Notre Dame’s offense has struggled this season, and it has done so with a senior returning quarterback who, in the view of many, has regressed. Naturally, this has led to a lot of discussions about offensive coordinator Chip Long and the job he has done this season.
Before we get started in full, it’s baffling that we are having a “are we sure our quarterback and offensive coordinator are good?” conversation in November of this season. If there were any “knowns” going into this year, it’s that the offense, led by Book, was going to at least be efficient, if not outright explosive. Explosiveness was the theme all offseason. Thus far, it is neither of those things. So, as unexpected as the conversation is, it’s valid to wonder just what’s going on.
Can We Accurately Judge Play Calling?
It’s been noted on the Irish Illustrated podcast by beat reporter Tim O’Malley that judging play calling is very difficult to do, even for people who follow the team as closely as someone like him. We don’t really know what’s supposed to happen, whether a particular play is called to set up another play, or if someone made a mistake, etc. Most criticism about play calling comes from poor play; a play didn’t work, a sequence of plays don’t work etc. No one says, “even though we had 500 yards of offense, I thought the play calling was trashy.” But, can we attribute poor play to poor play calls?
Notre Dame had a bunch of three and outs against Virginia Tech, and I went back and looked at one to figure out what the problem was. In my opinion, the failure on those drives came from poor execution on calls that weren’t obviously bad.
The Irish start a drive in the first quarter with a give to Jahmir Smith to the left side. The play is blocked well, but Tommy Tremble is confused by the man covering him, who sneaks near the line and blitzes at the snap. Tremble, instead of passing him off to someone else, tries to get inside to make the block and doesn’t come close. Had he passed off that player, Kmet picks him up on the pull, Tremble blocks the safety, and it’s a huge gain for Smith. Instead, he blocks no one, and the safety makes the tackle for a gain of one.
Part of the evolution for Tommy Tremble. His man blitzes here, he's never going to get to him, but he still tries to get there. If he passes him off and moves to the next level, he'll get the safety and Kmet gets the blitzer, and it's a big gain. pic.twitter.com/LTuoOJ955z
— Greg Flammang (@greg2126) November 6, 2019
On second down, it’s an RPO action that Book decides to keep instead of giving to the back. This is a mistake, as the defensive end does not crash on Smith, leaving a massive hole in the middle. The defensive end is free to chase Book, completely disrupts the play, and it’s a throw-away.
On third down, Notre Dame has a clear out with Finke on the outside who runs a go route, and an out and up with Claypool right behind him against what looks like a cover three defense. The corner who would be running with Claypool is in poor position to chase, and it looks like Claypool will be open down the sideline. But, on third and nine, Book wants the quick out to Kmet, allowing the corner to quickly come off Claypool and make the tackle short of the first down.
And on third down, the play is set up for Claypool on the out and up–and it's there!–but Ian goes to Kmet too soon and the guy who would be responsible for covering Claypool deep makes the tackle. This game is very frustrating. pic.twitter.com/atr470m0Gf
— Greg Flammang (@greg2126) November 6, 2019
This is a three and out sequence where any of the play calls could have resulted in a first down with better execution, but instead, only eight yards were gained, and it’s a punt. Is this a play call problem? It seems a lot like an execution problem to me.
Why Keep Calling Bad Plays?
The South Bend Tribune’s Tyler James noticed on the re-watch that on the RPO plays Notre Dame called, the defensive end who is supposed to be influenced was not, and every time the play was run Ian Book ended up running for his life.
Someone smarter than me will have to explain why these RPOs didn't work against VaTech. I don't know if the execution or play design is to blame or if Bud Foster's defense knew exactly what was coming. But the Kmet slice action didn't fool anyone on any of these variations. pic.twitter.com/D8RydhggPj
— Tyler James (@TJamesNDI) November 7, 2019
Perhaps these are execution issues, but when the same thing keeps happening over and over again, there is a good chance with either the play design or there is a flaw with that play and the particular defense Virginia Tech was running, and it should have been scrapped altogether. There was undoubtedly no correction made to the way the play was run by the offense or any kind of a counter, so what are we doing running it over and over again?
One thing that seems unquestionable is Chip Long does not have a good feel for this offense and what it can do. It’s been eight games now, and it’s hard to point to a single one against a Power 5 team where the offense looked good or anything resembling what we thought it would. There has been no rhythm, no feel, no continuity. The reason for that could be any number of things, including the way he thought his quarterback would perform. But, eight weeks is enough time to figure out what he’s got and how to improve the offense.
There were some positive signs last week; if Ian Book hits Cole Kmet on the two corner routes, Claypool on the post, and fumble at the one, the team has four more touchdowns, and everyone is happy. But, they didn’t, and the three and outs were what they were. End of the day, even if it isn’t Long’s play-calling that’s the problem per se, it’s his offense and his ship. The success of this season’s final month will depend on him getting things figured out.