. Of the 32 times it was called in 2005, 22 occurred in the last six games. Where it received the most attention was against Tennessee's vaunted defense, and it worked, gaining 10+ yards on three of its six carries. It was also a run that was used in five different personnel groupings, although a clear majority seemed to occur in New York, Regular, and Detroit.
|Play||Regular||New York ||Detroit|
|Ride 32 Wham ||7 - 5.7 ||6 - 5.0 ||9 - 4.7 |
|Ride 33 Wham ||-- ||5 - 5.0 ||2 - 8.0 |
|Total ||7 - 5.7 ||11 - 5.0 ||11 - 5.3 |
Of the groupings not shown, twice it was run in Goal Line, and both times it worked. Yet another time, the Irish ran it from a 3-WR bunch formation, and it picked up four yards.
In 2006, Weis called Ride 32/33 Wham far less frequently. Several factors could have played a role in this, whether it was the personnel changes outlined above; playing catch-up against Michigan, Michigan State, and UCLA; the loss of John Carlson down the stretch; or, maybe it was simply due to the play's lack of success.
|Play||Regular||New York ||Detroit|
|Ride 32 Wham ||3 - 3.3 ||1 - 2.0 ||1 - 1.0 |
|Ride 33 Wham ||-- ||1 - 1.0 ||4 - 5.8 |
|Total ||3 - 3.3 ||2 - 1.5 ||5 - 4.8 |
Apart from what's shown above, it was also called on two other occasions with different personnel groupings, and each carry netted only a yard. As the data clearly demonstrates, it just wasn't the same play as in 2005.
Many of the runs from both seasons can be seen below. As you watch, pay close attention to the different formations from which the Irish ran it.
The first half of clips show Weis's offense when it works well: the same play concept makes it easier for the offense to execute, but its different formations make it harder for the defense to recognize pre-snap. The last third of clips, all from 2006, show an offense struggling to open holes. Not even Walker, who has looked simply dazzling in some of the other runs, could spin this straw into gold.
In 2008, the straw burnt up and the Irish were left with nothing. Six attempts, three yards.
Ride 34/35 Slam
The next run in this series is a strongside isolation play. It's similar to what can be seen to the right, although there's a major difference. Whereas in this diagram the Z receiver blocks the the backside defensive end, the Irish version would motion him toward the tight end to block a safety. If there were no safety in the box, then the Z receiver would remain in his original alignment. The hole would ultimately depend upon the defensive front employed by the opposition.
Because this run necessitated a fullback, it was only run from Regular, Two Tites, and Goal Line personnel groupings.
|2008||Regular||Two Tites||Goal Line|
|Ride 34 Slam ||15 - 3.9 ||3 - 2.0 ||2 - 2.0 |
|Ride 35 Slam ||9 - 5.0 ||1 - 3.0 ||1 - -1.0 |
Early in the season, Hughes and Aldridge split carries from Regular, but after the Michigan State game, this was Aldridge's run-- until the bowl game. For the season, he carried the ball 21 times, compared to seven for Hughes and just once for Allen. This was also the run that led to many posts on Irish message boards about the predictability of the running game. When the Irish motioned the Z receiver, they nearly always ran to the that side (which makes sense because he was supposed to block the safety). Rarely did Notre Dame call another run that would hit another hole. In other words, with Aldridge in the backfield and the Z receiver motioning toward the formation, odds were strong that this run was coming. And the few times the Irish utilized play action yielded very little, so defenses weren't afraid to take the gamble. Here are some of the run's best and worst moments from 2008.
Despite this play's inconsistent production, this play provides me with hope. Why?
This was a new play in the Weis running game.
The closest run I could find to it was this run against Tennessee in 2005. That play was run once, albeit with the fake end around, and then it remained dormant in the playbook until 2008. If Weis could install a new run for 2008, why couldn't he re-examine the entire running game (with the help of his run game coordinator Frank Verducci) and possibly add/delete running plays?
And upon closer observation, it wasn't the only new addition to the offense, either. Two other running plays emerged that, according to my notes, the Irish utilized for the first time in 2008.
Ride 34/35 Zorro
A companion play to Ride 34/35 Zone is this weakside inside zone run. In some ways, it can be confused with Sprint 36/37 Gut, but the way to differentiate the two runs is to watch the initial movement of the linemen. The sprint play typically pulls a blocker around, whereas in this run the push is more vertical than horizontal. The Irish only used this play three times in 2008, and it picked up 25 yards for an 8.3 per carry average. It was never seen in 2005 or 2006.
Ride 34/35 Base
The companion play to Ride 34/35 Slam is this weakside isolation play. It was called only twice all year. The second play of the 2008 season picked up four yards against San Diego State, and then it resurfaced in the first quarter of the USC contest, where it picked up three yards. Like Ride 34/35 Zorro, it was invisible in 2005 and 2006. In the clip against the Trojans below, notice that the Z receiver motions toward the line of scrimmage (as though the Irish were about to run Ride Slam). It's a nice adjustment, but why wasn't it run more often during the season?
And so it's fitting that the Ride series comes last, not only because it was the most popular group of runs, but also because of how additions to the Irish playcall sheet might offer hope for next year's running game. One implication of these three "new" plays is that it confirms that Weis's playbook is not set in stone. Evidence proves that new plays can-- and have been-- installed. And given the focus on the running game -- highlighted by the hiring of Verducci to fix fundamentals and the study of BCS championship caliber programs -- who can honestly say with conviction that structural changes, in addition to technical improvements, in the Irish running game are impossible? Weis has already done it, right under the fan base's collective nose.
Weeks ago, I would have told anyone-- and I did-- that what we've seen from the Weis running game over the last four years is all we'll ever see. Now I'm just not so sure. And I don't know how I feel about that. Someone please hit me with a bucket of cold water before I start quoting Andy Dufresne.