Jun 8, 2014, 5:18 AM EST
Craig Chval, the official 2013 football beat writer for the Strong & True blog, is currently a junior at the University of Notre Dame. Over the course of the year Craig will bring you insight from within the student section, interviews with Fighting Irish players and previews of each game. You can follow Craig (and the rest of the Notre Dame student beat writing staff) on twitter at @JrNDBloggers.
Football has an excruciatingly long offseason, and it doesn’t help that good news rarely comes between January and August. Thankfully, this particular offseason has been pretty uneventful.
Since there are still two and a half months until the season begins, I decided to spend that time looking back at 2013. What did each game teach us, and how can that help the Irish in ’14?
Of course it makes sense to start with the season opener, in which Notre Dame defeated the visiting Temple Owls 28-6.
What We Learned from Temple: Pistol Packing
If you remember, Temple was the first game that saw the Irish extensively utilize the pistol formation in its offense, and to great success. This clip shows the first touchdown of the season, and as you can see, George Atkinson is lined up behind Tommy Rees with three receivers wide.
After two successful running plays, the Irish go to play action, and the far-side safety bites a little on the fake. He is then unable to help his corner on DaVaris Daniels, who beats his man to get in the end zone.
While maybe not to that level every time, the pistol was a tremendous success from the start. Not counting the last three Irish drives of “garbage time,” here are the numbers.
Pistol: 18 runs for 144 yards (8 YPC), TD; 4-5 passing for 126 yards (25.2 YPA), TD
Ace Backfield: 1 run for 4 yards (4 YPC); 1-1 passing for 32 yards (32 YPA), TD
Ace Shotgun: 4 runs for 12 yards (3 YPC); 8-10 passing for 111 yards (11.1 YPA), TD (sack counts as pass)
Empty Shotgun: 3-8 passing for 71 yards (8.9 YPA), TD
The pistol accounted for just under half of the plays in the game and yielded more yards than the three other formations combined, even though Notre Dame mostly ran from pistol and passed from shotgun.
Since Notre Dame was so successful running out of the pistol (8 yards per carry), that made the passing game that much more dangerous, resulting in a highly efficient passing threat.
Not So Hot: Empty Set
Now, the Irish offense put on a pretty good clinic in its first game of the season, but some wondered why they couldn’t do more. Temple was 2-10 in 2013, giving up 29.8 points per game in a mediocre American conference. Yet, they held the Irish to one score in the second half.
The answer lies again in formation. Here is a list of all the plays from the empty set in the game.
1st and 10 from the Temple 46 – incomplete pass
2nd and 10 from the Temple 46 – bubble screen for a loss of 1 yard
3rd and 11 from Temple 47 – incomplete pass
3rd and 5 from Temple 37 – incomplete pass
3rd and 7 from Temple 22 – incomplete pass
1st and 10 from ND 34 – 66 yard TD pass to Niklas
3rd and 6 from Temple 26 – incomplete pass
3rd and 9 from ND 33 – 6 yard pass to Carlisle
With the one notable exception, every play from the empty set was a failure. Every possession on which Notre Dame did not score ended in a failed third-down conversion from the empty set. (Once again, I am not counting last three garbage drives). Here are third downs in the game sorted by length.
3rd and 1 – Atkinson 4-yard run from pistol (GOOD)
3rd and 1 – Carlisle 3-yard run from pistol (GOOD)
3rd and 4 – 33-yard pass from ace shotgun (GOOD)
3rd and 5 – 11-yard pass from ace shotgun (GOOD)
3rd and 5 – incomplete pass from empty set (NO GOOD)
3rd and 6 – incomplete pass from empty set (NO GOOD)
3rd and 7 – incomplete pass from empty set (NO GOOD)
3rd and 9 – 6-yard pass from empty set (NO GOOD)
3rd and 11 – incomplete pass from empty set (NO GOOD)
So, yes, the empty set is used when there is a greater distance to the first down, but on 3rd and 4 or 5, the ace shotgun was successful. Why does removing the running back make such a difference?
If you look at the longest conversion of the game, the 3rd and 5 with 2:42 left in the third, Atkinson runs out of the backfield, too fast for the pursuing linebacker. Because Atkinson can be a pass target in any direction, the speedy back has a step up on his man and is able to beat him to the edge, receiving the pass and gaining 11 yards.
Having a running back in the backfield creates a lot more options that the defense has to account for: screens, draws, and a more unpredictable receiver. They can slant to the sideline, run in the flat, streak up the middle. When it’s just Tommy Rees back there, the defense can simply rush three and clog up the field.
Later in the same drive (first play of the 4th), the Irish have a 3rd and 7. Niklas stays in to block in the empty set, but Temple only rushes four. Their corners play tight since they’re close to the red zone, and there are three extra defenders to help in the defensive backfield. Rees tries to throw to a well-covered Chris Brown, but the pass falls incomplete.
Looking to 2014
Obviously, expect the pistol to be a big part of the playbook this coming season. It was used throughout 2013, and it offers much greater potential for a mobile quarterback. Maybe look for some read options and some bootlegs to throw defenses off their heels.
Since it has been a staple of the offense the last several years, don’t expect the empty set to go away, though. With a mobile quarterback, it does not create the exact same liabilities, as defenses have to account for QB draws, but rushing three with a QB spy could create the same headaches for the Irish offense.
The reason the play action worked so well against Temple was the threat of the running game over the course of the game. When the defense is trying so hard to stop your running backs, they can overlook your wide receivers over the top. When there is no running threat out of the empty set, you lose a great offensive weapon.
With a load of young talent on the offensive side of the ball, Notre Dame’s strength on offense will be its versatility. Since the pistol lets the running back get a forward start and the quarterback stay back behind the line, it is the formation that best utilizes this versatility. Expect either Golson or Zaire to be at their best from the pistol in 2014.
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