Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Stabled | by Jay

Jeff had the good news, relatively speaking: if we'd had fewer major, game-changing mistakes, we would have had a much better chance of beating the Spartans. I don't think Michael Floyd dropping a fumble in the red zone, or James Aldridge false starting, turning a 1st and goal into a 2nd and 20, or Jimmy Clausen staring down Duval Kamara and inviting Otis Wiley to eat his lunch are particularly systemic problems. It's sloppy football, to be sure, but these are fixable things.

No, the bad news -- the elephant in the room -- is the utter lack of a running attack after three games. Various pundits of the Notre Dame cognoscenti have weighed in since Saturday with a whole host of reasons, excuses, and finger-pointing; it's the crummy play design, some say...no, it's the lack of strength of the linemen...they're getting pushed around. Wrong: the backs don't hit the holes fast enough. See, we're too predictable, and we tip our hand to the defense. No, the holes are there -- our running backs just lack vision. You're all wrong: the sequencing of plays is the real culprit.

I've watched (and rewatched) the running plays from this year, and I can't pinpoint the exact reason for our lack of production. I suspect if it were an easy fix, we'd all be talking about the same thing. That said, we did manage to pick up a couple of contributing factors in reviewing the Michigan State game. At the end of this post I'll include the video of all the runs against the Spartans, and while you're watching, consider these two bullet points:

1. Michigan State shifted and stunted us like crazy. You might not remember -- I certainly didn't -- but last year, the Irish rushing attack was actually fairly productive against Michigan State. Aldridge and Hughes both averaged over 5.5 yards per carry against the Spartans, and Aldridge even ripped off a 43-yard gallop. What made the Spartan run defense so much better this year? For starters, there were a couple of personnel changes, with Brandon Long going back in as a starter and transfer Trevor Anderson, a former all Big East selection from Cincinnati, settling in at defensive end. But even more than the new blood, a revamped scheme played a big part in stopping the Irish. If you look at the big runs from last year, you'll see a 4-man line and linebackers playing behind them. But watch the video below: you're going to see State shift the line on almost every play before the snap, and bring an extra defender to the line of scrimmage. This five-man front was not heavily used in their game against Cal earlier in the year, and I wonder if we had scouted it extensively enough. In any case, zone blocking a five-man line as opposed to a four-man line means less opportunity for blockers to double and move to the next level, so what you end up with are more 1-on-1 battles. Which brings me to...

2. We lost too many of those one-on-one battles. In the video below, you'll see Kyle Rudolph unable to hold the point of attack; Dan Wenger getting pushed back into the play; multiple players getting stood up; and in many cases, unblocked defenders making easy tackles.

Here are all the runs against Michigan State (except for a couple of late ones after we'd already gone pass-happy).

How to get better? There's no easy answer here. We obviously can't run reverses and draws all day long. Even if we ripped up the playbook, outfitted the running backs with guided missile systems, and signed the ghost of Joe Moore to replace John Latina, we're still going to face these same two challenges: recognizing a shift or a stunt, and winning the individual battles. If we can't do either of those things, then it's going to be a long year on the ground for the Irish.

Late update: Charlie was asked about the run game woes in today's presser. His answer made me chuckle in its simplicity. Want to run the ball better? Move the line of scrimmage.

Q. You mentioned the other day that the running game looked better in practice. It hasn't translated on the field. Just looking back at the opponents you've played, against Michigan which is one of the best run defenses, you guys did better than the other opponents. But against the other teams you've done worse. Is it a matter of consistency or have you been able to put a finger on why?

COACH CHARLIE WEIS: I think fundamental -- it's a matter of fundamentally playing sound. I think against Michigan, you know, for example look at that game. I think they didn't figure we were going to even try to run the ball. So when they don't think you are going to try to run the ball and you are calling almost the exact same plays okay but they're working because they're worrying more about stopping the pass. You know this week I give credit to Michigan State because they came into the game saying we're going play our front seven and our two safeties and you are going to have to throw the ball to beat us, and they got the best of us in that exchange right there. Some people talk about an eight-man front, that's closer to a nine-man front. But still it comes down to even if you don't block the safeties, even if you are just blocking the front seven, it still comes down to moving the line of scrimmage. As you watch the game as the line of scrimmage doesn't move in the defense's direction then usually something good is not going to end up happening. And that happened too many times in this past game.

Q. Is one of the possible solutions try to go to more misdirection to keep teams off balance or do you just have to wait until your line can start moving back?

COACH CHARLIE WEIS: We ran misdirection in that game. It's just that I think you need to move the line of scrimmage. You know, I hate to make it be so simple sometimes, but you got to move the line of scrimmage. Because when the line of scrimmage starts moving that way, you know, usually something good is going to end up happening.