Jun 20, 2014, 1:30 PM EDT
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.
In case you’ve missed it, I’ve been going through all the 2013 games while waiting for Notre Dame football to start up again. I’ve been picking something that each game can teach the team in preparation for the newest Fighting Irish team. After looking at the new pistol formation against Temple and examining inconsistent defense against Michigan, I turned to the third game on the 2013 slate: Purdue.
When talking about a team’s performance, the final result is far from the entire picture. The game plan, the execution, the margin of victory, and the quality of opponent obviously all factor in. I think most people would agree that the 2005 USC game was one of Notre Dame’s best-played games of the Charlie Weis era, which is as depressing as it is true.
While as a fan I’ll always take a win over a loss, I think the Purdue game was the worst game of the 2013 season. The Boilermakers lost to Cincinnati by 35, Wisconsin by 31, Northern Illinois by 31, Nebraska by 37, Ohio State by 56, Iowa by 24, Penn State by 24, and Indiana by 20. Their only win of the season was a six-point squeaker over FCS Indiana State.
That being said, Notre Dame deserves credit for overcoming its sluggish start and finding a way to win. The last two entries, I’ve discussed what the team can learn from each of its games. In this instance, they learned in the middle of the game in order to pull out a victory.
What We Learned from Purdue: Keeping the Defense Off Balance
“Our guys … they’re going a good job recognizing formations and some tendencies out of formations.”
At halftime, with his 21-point underdog team up 10-3, Purdue head coach Darrell Hazell succinctly explained why the Boilermakers had been able to shut down the Irish offense.
In the first half, Purdue’s defenders looked faster than their Notre Dame counterparts. While the Irish had the clear edge in actual athleticism, Purdue made up for it by knowing what was going to happen before it actually happened.
The Purdue defense knew Notre Dame’s tendencies and gambled on them. They knew that in the first two games, the Irish ran 70% of the time while in the pistol and 19% of the time in single-back shotgun.
They also knew Notre Dame likes to call short plays on first down, especially in the first half. Half of their passing plays on first down in the season were either curls or bubble screens. The Purdue defenders played aggressively to cut down on runs and short passes, especially out of the pistol.
There was a play that you might remember with 9 minutes left in the second quarter. With McDaniel in the pistol on first down, Rees took one step back and threw a pretty weak pass to Chris Brown on an out route. Purdue corner Ricardo Allen read Rees’ eyes the whole way, jumped the route, and should have had an interception for a touchdown.
Purdue’s defense played this way the entire game. The linebackers played in tight on the pistol, often blitzing to disrupt the run game. In shotgun, they backed off more and blitzed less.
On the other end, Purdue found success by mixing up their looks on the offensive end. On each play the Boilermakers put multiple men in motion, they changed up formations, deviating unpredictably between run and pass. They threw out screens, scrambles, end-arounds, swing passes, options.
Their biggest aim was to exploit the most glaring weakness of the Irish defense: the inside linebackers. Their different looks prohibited the linebackers from getting the same jumps the Purdue defenders were getting, leaving them a step behind in coverage or pursuit. Taking advantage of these mismatches, running back Akeem Hunt racked up nine receptions for 72 yards.
So the biggest difference in the first half was keeping the defenses off balance: Purdue did it masterfully on their first drive while their defense was a step ahead of Notre Dame’s offense. On the play I mentioned earlier, Kirk Herbstreit even mentioned that Ricardo Allen cut the route before the receiver did.
Turning It Around
I said earlier that Notre Dame deserved credit for its reversal in the game. They recognized what needed to be fixed and scored 28 points in the second half. And they did it by mixing up their looks.
I mentioned that in the first two games Notre Dame rushed only 19% of the time in ace shotgun and Purdue played much looser off the line when Notre Dame showed that look. However, in this game, the Irish ran 43% of the time from shotgun – 10 carries for 51 yards. This was much better than the pistol’s 18 carries for 46 yards.
They also finally started to exploit the deep part of the field, which is what Purdue sacrificed for their aggression. This play obviously comes to mind, the first of a drive in the fourth quarter.
On first down, Purdue is expecting the short pass, but instead Daniels burns his man for the 82-yard touchdown reception to take the lead. Because Purdue was loading the box, they had no safety help to cover the mismatch.
Throughout the half, Notre Dame also used motion to change up formations effectively. On the first drive of the third quarter at the Purdue 28 yard line, Rees changes from pistol to empty, hitting TJ Jones deep to the 1. Purdue expected a short play from pistol on 1st and 10, but instead got a deep pattern.
