Film Analysis: Notre Dame's offensive line set Irish up for success against USF

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Ian Book has never been protected better than he was last Saturday against South Florida.

On his 21 dropbacks in the 52-0 Notre Dame victory, the Irish quarterback was pressured just once. That one pressure prevented Book from completing a pass late in the first quarter. USF linebacker Demaurez Bellamy came unblocked on a blitz, flushed Book out of the pocket and hit Book as he was trying to throw.

But that was the only damage USF’s pass rush managed against Notre Dame. In Book’s previous two seasons as the starting quarterback, he had never been pressured fewer than four times in a game or with a pressure rate lower than 13.5 percent. The one USF pressure equated to a 4.8-percent pressure rate.

It was a stellar day for the offensive line as it didn’t suffer any individual losses that led to pressure in pass protection. The dominance extended to the running game, too, as the starting offense totaled 189 yards and four touchdowns on 29 designed runs for an average of 6.5 yards per carry.

The presence up front didn’t lead to a prolific passing day from Book, but it wasn’t needed as the Irish scored 38 points on their first seven possessions in the blowout.

Let’s take a closer look at how Notre Dame’s offense put together those drives.

Run direction

Book finished 2-for-2 on quarterback sneaks from the one-yard line against USF. But let’s not include those two runs for the sake of this exercise.

The remaining 27 designed runs produced 187 yards and two touchdowns. Both of those touchdowns — a one-yarder by running back Chris Tyree and a 26-yarder by running back C’Bo Flemister — came on outside runs to the right.

Head coach Brian Kelly has discussed how the Irish are utilizing an outside zone scheme under first-year offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, and that can be seen with the production the Irish are seeing on some of their outside runs.

Of course, an outside zone isn’t the only way to achieve yardage on the edge, but it’s become a staple for Notre Dame’s offense. Against USF, 16 carries went to the outside for 115 yards and two touchdowns (7.2 yards per carry). Inside carries totaled 72 yards on 11 carries (6.5 YPC).

Even though both touchdowns came on the right edge, the running game was slightly more productive per carry on the left edge: 6.4 YPC on the right vs. 8 YPC on the left.

Left-side runs were more productive regardless of being run inside or outside. Thirteen runs to the left turned into 110 yards (8.5 YPC) compared to 14 carries for 77 yards (5.5 YPC) on the right.

Both left tackle Liam Eichenberg and left guard Aaron Banks clearly played well against USF. That was also evident with ND’s five inside runs to the left, producing 46 yards. The average of 9.2 yards per carry far exceeded the efficiency of right inside runs: six for 26 yards (4.3 YPC).

Personnel production

Notre Dame’s starting offense operated with at least two tight ends on the field for much of the game. Of the 50 offensive plays before the backups entered in the second half, 38 of them included at least two tight ends.

The most common personnel grouping for the Irish was two tight ends, two wide receivers and one running back. Notre Dame averaged 7.7 yards per play with two tight ends on the field with 12 designed runs for 99 yards and 11 dropbacks that resulted in 7-of-10 passing for 73 yards and a four-yard touchdown run by Book.

Despite using four tight ends for only four plays, the Irish scored three one-yard touchdowns with that personnel. The only play that didn’t score was a Jafar Armstrong run for no gain on first-and-goal from the one-yard line.

Notre Dame even opted to use three tight ends more than it used three wide receivers. The 11 plays with three tight ends included seven designed runs and four dropbacks for a total of 75 yards and a 26-yard touchdown run by Flemister. The 10 plays with three wide receivers included six dropacks and four designed runs for a gain of 74 yards.

The Irish lined up with two running backs on the field twice. The first play resulted in a three-yard loss on an Armstrong carry. Tyree racked up 15 yards on the second play. The Irish have called runs on all four snaps with two running backs so far this season.

Play-calling wrinkles

After Notre Dame rushed for 178 yards against Duke, the Irish came out against USF relying on play action to get the defense biting on run fakes. The first three Irish snaps included play fakes and resulted in three completions for 37 yards.

Book finished the USF game 6-of-7 for 90 yards off play fakes. The only incomplete pass was a jump ball that wide receiver Javon McKinley couldn’t secure.

The Irish didn’t utilize the traditional screen game against USF after using screens successfully in the season opener. The only Notre Dame play that resembled a screen was an 18-yard pass to Armstrong on third-and-13.

The Irish have used that play in recent years. The running back catches the ball slightly downfield while other receivers or tight ends are in position to block like a screen, but only after the running back catches the pass to avoid a penalty.

Passing depth

Book’s passing chart against USF remained conservative. He only attempted two passes beyond 20 yards of the line of scrimmage. Book completed one of those passes to tight end Tommy Tremble 27 yards down field. Tremble fought the defender for the ball as he went out of bounds.

The other was a clear miscommunication with McKinley. Book’s pass landed 23 yards downfield, but McKinley settled his route down 13 yards from the line of scrimmage.

Book, who finished 12-of-19 for 144 yards, completed his 12 passes at an average depth of 8.8 yards downfield.

Here’s a breakdown of Book’s passing attempts, which excludes one pass that didn’t leave his vicinity as he was hit trying to release the throw. His other six incomplete passes came on five off-target throws and the previously mentioned jump ball to McKinley.

Behind the line to 0 yards: None.

1-5 yards: 6-of-7 for 46 yards with one off-target throw.

6-10 yards: 3-of-3 for 24 yards.

11-15 yards: 1-of-4 for 25 yards with two off-target throws and one jump ball.

16-20 yards: 1-of-2 for 22 yards with one off-target throw.

21-30 yards: 1-of-2 for 27 yards with one off-target throw.

31-plus yards: None.

Pass protection

Notre Dame’s pass protection was rarely left with one-on-one matchups across the entire unit. The Irish had the numbers advantage on 19 of the 21 dropbacks. The other two dropbacks, the Bulls sent the same number of pass rushers as blockers the Irish had available.

That even pass rush worked both times as Book threw incomplete passes on both backdrops. The even pass rush produced the lone pressure on Book and may have influenced his decision on the quick overthrow to McKinley, who clearly wasn’t on the same page as Book for whatever reason.

Here’s how the Irish fared against each pass rush.

Three-man rush (3 times): 2-of-2 for 14 yards with one three-yard run. No pressures.

Four-man rush (11 times): 7-of-10 for 71 yards with three off-target throws. One four-yard TD run. No pressures.

Five-man rush (5 times): 2-of-5 for 34 yards with one off-target throw, one jump ball and one broken up throw. USF generated its lone pressure on a five-man rush.

Six-man rush (2 times): 1-of-2 for 25 yards with one off-target throw. No pressures.

A computer displays an overhead shot of Notre Dame's offense lining up against South Florida's defense during the Notre Dame-USF game broadcast on USA Network. As part of Notre Dame's COVID-19 safety protocols, photojournalists were not allowed inside Notre Dame Stadium for its first two games.