New defensive coordinator Mike Elko is the current belle of the ball amongst most Fighting Irish faithful. It makes sense, he replaced the guy everybody loathed in Brian VanGorder, and his defense is a 180 compared to his predecessor. So his success is always going to be highlighted above all else with the program. And to be clear, he has earned every bit of praise. His unit is playing fabulously through seven weeks.
Incredibly though, new offensive coordinator Chip Long has operated under the radar so far, even as the offense has morphed into something fans have been dreaming of for decades. They run for days and then they run some more. Their leading running back is 7th nationally in rushing yards despite missing nine quarters of football in seven games. At various points they’ve been without their first, second, and third team backs, and played a game without their running quarterback, yet they are the #1 rushing team by S&P+, are second in the nation in yards per carry, and tied for second in rushing touchdowns.
Prior to last weekend though, Notre Dame didn’t have a signature game on offense. Most of their damage was done against low profile teams and in their first marquee game Georgia did a number on them. That caveat was always there.
There is no escaping what Long came up with against the Trojans on Saturday, however. USC entered the contest with an S&P+ ranking of 31 on defense, not great, but way above average. Notre Dame thrashed them so completely, they currently sit at 51. Notre Dame did it through the air, and on the ground. Inside and outside. They utilized their weapons through various formations and schemes. It was a masterpiece through and through. Chip Long finally had his moment.
The Running Game
Long opened the game attacking the perimeter of the USC defense. This did two things. First, it got USC’s linebackers and safeties into a wide mindset when they likely entered geared toward stopping Adams inside. Second, it utilized a player like receiver Kevin Stepherson in a way outside of just throwing him the ball. I wrote about what the addition a player like Stepherson could mean to the offense in my stock report prior to the game. The problem, I wrote, was it was unclear if Wimbush could take advantage of his skills (he could) because of his struggles passing. Chip Long mitigated that possibility by killing two birds with one stone: handing the ball to Stepherson on misdirection.
Notre Dame comes out in a bunch set to the near side and runs zone action to the right, with Smythe faking a seal block on the end and handing the ball to Stepherson on the reverse. Ironically enough, a missed block by Nelson occupies Smythes attention (albeit five yards down field) enough to where Smythe never gets out front of Stepherson to provide much of a lead block. Consequently, Nelsons man ultimately makes the play, 13 yards down field.
Long continued this trend on the second scoring drive, again directly handing the ball to Stepherson on a sweep, while utilizing the battering ram that is Tony Jones Jr. as a lead blocker for 10 yards and Wimbush again on a zone read keep for another 10. If you do something enough in a game the defense will start leaning, as you see from the linebackers on the Wimbush run. In all, in the first three drives, Notre Dame gets outside seven times on designed runs for 78 yards. Long laid the ground work.
What were the fruits of all this labor? USC couldn’t simply stack inside, they had to play it honest, and when they wore down in the second half, Notre Dame came right at them. The linebackers and safeties had too many eyes on Wimbush, flowed too soon, and got caught leaning outside while Adams ran down their throats. (Check out #4 on this play. He is all kinds of done with Adams.)
Long played them like a fiddle.
Wrinkles Upon Wrinkles
We’ve already seen what Long did with Stepherson in the running game, but they threw in a key passing play on third down to set up another score that we haven’t seen previously.
Long uses a common motion and formation to use USC’s aggression and obsession with the running game against them. USC is in man defense and Long sends Chase Claypool across the formation which puts into motion a series of defensive adjustments where the corner picks up the slot and two players end up covering Claypool, who is for all intents and purposes a decoy on the play. That presumably leaves Cam Smith to cover Smythe, and he turns him completely loose. The result is a completion and a big gain.
The Passing Game
Everyone noted how Notre Dame attacked the replacement corner in place of the injured Iman Marshall during the second drive. They essentially hit him up for two touchdowns; one over thrown to a wide open St. Brown, and a touchdown connection to Kevin Stepherson two plays later, who against a backup is a heavy favorite. That’s just good recognition by Long. Hit them for a score before they have a chance to get to the sideline and come up with a plan for the replacement in coverage.
Eventually, USC did make the switch to more cover three zone coverage to protect their corner, and Long took advantage on 3rd and 10 in the third quarter.
Notre Dame comes out in slot left with Durham Smythe offset to the slot side. In cover three the corner has deep third, the near linebacker curl to flat, and the far backer the curl. Long calls a double curl with Smythe to flat, which widens the USC linebacker running after Smythe and the second backer left to pick up Chris Finke. That leaves a clear lane for the Claypool curl route, with a corner bailing to make sure he doesn’t get run by again. The result is a thirteen yard gain, and four plays later Notre Dame is in the end zone to make it 35-7.
Notre Dame accumulated 497 total yards on 7.2 yards per play against the Trojans. That’s phenomenal production that is a credit to the execution and the plan by the offensive staff, Chip Long being the foremost in that.