And while Notre Dame mixed up their second-half offense to great success, Purdue’s stagnated. Their first drive of the third quarter was another solid blend of plays, but after that touchdown drive, they had 21 more plays in the game. Seventeen of them were passes.
While Notre Dame learned from its first-half mistakes, it seems Purdue couldn’t remember its early success, and that might have made the difference in the game. Final score: Notre Dame 31, Purdue 24.
Looking to 2014
By definition, a mobile quarterback creates a lot more options for a defense to think about. No offense to Tommy Rees’ 1-yard sneak from the empty set, but that play will probably be called more often next year. Add in the arm strength that either Golson or Zaire can offer, and Brian Kelly doesn’t even have to make any huge changes to already see an improvement in the dynamism of his offensive sets.
However, that doesn’t mean there can’t be even more improvement. 2012’s offense was decent but not spectacular, which has something to do with handing the reins over to a first-year quarterback. Hopefully the 2014 quarterback can handle more responsibilities than 2012 Golson.
Having a great running back is also huge to diversify your looks. Alabama is the king of this: teams are so worried about T.J. Yeldon or Eddie Lacy or Trent Richardson or Mark Ingram that they get burned on the play action.
I’m not sure Notre Dame has that type of playmaker yet, but Tarean Folston came into his own at the end of 2013, and don’t forget about Greg Bryant. That duo can be formidable, freeing up opportunities for the quarterback to make a play.
On the defensive end, having the instincts and experience to read plays might be a struggle for the linebackers and safeties. I suspect we’ll see some freshmen or first-year sophomores see significant time at these positions, so it might take some time to learn their positions. However, Jaylon Smith got acclimated pretty fast last year, so it’s not out of the question to see young players play above their age.
On both offense and defense, there hasn’t been a whole lot of unpredictability and diversity over the last few years, with the preference on simplicity and stability. With a new quarterback in the backfield and a new defensive coordinator on the sidelines, don’t be surprised if that changes in 2014.
Reviewing Old Lessons: Pistol and Empty
Purdue was an interesting game because it was the opposite of what we’ve seen against Temple and Michigan. I think this is due to Purdue catching on to the tendencies of each formation and exploiting them.
The pistol is at its best when it utilizes both run and pass effectively. Against Temple, Amir Carlisle or George Atkinson would burn them with the run, and then DaVaris Daniels and TJ Jones would lay down the hammer with a big play-action reception.
Against Purdue, the Irish increased their pistol run-share from 70% to 78%. Of the five passes from pistol, only one was play action, a mid-range route that was a poor throw.
Also, the empty set was very effective against Purdue. The empty has always been a big-play do-or-die for Notre Dame, and the over-the-top pass was how the Irish held off Purdue’s aggressive defense.
For these reasons, I suspect this game’s numbers to be an aberration, and the overall trend is still highly in favor of the pistol. But perhaps I’m wrong, and we’ll see moving forward.
Pistol: 18 runs for 46 yards (2.6 YPC); 2-5 passing for 20 yards (4 YPA) (doesn’t count fumbled snap)
Ace Backfield: 4 runs for 7 yards (1.8 YPC); 1-1 passing for 40 yards (40 YPA)
Ace Shotgun: 10 runs for 51 yards (5.1 YPC); 7-13 passing for 116 yards (8.9 YPA), 2 TDs
Empty Shotgun: 1 run for 1 yard (1 YPC); 11-16 passing for 136 yards (8.5 YPA) (sack counts as a pass)
Reviewing Old Lessons: Assignment Football
On the whole, the Irish made fewer mistakes on defense, especially with their assignments. In particular, I thought Prince Shembo played a smart game on the edge, containing mobile quarterback Rob Henry, pass rushing effectively, and closing off the outside run game.
There were fewer missed tackles, but Purdue’s second touchdown comes to mind as a particularly frustrating case. And as I mentioned before, the inside linebackers often struggled with reads and covering Akeem Hunt out of the backfield. Overall, though, the defense definitely made fewer big errors than the previous game.
The demoralizing long conversions continued, though, with Purdue converting third downs from 7, 11, 7, 12, and 7. They also scored their last touchdown on a 4th and 7. Oftentimes these 3rd and longs were converted when the Irish blitzed. Usually the blitz was effective for Notre Dame this game, but it did come back to haunt them when leaving corners on their own.
Especially against teams like Purdue, I think Notre Dame should be able to rely on its hyped linemen to generate pressure. This will be an interesting development for 2014, especially with VanGorder’s scheme and a new-look line.
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