“If I’m not down in time, call duo until you can’t speak.”
The quote from Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees made waves around social media this week. Rees said it to Irish tight ends coach Gerad Parker after the third-year offensive coordinator decided to come down from his box to the sideline and celebrate the Irish’s 35-14 win over then-No. 4 Clemson.
“Duo” is a run-game scheme that has been the “crux” of Notre Dame’s offense for years, according to Rees. Among other things, it relies heavily on tight-end blocking and great reads by the running backs. While Rees’ quote about calling duo until Parker couldn’t speak was referring to the final minutes of the game, it served as a microcosm for the Irish offense. It certainly was on Saturday when the Irish ran ragged over Clemson. But it has been a focal point in recent weeks, as Notre Dame collected their biggest wins of the season on back-to-back Saturdays.
There was a lot of doubt this could happen. After rushing for over 200 yards against hapless UNLV, there was some questions as to why the Irish didn’t try to explore new avenues of their offense against a middling opponent. Against Syracuse, the Irish terrorized another weak run defense for 200+ rushing yards. After the game, when questioned about the continued struggles of the passing game, head coach Marcus Freeman seemed concerningly unbothered. “We scored, what, 41 points … I’m not looking for a certain number of passes or rushes.”
It was easy to say that after beating up on an undersized Syracuse defensive line. But Clemson was a different beast. Surely, the Irish couldn’t just pound the rock 40+ times to beat the unbeaten Tigers.
Counterpoint: “Call duo until you can’t speak.”
Sure enough, the Irish did just that. Neither Notre Dame’s coaches, nor their players, were shaken by a 3-3 start and an inconsistent offense. They knew their identity and continued to work to establish it. And for the third straight week, the Irish rushed for over 200 yards, this time against one of the best rush defenses in the country. “It was all about physicality,” Rees said. “They have a lot of really good players, but teams don’t see our style every week.”
Irish players lean into unselfish roles to build identity
Up and down the Irish roster, players demonstrate an unselfish commitment to fulfilling their role, no matter how unspectacular it may be. The running back trio recognizes that the workload may vary greatly from week to week depending on the opponent, game script and a number of other factors. Against Clemson, sophomore Audric Estime saw 27 snaps. Classmate Logan Diggs was on the field for 24 snaps. And junior Chris Tyree played 19 snaps. They recorded 18, 17 and 9 touches, respectively.
At different times, the backs have discussed the relationship that forms a tight bond in that running back room. “Logan [Diggs] is my brother. We’re always trying to push each other every day. We have that bond, it’s unbreakable. We always feed off each other,” Estime said after the Syracuse win.
The week before, Diggs was the bell cow against UNLV, getting 28 carries after Estime fumbled for the third time in four games. “All I can do is continue to be my brother’s keeper,” Diggs said after the win. “Today I was a real teammate and told him … ‘If you want to play, you’ve got to hold onto the ball’ …We have that mutual respect. I could tell him anything, and he could tell me anything.”
And Estime demonstrated his resiliency and selflessness in response. After being essentially benched against UNLV, the sophomore bounced back to the tune of 38 carries for 227 yards and three touchdowns over the past two weeks.
Tyree has become more or less the third man in the rotation. But he continues to play a big role at pivotal moments. Five of his seven carries came on Notre Dame’s two long-scoring drives of 75+ yards. He notched a pair of chain-moving receptions for the Irish, as well. Against Syracuse, five of Tyree’s eight carries came on five straight plays to kickstart a key second-half scoring drive. He also came through in a key first-half moment when the play call was a play-action fake to him. Syracuse keyed on the run and leveled Tyree with a monster hit. However, Pyne pulled the handoff and found junior tight end Michael Mayer for a key first-down conversion. The Irish eventually punched in the touchdown.
Diggs spoke after the UNLV game on the team-first mentality with the running backs. “You’ve just got to go into every game knowing it’s one job. Everybody got the same job when we get in. When Audric get in, standard remain the same. When Chris get in, standard remain the same … I get in, standard remains the same.”
Team-first mentality expands past running backs
That team-first mentality doesn’t end in the running back room. The Irish tight ends and wide receivers are bought in on this offensive style, demonstrating team-first offense. The duo scheme that the Irish lean on so heavily calls for their tight ends to block. Of course, their best receiving weapon is Mayer. But sometimes, the game script calls for the All-American to get down and dirty with the offensive line and block. And Mayer will do that gladly. He’ll reel in 11 catches, like he did against BYU, when needed. But he’ll also settle for four catches and springing the Irish backs with an impressive run-blocking game, as he did versus Clemson.
Notre Dame’s No. 2 tight end, sophomore Mitchell Evans, has yet to really be unlocked in the passing game. In fact, his offensive touches lately come via “Mitch-a-palooza”, the quarterback sneak the Irish use with Evans under center on short yardage situations. When he’s not doing that, Evans is developing into a fearsome blocker.
“I think [Evans] has made an impact in our running game more than people acknowledge,” Rees said. “Mitch’s ability to be in there and own the point of attack has been huge. It’s a huge plus for our ability to run that game.”
And then, there are the wide receivers. Much is made about the lack of depth and the lack of impact from this position group. In a game where the Irish only completed nine passes, they ask their wide receivers to do a lot more than run routes. On this particular play, sophomore Jayden Thomas and graduate student Braden Lenzy dominated their match-ups in run-blocking and keyed a big run.
Thomas notched three catches, making him the only Irish wide receiver to garner a touch against Clemson. But Notre Dame has embraced a team-first mentality across their offense. And the whole team is willing to get dirty and physically overpower their opponent.
So yes, the Irish passing offense isn’t the most exciting, and it’s more limited than what you traditionally see from a successful offense. But the Irish aren’t trying to be what they’re not. So as they look to extend their winning streak and move up in the rankings, look for more selfless, team-first football from this offense. Rees and the Irish aren’t keeping it a secret. They want to physically dominate their opponent. And, like with calling “duo”, they’re going to embrace that identity until they can’t speak.
Contact Aidan Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org.