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Capece: Irish finally recommit to play-action

| Monday, September 21, 2020

After watching Notre Dame have to grind out a victory against Duke last Saturday, with the Blue Devils keeping it a game for three quarters before the Irish pulled away in the fourth, I had disturbing flashbacks to the 2019 season.

While last Saturday turned out to be a beautiful fall day for college football — albeit one with a pregame chance of thunderstorms — I couldn’t help but recall a cold, wet, October night in Ann Arbor last year. In the most embarrassing loss the Irish have endured in a while, Michigan utterly dominated Notre Dame in every facet of the game, but their advantage was particularly glaring in the trenches. The Irish gained just 47 yards on the ground the entire night, wilting under the relentless pressure applied by the Wolverines‘ defensive line. It was like the Wolverines knew exactly what was coming on every single play. Well, actually, they did know exactly what was coming on every single play.

Early last year, as it has usually been under Brian Kelly, the Irish offense was built around running the football. Who wouldn’t want to tote the rock with one of the nation’s best offensive lines to run behind? In the beginning of the year however, quarterback Ian Book was still given the green light to sling the ball down the field on first and second down. Like the 2018 version of quarterback Ian Book that unlocked Notre Dame’s passing game, the 2019 version was firing lasers down the seams to tight end Cole Kmet and chucking bombs deep down the sidelines to Chase Claypool. Opponents couldn’t stack the box on early downs to stop the run because they still had to respect the pass.

Notre Dame Athletics

Irish graduate student quarterback Ian Book sets up to take the snap during Notre Dame’s 52-0 win over South Florida Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

Towards the middle of the year however, something went awry with Notre Dame’s play-calling. The Irish reverted back to the boring, Brian Kelly, move-the-chains offense, running the ball early and often. The Irish inexplicably limited their playbook, telegraphing their offensive scheme to opposing defenses. All of a sudden, teams began stacking the box, but the Irish didn’t adjust. They ran the ball on first down. They ran the ball on second down. They threw the ball on third down. They punted the ball on fourth down.

The refusal to let then-senior signal caller Book cook doomed the Irish against the Wolverines. It’s difficult for me to express how frustrated I was standing in the Big House in bone-chilling temperatures and torrential downpours watching the Irish run the ball up the middle on first and second down. Current junior and former Irish running backs Jahmir Smith and Tony Jones Jr. went absolutely nowhere running into the teeth of the Michigan defensive line. Book could do little on third down with the Wolverines expecting the pass, blitzing from every direction to send the quarterback running for his life.

The Irish offense picked up right where it left off against Duke last Saturday. Run on first down. Run on second down. Pass on third down. Punt on fourth down. The Irish didn’t pick up a first down until the second quarter, and it came off of a fake punt. The offense was so dismal, I heard fans yelling for Ian Book to get a real job.

All of that changed on Saturday against USF. Maybe the coaching staff wanted to get Book to regain his confidence after a mediocre passing performance. Maybe the Irish just wanted to trounce a cupcake opponent as quickly as possible. Whatever the motive, the Notre Dame offense rediscovered its most important weapon: the play-action pass. Book came out firing on the first possession, completing three straight play-action passes before scrambling for a four-yard touchdown to open the scoring. The next drive was more of the same, starting with a 22-yard completion to Braden Lenzy.

While it’s easy to throw the ball against a terrible team like USF, it was still encouraging to see the playbook opened up. Notre Dame showed exactly what its offensive game plan should be going forward. At least early on, instead of trying to pound the ball on the ground, the offense needs to let Book run play-action on the first and second downs.

Don’t get me wrong, the strength of this team is still its rushing attack. Sophomore Kyren Williams showed against Duke that he can be a workhorse and find the end zone just fine. True freshman Chris Tyree also looks like he’s going to be a dynamic change-of-pace back for the Irish, averaging eight yards a carry and dashing to pay dirt in the first quarter against the Bulls. Even junior C’Bo Flemister showed his talent on Saturday, rushing for 127 yards and a touchdown.

If Brian Kelly wants to establish the run however, he needs to do it with the play-action pass. Every team that Notre Dame will face this year knows how dangerous this rushing attack can be and will be defending against it from the onset. If the offense starts with play-action though, it will completely open up the field and give these formidable backs the space to maneuver. Teams won’t be able to stack the box if they know that Book is a threat to beat them downfield. The third-year starter missed a few open receivers on Saturday, but he’s starting to look like the 2018 Ian Book that finished with a top-10 completion percentage in college football. If Book can start to heat up and the ground game is humming like it usually does, this Irish team can challenge Clemson for the ACC title this year.

While we’re on the topics of the Irish offense and Clemson, it’s important to point out that the Irish can do even more to spread out their offense. Notre Dame pulled out a couple of trick plays against USF, but it needs to do more of that before facing the Tigers in November. There are likely to be games this year that the Irish will have control of in the second half. If they throw in a few wrinkles to their play calling, it will only serve to benefit them later in the season. They certainly have the personnel to do it with the blazing speed of Lenzy and Tyree on the roster. Notre Dame may not run any unique sets against the Tigers, but showing them earlier in the season will make Clemson prepare for it. It won’t be easy to move the ball against one of the nation’s best defenses, but spreading out the offense will at least keep the Tigers guessing.

In this strange year of college football, I hope the Notre Dame offense also decides to try something new. Becoming unpredictable will be the key that opens the door to the College Football Playoff for the Irish in 2020.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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