Thursday, September 11, 2008

the Left Stuff | by Michael

In this corner, the prize fighter: six hundred sixty-seven pounds of elite high school talent in its third year at Notre Dame. Two behemoths whose fall camp play inspired Charlie Weis to utter those fateful words: "We're going to pound it."

And in the other, Glass Joe: an inferior San Diego State defensive line that had allowed 250 yards or more on the ground in its last five games. That includes 263 in an embarrassing 29-27 loss to Cal Poly (which rushed for only 173 yards in a 30-28 loss to Montana last Saturday). Prior to the game in South Bend, the Aztecs had shuffled their line-up in the wake of injuries, and had even moved undersized linebackers to the front four.

The prizefighter went straight for the chin on three of its first four running plays, with Irish halfbacks running behind the right side tandem of 337-lb right tackle Sam Young and 330-lb right guard Chris Stewart. Those three runs picked up 4, 11, and 2 yards, plus a first down. And if a freshman tight end had properly sealed off the backside DE, that third play would have picked up at least five or six yards. Unfortunately, both drives stalled because of failed third down passes. Although fans were left wondering why Mike Haywood called pass plays on third and short, it seemed that this semi-commitment to running the ball behind Stewart and Young would continue to yield benefits.

Inexplicably, the next ten runs all went to the left. On those, the Irish picked up just 35 yards. Then a draw to the right that the running back cut to the left, followed by another run to the left side for three yards. In the first 42 offensive plays of the game, the Irish "pounded" to the right just four times out of 16 runs. Puzzling.

Then the Aztecs scored to make it 13-7. Would falling behind finally force the braintrust to shift gears back to its apparent strength? The answer appeared to be yes. Consider the subsequent drives:

  • On their next possession, the Irish ran a toss to the left on 1st down, followed by a run to the right. A huge hole was opened, and Armando Allen showed the speed that many fans have been waiting for. He picked up 14 yards, but he also fumbled when he took a big hit.
  • The Irish got the ball back, and after a first down pass, the very next play was another run to the right (Robert Hughes for 5). Unfortunately, that drive ended on a botched play call where there was no lead blocker for Hughes, who lost four yards on 3rd and 1.
  • The next time the Irish regained possession, David Bruton had just recovered an Aztec fumble in the end zone. Now desperate to play catch-up, the offense abandoned the run entirely as Jimmy Clausen quickly led the offense eighty yards to pay dirt in just over two minutes. During that entire drive, the Irish ran plays from their 2-minute drill series.
  • Finally, the last two drives exemplified the "pound it" mentality that Irish fans have been hoping to see. With possession of the ball and a 14-13 lead, Notre Dame rushed 7 times in 11 plays -- thrice behind Stewart and Young -- and capped off the drive with a score. And on the final drive to ice the game, Hughes and Allen ran it four of four times, 3 to the right, picking up a first down and running out the clock.
The final rushing statistics illustrate why many fans were increasingly frustrated by the play calling as the game wore on:
  • RIGHT - 12 carries, 62 yards, 5.2 ypc
  • LEFT - 19 carries, 56 yards, 2.9 ypc
  • MIDDLE - 1 carry, -4 yards
So the question to ask: why would the coaching staff tie the right hand of the prizefighter behind his back like this?

Perhaps Jon Tenuta can help explain. One of JT's primary tenets is that a defense should "make [the other team] try to beat you with the hard stuff, not the easy stuff" (or make them left-handed, as he likes to say). In other words, the defensive game plan always focuses on taking away an opponents' best running plays. An offense doesn't want to be forced to run its fourth and fifth best running plays, but good defenses game plan to take away the ones they run best. And Michigan, with its vaunted run-stoppers, were next on the docket.

So perhaps all the running left was by design: if we can beat SDSU with the left hand, why show the big right hook to Michigan at all? Until we fell behind in the third quarter, we really didn't need to exploit the right side. Did Weis want to give Michigan, which has been absolutely dominant against the run, lots of looks at the left side of the run game, knowing full well that the right side is the true strength?

That's what I'm wondering. I don't know why else we would consciously run 10 times in a row to the left when you know the right side is more productive. It's crazy, isn't it?

We didn't start running to the right until we needed to. And when we did, it lacked the creativity normally associated with a Weis offense. We didn't run a toss right, only to the left. We didn't run a stretch play to the right until the second half. Even though SDSU was overplaying the run all night, we called only one misdirection play until late in the game, despite the fact that Hughes had turned some of these counter plays into his biggest gains last year. We ran seven different types of runs to the left before we even repeated one. On the other hand, we only ran a couple of different runs to the right. Is Haywood really that dense?

If you're ND and you know you have more talent than SDSU, wouldn't you want to hide some stuff? The plan backfired because of all our turnovers, but c'mon, doesn't this strike you as deviously Weisean, in a way? I'm reminded of what Sherlock Holmes would always say to Watson: Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. It's nearly impossible that Haywood would be so clueless that he would call 10 in a row to the left without realizing it...and it's nearly impossible that he would not run on any of those third-and-shorts...isn't it?

Well, at least one person shares my suspicions...