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.