Breaking Down Notre Dame’s Early Season Short Yardage Futility

Through two games, on 3rd down runs between 1-3 yards, Notre Dame has eight carries for -3 yards, with a long of one, and zero first downs.

8 carries.

-3 yards.

0 first downs.

So Notre Dame in short yardage. Not good! Everyone is focused on the upcoming game against Georgia, but being a lousy short-yardage team is a problem for anyone against any competition. The conventional wisdom is Notre Dame should be able to overwhelm any opponent with their running game with power football, to hell with deception and misdirection. This is of course not how it works, although there is a place for power football of course.

Any time you have numbers like that, it needs to be figured out what the problem is, so I went to the tape and broke down some of Notre Dame’s short-yardage plays from the first two games and figured out the issues come down to two things: mental mistakes from the quarterback, and poor execution from the tight ends, with a little weak running mixed in.

Mental Errors From Ian Book

Part of being a quarterback in the spread offense is constant decision making, play after play, run or pass. Sometimes you have to decide whether the play even is a run or pass while the play is happening. It’s a burden, and we all understand that. But, lesser players have mastered the various aspects of the position, and the expectation is Ian Book can too.

Here against Louisville, Book has a second and short, and Notre Dame is running the zone read. Book sees that the box is stacked and elects to pull the ball, the correct choice. He now has a decision as to whether to turn it upfield for the first down or flip it out to Chris Finke with a blocker in front for the first down. He elects to keep it himself, not unreasonable, a pass requires accuracy and a secure catch, plus gives time to the defense to react. But, instead of turning it upfield, Book continues toward the sideline, perhaps to avoid contact, and try to make the necessary yardage right at the sticks. This surprises the blocker who releases his man outside, who hits Book and causes him to fumble, losing a yard.

On the very next play, Notre Dame hurries to the line and runs zone read again, and again the box is stacked, with the defense completely compromised to the outside, with two blockers to block one defender and Claypool needing to beat one other player for a 77-yard touchdown. This is an automatic pull and throw, as easy as it gets. Instead, Book decides to give the ball up, and the back gets swallowed up immediately, with the run never having a chance.

Backs Need To Run Harder

This play is another mental error by Book, but also a poor run by running back Tony Jones Jr. Notre Dame runs zone read on third and two, with five players to block six, and Brock Wright looping around to block for Book should he pull the ball. Pretty easy read, if the end crashes, Book pulls it, if not, he gives it up. The end sort of slow plays it but mostly leans in to crash the back. Book needs to pull this ball with Wright ahead of him to take on the safety. A huge gain could be had here. But, he decides to give it to Jones, who isn’t very strong into the hole and is stopped by the defensive end, who gets a hold of his legs. That is something Jones needs to run through at this level. Notre Dame had two ways to win on this play and ended up losing.

Come On Tight Ends

Notre Dame goes with a big formation at the goal line two plays in a row runs dive with C’Bo Flemister, and on both occasions, the play is blown up by tight ends letting their defenders cross their face and ruin the play.

On the first play, Wright is lined up on the line with his assigned defender shaded to his outside shoulder. This play is coming towards him, so he needs to keep the defender to his outside. Instead at the snap, the defender shoots across his face and into the backfield, blowing up the play.  Tight end Tommy Tremble ends up blocking the safety furthest away and leaving the linebacker who is head up on him for someone else, who doesn’t appear to be coming. That linebacker shoots in between Wright and Tremble and cleans up with the defensive end.

On the next play, the same thing happens, but with Tremble, who is defeated across his face again by the defensive end, who hits Flemister square in the hole, and Flemister manages to nearly score because of hard running. If you take a look at the rest of the line, they are in perfect position. This play is going to work. But, Tremble misses his block, the play doesn’t work, and Notre Dame is forced to convert a quarterback sneak on 4th down.


A lot of these mistakes have come on zone reads, and there is something to be said for taking all the guesswork out of it and calling a play everyone knows will be run and just doing it. The problem is, that’s what happened at the goal line, and there were still mistakes. The good thing is, the mental errors by Book can be fixed, he’s been better in the past so it can improve with time. But, if those mistakes keep happening, Chip Long might be forced to go in another direction than the zone read. The other good news is with as bad as its been only one place to go, but up!

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  1. It’s all about competent execution. It’s one consistent problem I’ve seen under BK over the years. We see a problem, this year short yardage situations, that never seems to get fixed the entire season. We see it, even they see it, but somehow it doesn’t get fixed. I hope this time they get it right. This game against Georgia is a game where everything has to be executed. Now that doesn’t mean every down is perfect. Even the best teams can always do something a little better. But they have to fix these ‘little’ problems because that is what can mean the difference between a win loss.

    One of these errors, or missed executions that Greg mentioned can mean the difference between a 1st down and having to punt the ball away, or between 7 points and 3 points. When you are 3rd and short you have to convert. That seems to be our Achilles heel this year on offense.

  2. Greg – good stuff. I always believe in the “I” formation, or the old wishbone, on third or fourth and goal inside the 1 and 1/2 yardline. The “I” can do anything, not just a QB sneak. But it sure shouldn’t take two shots! We could even run the sneak better. But there has been a lot of good running in the first two games…just maybe not on third and short. I have confidence in this O-line.

    By the way, Paul Feinbaum was on Golic and Wingo this morning. I watch part of Feinbaum’s show in dialysis 3 times a week. I’m getting “schooled” in Southern Football, I guess.

    BGC ’77 ’82

      1. Southside and all, thank you. I’m wondering about G Kelly too. Usually he is the first to post, but I’ve only seen one thing in two weeks!

        By the way everybody – didn’t BAMA have trouble some years ago, when Coach Smart was there, against dual threat QB’s?
        Ian Book certainly can run as well as pass.

        BGC ’77 ’82

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