Thursday, August 20, 2009

Missing Pieces? | by Michael

Putting the Impound It series together generated some interesting food for thought in the BGS lab on the Irish offense: both in terms what the offense includes, and what it's missing.

Every Irish team since 2005 has tried to measure up to that inaugural Weis offense, a prolific attack that broke records by the boatload. 2006 was a less perfect facsimile of that first year, and 2007, as we know, was a disaster. But after hitting rock bottom in 2007, last year's offense began to exhibit some promising echoes of those Quinn and Walker offenses of Weis's first two years.

Echoes, yes, but not quite bona fide. A roster of inexperienced talent still hindered the offense, but at the same time, some essential, complementary plays were simply missing in action. This post is our end note to the Impound It series, and features some creative speculation on our part on five wrinkles that Charlie might introduce (or re-introduce) to the call sheet.

1. Yes, Virginia, There is a Fullback
What was the point of moving James Aldridge to fullback if not to utilize his strengths as a ball carrier? With Aldridge lined up in front of Armando Allen or Robert Hughes, defenses have to account for him, as opposed to their strategy of ignoring Asaph Schwapp, who touched the ball just three times in 2008. Mixing in a fullback once in a while is akin to a veteran pitcher adding another pitch to his repertoire. The fullback dive can operate as either a change-up or a fastball depending if it's first down or short yardage, and the double screen is like a sharp curveball.

2. Sprint Ahead
If an offense is going to rely heavily on Sprint runs, like the Irish did last year, then they better have a complementary play-action pass to keep the safeties at bay. Fear must exist in the safeties' minds that the quarterback just might pull back that ball, drop back a few steps, and fire it downfield to an open receiver. Unfortunately, last year the Irish offense didn't seem to have this play in its arsenal. The Irish ran outside zone after outside zone (88 times to be exact) and not once made the safeties pay with a deep pass. Not only can the play produce big gains, but even when it falls incomplete, the safeties are that much more hesitant the next time one of the Sprint runs is called.

3. Four of a Kind
Plays that look identical but can hurt the defense in multiple ways are ideal; with a run and its play-action counterpart, as above, the defense will have to think twice before selling out. This next play has the ability to attack a defense in four distinct ways. From a two-tight end, balanced formation, one of the receivers motions toward the formation and then, upon the snap of the ball, moves toward the backfield. From there, the play has several possibilities:

  • a Halfback dive while the defense waits to see if the receiver in motion receives the ball;
  • Fake the dive, hand the ball off to a receiver on an end-around;
  • Fake the end-around, throw the deep post to second receiver; and,
  • Fake the end-around, throw back to that same receiver in the flat
Irish fans are most familiar with the dive and the end-around, but a few times in 2005 and 2006 the Irish utilized the latter two aspects of this play. Essential to this play is the ability to protect the quarterback, which is why it has hibernated for the last two years. But the benefits of this playset are obvious, and while many believe that "take what the defense gives you" is a passive concept, this play suggests otherwise.

4. Cross it Off
The inability to protect the quarterback has proven a major obstacle in returning to the offensive dominance seen in 2005 and 2006. Another concrete example of that dominance was the deep crossing route, which has been fairly non-existent in the Jimmy Clausen era. Only three times did I seen the route last season, twice against USC and once against Hawaii, but on all three plays the pass to the deep crossing route was not even attempted. In this play from the Hawaii Bowl, watch Mike Floyd (though it's nearly impossible to keep your eyes off Clausen's spectacular throw to Golden Tate in the endzone). The route that Floyd ran was a deep crossing route, and it was a staple of the 2005 offense.

A longer-developing play, the deep cross utilizes play action most of the time, which makes it a perfect complement to the running game. In 2005, Quinn completed ten of eleven deep crosses for a whopping 293 yards, which comes to 26.6 yards per pass attempt. The following year only two of seven attempts were completed, for 47 yards. The deep cross should have big-play capability if the protection is there, and if Clausen's pocket presence has improved. As you'll see in the clips below, Quinn's ability to move in the pocket enabled him the extra time to complete some of these passes. By contrast, the two attempts by Clausen against the Trojans never really had a chance with the pocket collapsing.

5. Snap, Crackle, and Pop
The last play in this brainstorming session, the Pop-Out, has been used occasionally the last two years, but it just hasn't been executed well.
When it worked in 05-06, it was almost always the same; Quinn would fake the run hard, Samardzija would simultaneously set up for a block and then "pop" out at the last moment, where he'd make the easy grab for six points. Samardzija made it famous by catching nine touchdowns on this play alone.

Although it typically incorporates a Sprint fake, sometimes there's a Ride fake (inside run).
Three times the Pop-Out was called in 2008, and it only worked once. Kyle Rudolph was on the receiving end of this play twice, and the other time it resulted in an interception, which is the last thing an offense needs inside the ten-yard line. As a complement to a legitimate red zone running threat, this play should resurface as the perfect antidote to a hard-charging defensive front.