Monday, September 07, 2009

Mark it Eight, Dude | by Michael

While it was encouraging to see the Irish rush for 150+ yards against 2008's sixth best run defense (88.6 yards per game), it still felt like a few bowling pins were left standing. It was an eight-- good enough for one frame, and certainly better than last year, but the overall score will be disappointing unless more spares and strikes are thrown.

So with that analogy in mind, and in
reference to the Impound It series from the summer here are some quick thoughts on Saturday's game. Afterwards, let us know in the comments how you would score the running game.

Run Game Rundown. Fans were hopeful when Charlie Weis fired John Latina, but the hiring of relative unknown Frank Verducci brought some question marks about his ability to transform the offensive line and develop a potent running attack. Back on Media Day, Weis elaborated some on Verducci's role as the run game coordinator.
Q. Can you talk about the implementation of the run game?

COACH WEIS: I think the first thing we'll do, I'm going to try to be more specific than general on this question. When we come in on a game plan day, which is Monday, the first couple things we're going to address are, A, what problems does this defense present to us, after having studied all day Sunday, what problems does the defense that we're going to go against present.

Then after we've gone ahead and split and studied what we can do about it schematically in the pass game, in the run game, I'll come in and say, Okay, (running game coordinator/offensive line coach) Frank (Verducci), along with (running backs coach) Tony (Alford) and (tight ends coach) Bernie (Parmalee), how are we going to attack these guys in the run game? How are we going to attack Nevada? How are we going to run the ball against Nevada? Give me the four or five runs in our core system that give us the best opportunity to run the ball well against Nevada. Whatever he says, I'll be able to combine those with play action pass that marry with them. Like I said, you always have a core. You go ahead from that core, then you take it from there.
So how exactly did that work out against the Wolfpack? What runs were selected by the "run game coordinator"? Although it's hard to determine what "core" means to Weis and Verducci, it appears that the most popular runs on Saturday were the inside zone, the toss play, the draw play with a lead blocker, and one of the Jab counters. All four were productive, and two of the four runs met the 4.6 ypc benchmark established by Weis as a goal in the off-season.

Run Play
Ride 34/35 Zone (Inside Zone)
Toss 38
H 42 Ace (Draw)
Jab 32/33 Bend (Counter)

The inside zone play is notable because it was the workhorse in the last three series, as 12 of the last 17 plays in the game were Ride 34/35 Zone. Noticeably absent-- with the exception of the 1-yard TD scamper by Armando Allen-- were the outside zone runs (Sprint) that produced more fan frustration than yardage in 2008.

A "new" play showed up, although it could disappear just as quickly depending upon the health of James Aldridge. In the clip below, the quarterback has the option to pitch the ball to the tailback or hand it off to the fullback on a dive. It's the type of play for which fans have been clamoring: a quick hitter that forces the defense to account for the fullback. At the same time, it employs misdirection, which many also feel is a missing piece in the run game. Although it seems new, it was used back in 2005, most infamously against Michigan State when Asaph Schwapp failed to pick up the first down at the end of the game. It seems better suited as a change-up type of running play that can catch the defense off-guard, which is how the Irish used it on Saturday. Here, Allen picks up eight yards; when Charlie called for it in the second half, Clausen gave it to the fullback for two yards; unfortunately, it was also the play where Aldridge got hurt and had to leave the game.

Also worth highlighting is a simple 9-yard draw play by Aldridge.

Did you catch who the slot receiver was, or were you too busy watching the back hit the hole? Watch it again if you missed it the first time. I'm actually surprised Clausen didn't throw it to Allen; there was no one around him. This is just another wrinkle, like the play above, that will force defenses to account for both backs and not simply assume the fullback is a blocker. However, with Aldridge's health a question mark, it seems as though this new toy in the Irish offense may be temporarily shelved, although Weis talked about a "Plan B" in Sunday's presser. Could that possibly be Robert Hughes?

And last, but certainly not least, there were two Wildcat runs. Many fans don't seem to like the Wildcat, but Weis didn't back off it during the presser. It would seem as though its use may grow every week, at least in terms of the different runs that are available from the formation.

The Aldridge Experiment. Until he went out with a bruised shoulder, it was working fairly well. While his blocking was inconsistent, the coaching staff didn't ask him to do too much, and his mere presence on the field opened up the offense to an extent. Aldridge played fullback on 12 plays, of which eight runs and four passes were called in the huddle. On one of those runs, Clausen decided not to hand off and instead threw a swing pass to Mike Floyd. In total, here were the 12 plays with Aldridge and Allen or Jonas Gray in the game together:
  • 4 passes, all completed, for 218 yards, including three touchdowns to Mike Floyd;
  • 1 sack, as Clausen held the ball too long (waiting for crossing routes) before finally deciding to scramble;
  • 3 draw plays with Aldridge leading Allen or Gray went for 10, -1, and 6 yards, with the one negative play resulting from a poor Kyle Rudolph block;
  • 2 running plays on the dive/pitch combo shown above;
  • 1 goal line outside zone play where Allen ran untouched into the endzone; and,
  • 1 draw play with Aldridge as the lone back and Allen lined up in the slot.
Overall, it's hard to argue with those results; the experiment was successful. Let's just hope that Aldridge isn't too banged up, or that "Plan B" can be equally effective.

