18 Stripes Film Room: Anatomy of a Touchdown

Two seasons ago Notre Dame and Michigan State combined to go 7-17 in hugely disappointing seasons for both programs. Last year both rebounded for combined 20-6 records each with their own double-digit win season and satisfying bowl victories. The Irish win in East Lansing this past September avenged what was a fairly pathetic effort against the Spartans in 2016, but perhaps more importantly, showcased a different side to last year’s offense featuring an effort from Brandon Wimbush that was never witnessed consistently. In particular, the opening drive inside Spartan Stadium flashed perhaps Wimbush’s highest ceiling on the season and could portend what the future in 2018 will look like this fall.

A narrative developed that Notre Dame’s offense was beautifully on track all season and running the ball heavily–particularly early in games–until Brian Kelly and his crony offensive coordinator devised a plan to throw the ball all over the field beginning with the 9th game against Wake Forest. Of course, this line of thinking doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny.

When we look at the Irish specifically early in games they threw the ball on the first play from scrimmage in 8 of 13 games. The offense came out slinging it on the first 5 snaps of today’s film review and overall ran the ball only 53.8% of the time during the first 7 snaps in each game, a 7.6% reduction on the overall season splits. In fact, prior to the Stanford game the Irish were running the ball only 49.3% of the time during the first 7 snaps, it was only during the Stanford game in a supposed “Air Kelly” scheme that a game was opened with 7 straight runs.

Notre Dame definitely ran the ball much more in the 1st quarter (62.9%) of 2017 than at any time in the Kelly era but the first couple series of many games were tilted more heavily in favor of balanced attack, and at times a pass-heavy opening gameplan. Here’s a look at one of those pass-heavy opening series:

Play #1 Pass to Claypool for 10 Yards

For years under Mark Dantonio the Spartan defense has relied on putting numbers in the box and being very aggressive with their secondary who are often left on islands and a lot of 1-on-1 situations. This game in 2017 would be no different. Notre Dame opens up with 3 wideouts and a tight end deployed as a H-back behind the left tackle. Michigan State will counter with 7 in the box and a blitz off the edge by outside linebacker Andrew Dowell.

Notice how Michigan State is playing tight on Equanimeous St. Brown at the bottom of the screen, to this point the only proven Irish wideout? On the top neither Cam Smith in the slot or Chase Claypool outside are given that press coverage.

Wimbush quickly reads the linebacker blitz and delivers an accurate ball across the field to Claypool who ran a little 5-yard curl with no pressure in his face.

It’s important to note that this was *not* the type of throw Wimbush excelled at throughout large portions of the season. However, in this instance his fundamentals are sound and he throws an accurate ball.

Also, a quick note on Chase Claypool:

Wimbush being able to make these “easy” throws for basically 5 free yards is crucial to the offense. But Claypool will be quickly surrounded three defenders and you wouldn’t think there’s much more to this play. Instead, Claypool uses some sneaky athleticism to pick up a first down. He’s such a good athlete.

Play #2 Incomplete Pass to Adams

The second snap sets up almost exactly like the first except the Irish attempt an inside screen to running back Josh Adams. It’s blocked well and looks like it will work perfectly except Adams is grabbed by defensive tackle Mike Panasiuk just as he’s about to catch the ball and it falls incomplete.

Play #3 Pass to Claypool for 10 Yards

It’s the third play and Michigan State is keeping things the same. They are still set up to stop the run and giving Notre Dame’s receivers ample room to work against the Spartans secondary.

Unbelievably, the Irish stack Cam Smith and Claypool to the field side and Michigan State’s like, “We’re good we’ll use one corner with safety help 12 yards down field.”

It’s entirely possible that Michigan State didn’t believe in Wimbush as a passer (he was 51.0% through 3 games to this point) or trust the Irish wideouts were good enough to be beat them. Even if true, this is easy pickings for any offense that can execute reasonably well.

Claypool takes the pass, uses the block from Smith to cut inside, takes a big hit from a linebacker, but picks up another 10 yards and  a first down.

Play #4 Pass to St. Brown for 2 Yards

We’re on to our 4th snap of the game and still Michigan State is daring Notre Dame to throw the ball. The Spartans are in great position if the Irish run the ball to the field side where they outnumber blockers in a big way. Anything to the boundary side and things are a little dicey for Michigan State’s defense.

Just before the snap, the Spartans walk down a safety towards Notre Dame’s 3 receivers while their outside linebacker scoots inside while taking 3 steps towards the line once the ball is in Wimbush’s hands.

Surely, Notre Dame will finally run the ball, right?

Wimbush is going to fire another quick pass, this time to St. Brown circled in blue. I thought the execution here was interesting because St. Brown’s decision making stands in stark contrast to Claypool on the latter’s two receptions.

Cam Smith will set up a quality block driving the defender toward the sideline. St. Brown could cut inside that block–and yes likely could’ve taken a big hit–but passes up 5+ yards to sneak toward the sideline for only 2 yards.

