Let’s say you didn’t know the outcome of the 2018 Notre Dame – Navy game and I shared the following stats with you:

  • Team A  28 first downs
  • Team B 14 first downs
  • Team A  56% conversion rate on 3rd and 4th down
  • Team B  27% conversion rate on 3rd and 4th down
  • Team A  held the ball for 31:57
  • Team B  held the ball for 28:03

Which team would you guess is Navy? Past precedent suggests Team A. Better time of possession, double the first downs, better conversion rates on 3rd and 4th down, all of the hallmarks of an efficient triple option team. However, in 2018, the script was flipped and as you likely already figured out, Team A was Notre Dame. This stat line isn’t an anomaly. It’s by design. Since Ian Book became the starting quarterback, the Notre Dame offense has morphed from emphasizing a vertical attack (goal line to goal line) to more of a horizontal attack (sideline to sideline). This has resulted in a offense that is extremely efficient and is able to consistently get positive yards and sustain drives. Let’s take a look at the film and I’ll show you what I mean.

3rd and 2 in the red zone. Notre Dame comes out in a formation that is designed to stretch the defense horizontally (sideline to sideline) with 4 receivers to the wide side of the field (yellow arrows).

The play design is intended to further stretch the defense towards the sideline. Quarterback Ian Book (# 12) has three options.  The first option is to hand the ball to the running back (black arrow, number 1.). The second option is to keep the ball and attack off-tackle (green arrow, number 2.). The third option is to pass the ball to the receiver on the perimeter (red arrow, number 3.).  In many ways this is a modified version of Navy’s triple option. It forces the defense to defend the interior, the off-tackle and the perimeter simultaneously.

Ian Book (yellow arrow) has just handed the ball off to Dexter Williams (#2, green arrow). You could argue this was a bad decision. The outside linebacker (burgundy circle) was clearly taking away the running back. Consequently, Book probably should have pulled the ball and run to the outside. However, as you can see Book’s fake was enough to cause the outside linebacker to hesitate because he wasn’t sure where the ball was.

That small hesitation made all the difference. The outside linebacker (burgundy arrow) barely misses the tackle. If he didn’t have to worry about Book carrying the ball to the outside, he almost certainly would have tackled Williams for no gain. Instead Williams had just enough room to sneak through the line (green arrow).

The initial formation stretched the defense towards the sideline; the play design stretched it even further. Stretching the defense horizontally opened up a crease that the Irish were able to exploit vertically. Voila touchdown (green circle).

One of the things I’ve been watching closely was how defenses would adjust to the Irish offense under the leadership of Ian Book. Not surprisingly, defenses have started to crowd the line of scrimmage not only to stop the run, but to stop the highly effective perimeter passing game.  Crowding the line of scrimmage requires defenses to play tight man coverage. This screen shot is a great example of that. 10 Navy defenders are within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage and all 3 defensive backs are playing tight man coverage (purple arrows). We’ve seen similar defensive approaches from Virginia Tech and Pitt.

When opposing defenses come up tight, one of the ways the Irish have countered is by going vertical in the passing game. In this case Navy has decided to play tight man coverage (green circle). Let’s see what happens.

Miles Boykin (# 81) beats the coverage and is in the process of catching a perfectly placed back shoulder fade (green circle) for a touchdown.

Final Thoughts

Since Ian Book became the staring quarterback,  Notre Dame’s offense has evolved from one that tried to attack defenses vertically to one that tries to stretch defenses horizontally. We’ve seen greater emphasis placed on shorter, high percentage passes to the perimeter, that may not create as many big plays as downfield passes, but consistently turn into positive yards, first downs and sustained drives. The result has been a metamorphosis from a frustratingly inconsistent offense to a ruthlessly efficient offense.

The next phase in the evolution of the offense is to get vertical a little more consistently. You don’t actually stretch a defense horizontally to get horizontal. You stretch them horizontally to create seams in the defense that you exploit vertically. In other words, there is no point going sideline to sideline if at some point you don’t make progress towards the goal line. As the first play we looked at demonstrates, there is a pretty strong vertical threat in the run game with Dexter Williams. He’s has the potential to take it the distance every time he carries the ball. In my opinion, we need to attack the deep middle portion of the field via the passing game more consistently. Although Miles Boykin won’t run by many corners, he has become a legitimate vertical threat against press coverage with the back shoulder fade. We’ve started to see more slants that hit the middle of the field in recent weeks and I suspect we are going to see more tight ends on seam patterns in the final stretch of the season. Notre Dame’s coaches know that if we can attack the deep middle of the field with the passing game, we’ll be a very difficult team to stop.