Is anyone else growing slightly uneasy?
True the remaining half of this season will tell us more about the quality of this team.
True Notre Dame has played well and have made slap you in the face improvements on all sides of the ball.
The running game has been one of the big recipes to this teams success this season.
Georgia, let’s face it, the only tough opponent the Irish have faced thus far in the season- largely shut down ND’s running game. I know they lost by one point, but they still lost.
There is reason for optimism for sure. I just see a lot of Irish Nation starting to act like we are unstoppable. I don’t want to see us run head on into a freight train the way we did in 2012. We are making noise but are very much unproven to this point.
The difference is the offense isn’t waiting for the defense to bail them out. Josh Adams 80 some yard run proved that. They are taking the game into their own hands. Quick strike from anywhere. Now with Stepherson running down field, no telling where this team can go. Hope Long stays long at Notre Dame.
If we really want these assistant coaches to stay ND should show them the money.
BGC ’77 ’82
Yeah, Long has done a good job too, I have to say. Early in the season it seemed the Irish were determined to get the passing game going. Lately they seemed to have settled in, and be comfortable with, being a run first team. A turning point seems to be the BC game. They came out a bit pass happy and were flat. At times I was worried BC was going to win. Then they turned on the running game and never looked back. Since then they decided to take smaller steps with the passing game which seems to be working.
And I have seem improvements in the passing game as well. There were some good strikes made at key moments that should help Wimbush’s confidence. He still has a tendency to put too much power behind some of his throws, and they have to continue to work on that. But I felt against USC they took a step forward. Hopefully they continue to work on that. Being run first is great, it’s actually fun to see our RB’s and Wimbush take off. Adams is a beast. Sometimes I see a ton of defensive players all around him and he somehow manages to pop out the other end. And even when he is stopped he manages to drag defenders a few extra yards. And even Wimbush turns what looks like a sack into a 1st down play. But a respectable passing game will prevent opposing defenses of simply loading up the box.
And the play calling has improved game to game. They’re even starting to convert 3rd and long situations better game to game. 2012 was a great regular season, but it was all about the defense. The offense just didn’t make the great strides like this year. This year the offense seems to takes steps forward, at least overall between the 1st game and now. We’ll see if they can continue making progress against NC State.
Oh, and after Georgia I started thinking Hiestand might not be the elite O-line coach everyone thought. But the O-line has been a lot better as well, so kudos to Hiestand and his work with the O-line to get them where they need to be.
And the strength and conditioning has been better too. Our guys seem just as energized late in games as early (though our starters haven’t really had to play 4 full quarters in a while 🙂 )
We need to continue making progress in order to continue winning. In this next game I see a perfect storm against us. We’ve all got our heads in the clouds, it’s already Thursday night, but a tough NC State squad has had two weeks to prepare, just as we did for Southern Cal. The only game more dangerous than this one (IMO) is @MIAMI. But if we are still making progress, if we haven’t peaked yet, we could win them both.
The weather here is nice, a little cool, but nice. It’s supposed to be colder on Saturday. Whenever I drive from my home to the Halloween weekend game, I see the most wonderful autumn colors here in North Central Indiana. I especially like the Maple trees.
The weather people are in disagreement about rain…I do not think it will rain, but this is Northern Indiana…who really knows what will happen with the weather?
Bruce G. Curme
La Crosse, IN
Rain or not, it will be nothing like last year. And yes, I agree, NC State is extremely dangerous. They come in with what, the 6th ranked run defense. That concerns me because Georgia had an excellent defense and we couldn’t run the ball against them as a result. I do think the players aren’t quite as lofty thinking as we are, but after the beatdown of USC they may be feeling pretty confident (some of which is ok–you want to believe you can win).
But all our playoff hopes can just as quickly come crashing down this weekend. I actually think NC State may be more dangerous then Miami. Miami is 6-0, but I actually believe we will have an easier time beating them.
NC State, WF, MIAMI, NAVY, Stanford…and we’ve already used our bye week. “Playoff hopes” are premature…let’s just beat as many of them as we can and secure a New Year’s weekend bowl…wasn’t that our original plan? Let it go at that Damian et al. And if we are 10-1 going into Stanford, then we can talk playoffs.
I understand that a NC is always our goal…but to start talking about it at this point is “premature”…there is still too much that needs to happen…still way to much football to play. Do we really want the only yardstick for a season to be measured by is if we make the playoff bowls?
This coaching staff will get us in the playoffs eventually…maybe even this year…but we can’t fall into the trap of making our seasons get rated by having only one loss or being undefeated. Even ARA couldn’t sustain that!
BGC ’77 ’82
True. I started off the season thinking for BK to convince me he’s got the team going in the right direction is to win a NY Day 6 bowl. I won’t go back on that. It’s sort of a baseline goal for me. Do that and I think we’re heading back in the right direction. Of course we all want more, but 10-2 and a NY Day 6 Bowl win would be an incredible turnaround from 4-8.