Snap #5 Pass to St. Brown for 40 Yards

So far, this game of cat and mouse has worked pretty well for Notre Dame. The Spartans have lined up to stop the run and have been giving up some yards through the air but nothing too devastating.

On the 5th snap they are set up similarly with an outside linebacker shaded away from the slot receiver and a corner pressing St. Brown. Notre Dame executes a beautiful play-action pass and the tight end picks up the corner blitz who was covering St. Brown which led to the following:

Three receivers with half a football field to work with in one-on-one situations makes an offensive coordinator very happy. Wimbush floats the ball down field with decent accuracy and finds St. Brown for a big 40-yard gain into Michigan State’s red zone.

Play #6 Rush by Wimbush for No Gain

The Irish were very comfortable running the ball in the red zone in 2017 as we saw the run/pass split spike up to 68.8% from 54.7%  the prior year and they moved quickly to the ground after the big pass play.

Michigan State still won’t budge from their set up and are finally in position to make a stop if Notre Dame runs the ball. The outside linebacker yet again shades toward the slot receiver but doesn’t hesitate to sprint toward the line of scrimmage at the snap of the ball.

That outside linebacker is quickly picked up by Durham Smythe (although he gets pancaked!) as Notre Dame attempts to option off the defensive end. As we pointed out several times in the Power Success Rate film post from a few weeks back, Wimbush struggled making the right reads in these spots.

A keep to Josh Adams is probably a successful play for at least 5 yards. Instead, Wimbush keeps the football and can’t juke his way around the free defender.

Play #7 Rush by Wimbush for 16 Yards

It’s the 7th play of the opening series and as of yet neither side has changed much to their approach. On the final snap of this drive Notre Dame flexes out tight end Durham Smythe and changes to a 4-receiver set while facing 2nd and long in the red zone.

Finally, the Spartan linebackers get out of their run-stopping mode and preoccupy themselves with covering receivers as I’m sure the scouting in this scenario told them this was a sure-fire passing down for Notre Dame.

As both linebackers move towards the sideline it opens up what would be one of the best running situations for the Irish in the game. It leaves only 5 defenders in the box for the Notre Dame offensive line and off the quarterback draw it frees up running back Josh Adams to even get a piece of the safety who will be too late coming over for a touchdown-saving tackle.


via ytCropper

Final Thoughts

It’s difficult to say that this is the type of offense we’ll see in 2018 when the running back didn’t even touch the ball on 7 snaps. However, I think this kind of series is something we’ll see a little more of this upcoming fall.

Firstly, the offense moved at a scorching pace ripping off 7 plays in 1:49 of game time and around 2:30 minutes of real elapsed time. This is about as fast as we’ve ever seen an extended touchdown drive by Notre Dame in the Brian Kelly era.

Consistently not giving running backs carries would be absurd but the tailbacks got rushes on 39.6% of all snaps last year, an increase from 33.2% in 2016. I expect this percentage to fall from 2017 especially as we saw a Kelly-era low 24 receptions from the running backs last fall.

I feel like it’s a complete lock to see more reliance on Wimbush hitting these short throws (which is obviously super scary with his accuracy issues) mixed in with some vertical shots downfield which largely comprised this touchdown drive against Michigan State. Let’s hope it works out.

By |2018-05-28T10:30:05+00:00May 28th, 2018|Film Room|22 Comments

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Publius2010Michael Bryanhooks orpikidocdnd09hls12 Recent comment authors
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Penultimate snap? Are you counting the PAT?

Concrete Charlie
Concrete Charlie

Up tempo always seems to produce good things. It’s been frustrating that we always seem to stop it after a series or two.

Michael Bryan

Last season with Long, after years of BK saying we’d go more up-tempo, ND actually jumped from 93rd to 17th in adjusted pace. I’m interested to see where ’18 ends up – Long clearly believes in utilizing it, but we’ve also seen Kelly go conservative on offense when he thinks he has a strong defense. Could be matchup dependent, but could definitely see lots of hurry-up against a good Michigan defense at home.


I’d be very happy if we dont run an offense like ANYTHING at all this year. My hope is that we do similarly to this drive and read what defense our opponent is throwing at us and we adjust accordingly. If they want to stack the box like this, start the deep posts, screens, etc. If they want to play off our receivers and go to nickel and dime coverage, bust out the HB dives, ZR, play actions


So you’re saying you want a power spread a la Ohio State?

I am honestly quite worried that the success of our season depends on how well Brandon Wimbush or Ian Book can throw and whether a true Freshman (Braden Lenzy) is able to blow the top off of a defense, so they can’t just stack the box. Chase Claypool and Myles Boykin will be fine, but they’re not burners. If I’m Michigan, I’m putting 9 in the box until Notre Dame proves it can consistently beat me through the air.