Wolfpackages. Many pundits and fans alike believed the Irish would open up in 4- and 5-wide and abuse Nevada's weak secondary, and while the Irish racked up over 300 yards of passing offense, most of the damage actually occurred with those extra receivers watching from the sidelines. Of Notre Dame's 62 offensive plays, only 12 involved 3+ WRs. Shockingly, that was the lowest total since 2005, when the Irish played Washington and sent out Stovall, Samardzija, and Shelton just eight times. Last year's lowest total was 17, in the rain-soaked contest against Michigan, and the Irish employed 3+ WRs on 22 plays or more in every other game. The diversity in personnel groupings is essential to the Weis offense. One of the reasons why the Irish were so successful in 2005 was because they did not have to rely on pass-heavy personnel groupings and formations; in that respect, 2009 is off to a great start.

Throughout the entire game, the Irish were able to send out five different personnel groupings, due in large part to the tight ends on the roster. Dayton transfer Bobby Burger, who is listed as a fullback on the Irish depth chart, was more of an H-back, lining up all over the place, and made gamecharting as interesting as it's been in the last few years.

Another tight end who found his way onto the field was freshman Tyler Eifert, who entered the game on the last drive and played six snaps. Weis explained his appearance on Sunday.
Q. I think some of us might have been a little bit surprised to see Tyler Eifert in there. When did you as a staff decide this is a kid that needs to play now?

COACH WEIS: We had that conversation about a week ago, and we talked about can we make it through the season, can we make it through the season without using him. And with what we're going to do on offense this year, we felt the answer to that would be no. If we could make it through the season without him, we'd try to sit him for the year, but we said we're doing some things different schematically now, and there's guys that are playing different roles that we need to use guys in, and he looked to us like a guy that could get better and better as the year went on.
Whatever Weis and the staff are working on sounds very intriguing. The Irish used a lot of three TE formations in 2005, with Anthony Fasano, John Carlson, and Marcus Freeman, but the dearth of tight ends on the roster made it harder in subsequent years. Are these offensive plans related schematically to what the Irish attempted in 2005? Or entirely different? Stay tuned.

Tight ends aside, the personnel grouping du jour on Saturday was Regular, which trots out a halfback, fullback, tight end, and two receivers. Regular was used 44% of the time, a single-game record for itself over the years I've tracked the offense (2005-2006, 2008). It was followed by Detroit, which replaces the fullback with another tight end, used 26% of the game. Both groupings ran the ball fairly well. With the starters in the game, Regular personnel averaged a robust 5.2 yards per carry; fourth quarter production with the back-ups, however, was inconsistent and resulted in an overall average below the acceptable 4 yards per carry barometer. The run game was even better using two tight ends (Detroit), as the Irish ran the ball 12 times at 6.8 yards per carry, including three carries of 14+ yards.

"F" is for Fake. A problem for the Irish passing game in recent years has been play action, especially with Regular personnel on the field. After a strong showing in 2005, when Brady Quinn completed 60% of these grouping-specific play action passes at 9.0 yards per attempt, the Irish hit rock bottom last year. With Regular personnel, Jimmy Clausen completed only six of 22 play action passes for 53 yards in the regular season. Whether it was that teams didn't respect Asaph Schwapp as a receiver, or that they blitzed and confused the Irish protection, it's hard to say. Production turned around in the Hawaii Bowl, though, as Clausen went four for four for 122 yards. He didn't slow down against Nevada, either. Against the Wolfpack he connected on all three play action passes for 53 yards. The ability of the Irish to effectively use play action from Regular formations is a key ingredient for this offense's success.

In other groupings, Clausen completed one of his two play action passes for eight yards. The one incompletion he had was on a draw play fake; he overthrew an open Rudolph down the seam.

Looking Ahead. Despite the positives from Saturday's game, there are plenty of areas for the Irish to work on this week in preparation for the Michigan game. Kyle Rudolph struggled with some key blocks; the Irish faltered on two short yardage situations late in the game; and, the flexibility and diversity that Aldridge brings to the offense as a fullback may need to be replaced next Saturday. Most importantly, the last time the Irish offense went up against a Greg Robinson-coached defense, the run game didn't fare too well. On 25 carries, the Irish managed just 62 yards.

Up in Ann Arbor, this running game better roll on Shabbos.