We The Fighting Irish of Notre Dame are into the 2008 football season, and we are definitely NOT doing well despite being 2-1. Though my wife and I felt more could be done for this year and said so in an earlier blog we posted before the season's start, like everyone else, we hoped for the best, and again, we were disappointed. Though much can be said about the defense, we are ONLY concerned with ND's offense in this blog.
First, what's wrong with Notre Dame's offense? We read that MSU made ND one dimensional with its different defensive looks [in other words, they did not allow us to run and pass...only pass, hence the concept of one dimension]. We also read that our Fighting Irish are unable to get out of the habit of always passing, regardless of whatever defense they are facing. The list of problems goes on and on. These reasons all have merits. But the answer actually lies one level up, to put it bluntly: our approach to offense is too PREDICTABLE. This is probably the baseline of the problem. Charlie Weis and our coaches are NOT innovative. They are also NOT problem solvers, despite many articles to the contrary.
Let's look at two examples of problem solving and innovation from this past weekend [Sept 20-21, 08]. Our opponent MSU is the first example. The Spartans, knowing they have a poor passing game, (and they ARE, in fact, a one dimensional team with Javon Ringer as their only offensive asset), put together different defensive sets to confuse OUR offense - sets we had never seen before and as a result were not prepared. The MSU coach mentioned that ND had the chalkboard out on the sideline and that was one of their goals! The other goal: They were able to keep our offense off the field and their offense on. The second example of problem solving and innovation was on Sunday, 9/21 when the Miami Dolphins played the New England Patriots. The Dolphins came to the game prepared; they came with something different to offer offensively. New England didn't know how to respond. The Dolphins ran the same play 4 times all day and scored or gained big yardage with it every time....the direct snap to Brown with Pennington at WR & a back in motion as a counter threat. Four times they ran it, and it gained or scored every time. Brown said after the game: "We put that in this week for just this game. We practiced it hard all week, and it paid off."
Innovation. Solving the problems. Two lesser teams win ball games by covering their weaknesses by putting the OTHER team back on their heels. Boise State vs. Oklahoma is another example everyone remembers. Call them trick plays; call them new wrinkles to offenses; call them whatever word is the buzz word, BUT surprise, innovation, and commitment to keeping the otherside off balance are what will win football games.
Now to the second part, how can Charlie Weis fix Notre Dame's offense?
Well, we began addressing the fix by identifying the basic problem: the lack of innovation. To carry the problem solving further, we need to address the strengths that our Fighting Irish DO have - depth at running back and depth at wide receiver. We now go back to what we said in the earlier blog before the season began: He needs to use a SPLIT BACK OFFENSE - not an I, not a single set back, but a SPLIT BACK OFFENSE. Two backs in the backfield lined up - Hughes behind one guard & Allen cheated over just a bit between the guard & tackle to the opposite side. Since Allen is a good runner who can use his speed with effectiveness if given the opportunities, rethinking where he lines up with relation to the outside defensive people is a good idea. That's why we suggest cheating him over a bit. Both backs are set 3 or 4 yards deep. Clausen can be under center or shotgun [this should be varied depending on the types of plays].
Now why are we advocating SPLIT BACKS and not I backs or single set backs? Simple, this is one of the strengths that ND has that it does NOT use - both Hughes AND Allen in the backfield at the SAME time. Another sound reason is that in I or single set backs, the DEFENSIVE read is quick in most cases - run or pass, the play is right or left. With SPLIT BACKS - one back a quick power back [Hughes], and one a quick fast back [Allen] - on each side of the center, the DEFENSIVE read is slow...why? The defense has to see what 3 backs are going to do...each is in a different position and each is a threat...Clausen to pass, Hughes to run, Allen to run. In I-backs, Notre Dame only uses the fullback to block, in our single back set we either run or pass and that is determined quickly within the first step or two by watching Clausen; he has not been taught to use ball fakes. However, with BOTH Allen & Hughes in the backfield in a SPLIT BACK alignment, the defense is not only slowed down but that also changes blitz packages! Add innovative plays to this alignment with these playmakers in the game at the same time - WOW - we can make things happen!
Our next point, with the depth at wide receiver, we can rotate ONE receiver every play - not platoon it. Since we will only be dealing with three wideouts, the rotation can prove hectic for scouts trying to get a feel for a pattern since all of them are legitimate threats. The only recommended change is that the coaches need to emphasize blocking with Tate & Floyd more. Those gentlemen have a tendency to watch the game too much. With running emphasized, the dramatic passing Charlie likes WILL loosen up even more, and THAT strength of ND's will be a STRONG threat on every play IF Clausen will ALWAYS carry out a rollout pass fake...instead of turning to watch the running play...We've always been advocates of: "If you wanna watch, BUY a ticket and sit in the stands; if you wanna play, DO something!"
So, problem-solving, and innovative use of all of our strengths on a weekly basis, starting with this new offensive alignment, we feel are Charlie's answers to fixing what is wrong with Notre Dame's offense. It's NOT rocket science. That's what surprises us about our Fighting Irish. The answers are simple, apparent, and doable. We GUARANTEE that this will work. Why hasn't Charlie and the coaching staff seen it? Why aren't they doing these kinds of things?
Well, another long-winded essay, but we wanted to present some food-for-thought for everyone as ND wonders about its Renaissance.