Russell Knox
Russell Knox

Totally agree. I’m also fairly confident that they will beat most teams through the air when they need to. I get it, Wimbush choked up bad at the end of the season, but he was an uber productive QB in high school, and very productive for most of last year.

The O-line concerns me a lot, but I’m starting to feel pretty good about this season. I will definitely take back to back seasons of ten plus wins and be happy. I can only see good things coming from that scenario.

Great article again Eric. We appreciate them.


I think the running explosiva really buried just how bad Wimbush was as a passer until the Miami game. He looked pretty awful as a passer in a number of games early – I think MSU is the only game all season where you can say he looked arguably above average for a D1 starting QB as a passer – but it was overshadowed by the running game, often his own running game (BC being the epitome of that).

Of course, his running explosiva is hardly not nothing – in fact, it’s probably standing alone worth giving him the 1A position in the QB battle, because otherwise our offense really does seem to lack explosiveness – but I do think that the ND media is being a *little* optimistic on Wimbush. He’s still a bottom quartile passer for P5 starting quarterbacks – really, probably bottom decile – and there’s little reason to think that would be radically changed given that he looked most bad at the end of the year (including when he got a whole month of practice for the LSU game, during which everyone was saying how good a month of practice would be for him).


Counting stats show Wimbush deserves more credit than you’re giving him. i used counting stats because Bill Connelly says “Football doesn’t lend itself toward the clear individual stats we see in sports like baseball”.

Completion %: 123rd(this is the only stat that makes your point)
YPA: t79th
TDs: t57th
INTs: t69th
Rating (NCAA formula): 87th
Total QBR (ESPN formula): 18th (discrepancy is due to QB rushing being included)
YPG: 80th

Out of those numbers only QBR is already adjusted for SoS or other opponent strength factors. The top end of the bottom quartile would be around 100. Considering NDs schedule is much tougher than average Wimbush produced at around the bottom of the 2nd quartile. Not great, but certainly not terrible. He has plenty of room to move upward and there’s no reason to think he won’t improve at all. i think it’s a safe bet that all of these numbers will be top 50 or better this year.

hooks orpik
hooks orpik

Nice research. The main thing that heartens me is seemingly the stuff Wimbush struggled with could/should be corrected with better mechanics and confidence. He was missing the simple throws in games that surely a player of his caliber could complete accurately, with ease, in practice, else he would not be a D1 starter in the first place.

I guess flip-side is maybe he’ll never progress and get past that, which is impossible to dis-prove right now, but I’d say it could change. He’s not going to be a 75% thrower or a Heisman guy but I think he was like 3-4 throws per game from being a 60% passer. That’s a jump Wimbush could and should make, IMO.


How *dare* you bring facts into this?!

However, if you’re buying QBR, he was the #93 QBR passer. That’s 27th percentile in D1, but if we’re quibbling I said P5 as a passer. I count only 9 P5 QBs as lower than him as a passer on QBR, and 4 of them are guys from 2 teams (Kansas and Texas). There are 65 P5 schools according to my quick Googling. Whether you use 9 or 7, that’s bottom quintile and approaching bottom decile as a passer.

Also, there’s plenty of reason to think that his passing could get worse this year – namely, we will no longer have the best left side of an offensive line in college football in a long while. Even if you don’t think McGlinchey was top-10 pick good (and I don’t), well, he was a top-10 pick, and Nelson was the best player in college football last year. Wimbush now has to be way more concerned with getting the ball out quicker, which won’t help. Also, teams may be able to more easily stop the run without putting 8 in the box because the defensive linemen aren’t going to be getting blown off the ball as much. If that’s the case, it’ll be narrower windows to throw into. Given his prior accuracy issues, I’m not optimistic.

But I hope I’m wrong!


Just to clarify – I am fully on board with having him as the starter to start the year, as I think the only possible chance we have of being a playoff team is if he has a great year (i.e., if we start Book and we get Book’s A-game all season, we’re still a max 10-2 type team given the surrounding talent and schedule. If we start Wimbush and get his A-game all year, we can be in the playoff). I just think odds are about as good that things go completely off the rails with Wimbush than things go great – he’s just a wider variance player. But, worth a shot until demonstrated otherwise (at which point we’re out of the playoffs anyways, so may as well go with Book or Jurkovec for the rest of the year then).


Damn, it was late when i wrote that and i missed the part where you said P5 rather than FBS. My bad!


No, because that would be dictating one specific style. I want us to literally take whatever our opponents will give us and adjust accordingly. We can line up however we want by default but, just like this drive, if a team is going to commit 8 to the box then we absolutely will not smash the ball into a wall of nothing. If they commit 3 and double two of our receivers and play tight man on everyone else, we absolutely do not throw a WR screen.


You missed the joke there, bud

The point of the power spread is its adaptability and options to throw or run depending on the look the defense gives.



Football was a verb
Football was a verb

Did Adams ever have a successful screen? I feel like he struggled in the passing game.