Posted: 7:00 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013
As a former high school football coach I always enjoyed devising a game plan for an upcoming opponent. In the initial stage of game planning I would watch film and try to get a sense of the strengths and weakness of the next opponent. Through this initial analysis, I would formulate a tentative game plan. I would then go back to the film and review in greater detail so I could refine the game plan. This week I'll be looking through the lens of a coach preparing to play Notre Dame. I'm going to provide an initial analysis explaining how I might attack the Notre Dame offense and defense. Keep in mind this an initial analysis. In the real world a full game plan would require significant refining and much greater detail. That's where you come in. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments section to build upon the framework I've presented or tell me I've gone insane after suffering through eleven and a half months of Canadian winter.
Larz's Canadian Grizzlies vs. Notre Dame Defense
Normally coaches are obsessed with production on 1st down. If I was playing Notre Dame I wouldn't worry about production on 1st down. Based on what I've seen so far this year, I would be pretty confident that I can get production on 2nd down. Therefore, play calling on first down would be designed to keep the defense honest and force them to pursue across the field in hopes of tiring them out. I would try to accomplish this two ways:
1st down is all about creating a foundation for success in later downs. I might be tempted to take some shots deep or try a trick play, otherwise as long as I'm not losing yards I'm a happy camper. Forcing Notre Dame to continue to honour the run and pursue sideline to sideline would be a win for my team, even if we're not gaining a whole bunch of yards.
This is the money down when playing Notre Dame. If I was game planning against the Irish I would be pretty confident that I could consistently gain positive yardage on 2nd down. This is the time to attack the soft underbelly of the Fighting Irish defense. I would look to throw short to medium passes over the middle using play action (this is why it is nice to run the ball on first down at least some of the time) and quick passes. In fact, until Notre Dame proved that they could stop it, I'm not sure I would do anything else on 2nd down. Notre Dame basically has two distinct techniques for pass coverage, and here's how I would attack them:
2nd down is key when planning against the Notre Dame defense. This is the time to pick the low hanging fruit in the middle of the pass defense. Quick throws or play action passes are high percentage, relatively safe plays against the 2013 Irish defense and almost guarantee a 1st down or very manageable 3rd down.
I would use the same template as second down. The only thing is that I would expect more blitz from Notre Dame on 3rd down, which is fine. As long as I've had success on 2nd down and gained positive yards I can continue to throw short to medium passes, which makes it difficult for blitzes to get to the quarterback.
How does Notre Dame defeat this game plan?
So there you have it. The foundational elements of a game plan against Notre Dame's defense. We have seen this basic plan three weeks in a row and until the Irish change, we will continue to see it. Of course this is a Notre Dame blog so now we'll talk a little bit about how we can defeat this type of game plan. Here are some suggestions
Larz's Canadian Grizzlies vs. Notre Dame Offense
I was tempted to go back and watch a bunch of film and breakdown some tendencies for the Notre Dame offense, but I resisted that temptation. I believe the Irish have been a little too simple on the offensive side of ball, particularly the last two games. To help prove this point, I'm going to do this analysis off the top of my head. If some guy in Canada can figure out the weaknesses in the Notre Dame offensive game plan without reviewing any film, imagine what a full time defensive staff can do. Let's see how accurate I am.
Larz's Canadian Grizzlies vs. Notre Dame Ground Game
Maybe I'm getting cocky here, but I wouldn't be overly worried about Notre Dame's run game. I think there is plenty of talent there. They have good backs, a good line, their tight ends and receivers block well and keep busy down the field. However, their run game is very vanilla. I'm a former linebacker, and I would love to play against this Notre Dame running attack. I could play downhill all game! If I was coaching a group of linebackers playing against Notre Dame I would work on mirroring the running back's initial steps and ATTACKING!!! Rarely does Notre Dame use misdirection of any kind in the run game. They run a bit of play action and that's pretty much it (I do recall one sprint draw against Temple, can anyone think of other examples?). Therefore, the first few steps a running back takes tells you with almost 100% certainty where he is going. If the running play starts up the middle, it goes up the middle. If it starts to the outside, it goes outside. There really is nothing to keep linebackers honest in the Notre Dame running game. As well, Notre Dame doesn't have a mobile quarterback so that makes it even easier, one less guy to keep defenses honest. Basically the entire front 7 can attack any running play with very little fear of getting tricked. Release the hounds, attack the run. I purposely haven't gone back and looked at the film to see if this hypothesis is correct, but I know many of our readers have. So tell me in the comments, is my initial impression correct? Is there very little misdirection in the Irish running game?
Larz's Canadian Grizzlies vs Notre Dame Passing Attack
Usually defensive coordinators search for ways to throw the timing of the passing game off as part of their game planning. This can be done by jamming receivers, blitzing, switching coverages etc. Against Notre Dame, one of the first things I would try and do is get in Tommy Rees's head. Notre Dame asks Rees to check into plays based on the defensive alignment pre-snap. I would have my defense give a very early look (especially blitz) get him to change the play and then switch back into something else. This is a good way to get the offense out of rhythm. Force multiple audibles with multiple looks. Try to get Tommy and the rest of the offense to think too much.
The next thing I would do is try to force Tommy Rees to create on the run. Rees is not a great scrambler and when you flush him out of the pocket he is reluctant to run the ball and has a tendency to force passes into coverage instead of throwing it away. Some well timed blitzes with zone to the opposite side creates the potential for mistakes from Tommy Rees.
Finally, I would do as much as I can to take away Notre Dame's wide receivers. They are very dangerous weapons and Tommy Rees absolutely has the ability to hit them deep. However, the Irish don't throw much to their other receivers (slots, tight ends, running backs) so you can really focus on stopping the wide outs. While Troy Niklas has made a few nice plays, has another tight end made a catch, or even been targeted more than once? The slot receiver is also rarely targeted. Even if he is, does Notre Dame have any play makers to worry about at that position? As for the running backs catching passes, I would take that match up all day. Until they prove they can catch the ball consistently I wouldn't worry much about them. In fact, I would try and force Notre Dame to go to their slot receivers or running backs as much as possible. Take away the wide receivers and the Notre Dame passing game is in trouble. As an aside, I wouldn't worry too much about the screen game to the receivers. Although it was effective against Temple, Notre Dame tips the play based on formation so it's become a pretty easy read. Essentially if Niklas or Daniel Smith are split out wide in a stack formation, you are probably going to see a wide receiver screen.
How does Notre Dame defeat this game plan?
In the run game the answers are pretty simple. Notre Dame needs to add an element of misdirection. It could be as simple as mixing in the odd counter to compliment the downhill running game. But I'm going to propose something more radical. Scrap the experiment at slot receiver. Put Carlisle and Atkinson in that position. You can run them on sweeps and fake sweeps out of the pistol or shotgun to add an element of misdirection to the offense. As well, you could motion them into the backfield and run out of some two back sets, which adds potential diversity to your running game and provides more opportunities for misdirection. In certain situations you could put in a true "slot receiver" but I don't think Notre Dame is currently getting much value out of that position. You have some potential studs at the running back position, more of them need to get on the field.
Get vertical early! Force your opponent to respect your wide receivers and double cover them. Teams are often loading the box on first down and second down. This leaves Daniels and Jones one on one with a corner. Attack that weakness. Deep passes to the wide receivers on 1st and 2nd down, must happen. The OFD community demands nothing less.
Are we at Defcon 1? No. This is closer to the Canadian version of Defcoun 1, which means Tim Horton's is running low on coffee. Not a great situation, but it's not time to panic either. Right now there are some pretty obvious trends on both sides of the ball for Notre Dame that make them relatively easy to game plan for. If the Irish can break some of these trends, I believe we'll see an immediate improvement. Typically as the year progresses we see schemes in all phases of the game become more complex. At the same time, I think it's fair to be concerned. There is little question the coaching staff needs to make some adjustments sooner rather than later. Purdue will not be the stiffest challenge we face all year. What are your thoughts OFD readers, how would you game plan for the Irish and what should Notre Dame do to counter this game plan ?