Problem-solving on the fly helps Notre Dame fix 2nd-half woes

Mike Berardino
ND Insider
Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees during the Notre Dame Blue-Gold Spring Football game on Saturday, April 23, 2022, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

SOUTH BEND — For the first time in Marcus Freeman’s head coaching tenure, Notre Dame won the second half last Saturday against Cal.

In his postgame notes, Freeman wrote down a few of his theories for why that happened. One of the main ones had to do with the way he and his fellow coaches interacted.

“The communication among coaches was really good,” Freeman said. “To hear the coaches talking about ways to fix some of the issues we were having defensively, offensively, that’s something I was pleased with.”

Hearing it all unfold as he switched back and forth on his headset, Freeman couldn’t help but smile.

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“That cohesiveness,” he said, “that understanding of there’s a lot of intelligent people on each side of the ball and to utilize those ideas and implement them and make some adjustments, it was really good to hear the coaches communicate.”

The Irish wiped out a three-point halftime deficit against the Bears with a 17-7 advantage in the final 30 minutes. In Freeman’s first three games atop the sideline hierarchy, including the Fiesta Bowl meltdown in his debut, Notre Dame was outscored 54-21 in the second half.

For the first time in eight games, dating to a quick touchdown against North Carolina last October, coordinator Tommy Rees’ offense produced points on the first series of the third quarter. With first-time starter Drew Pyne at the controls, Notre Dame banged out a nine-play, 60-yard touchdown march.

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Over the previous seven games, the first offensive series after halftime had included a pair of interceptions, four punts (including three three-and-outs) and a turnover on downs. Go back four more games before the UNC win last year, and there were three more three-and-outs and a failed fourth-down attempt.

That made 11 of 12 games, dating back to a touchdown against Purdue, in which the Irish offense sputtered coming out of halftime.

“We’re aware of that,” Rees said wryly in the days leading up to the Cal game. “It’s something we’ve got to continue to work at certainly. We have to understand how we want to operate in the second half and the ways that we can attack them.”

Saturday afternoon in Chapel Hill, N.C., Rees and Co. will try to turn a breakthrough into a streak.

Pulling a new plan off the shelf

Throughout a dominant career at Notre Dame and 11 more seasons as a starting center in the NFL, Tim Grunhard saw first-hand the value of halftime adjustments.

Ask the 1988 national champion if a team can be successful without mastering that aspect, and he won’t hesitate.

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“No, you really can’t,” Grunhard said. “You look at Kansas City, Andy Reid is one of best I’ve ever been around or witnessed at making adjustments during the game, especially at halftime. And listen, you don’t have much time. It’s not like you’re going to make huge adjustments.

"When you go out there and you have your game plan, it’s just like anything else. Sometimes you’ve got to call an audible.”

If an opponent is taking away a particular play or blanketing a particular player or part of the field, halftime is a chance to pivot toward a more viable path forward.

“You figure out, ‘OK, they’ve got this wired, they’re ready for this, so we need to go up on the shelf and pull another plan down that we have waiting in the wings and put that in,’“ said Grunhard, who coached the offensive line for Charlie Weis at Kansas and has coached Bishop Miege High School to a handful of Kansas state football titles as an assistant and head coach.

“They practice all this stuff,” Grunhard said. “There’s a playbook. Every offense has a big playbook with a lot of plays in it, and then as you get into the season, you start having a game plan. And that game plan comes from that playbook. Sometimes in a game plan, you have to make adjustments even further into adjusting different situations from the playbook to the game plan to game action.

“That’s not easy to do. You don’t have lot of time to do it, but you’ve got to have a plan to do it in case it happens. If we come out and we have our first 20 plays and they all work and (the opposing defense) makes adjustments, now we have to make adjustments too. That adjustment process by head coaches and coordinators and assistant coaches is such an important factor in a game, and it’s not just halftime.

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“When you get out there, and after a couple of series in the third quarter, you’re sitting there with your offensive line or you’re sitting there with your offense, you’ve got to have communication. That’s part of the players’ deal. It’s not all the coaches.

“Players have to also say, ‘Hey, coach, when we line up in this, they’re doing that.’ And then you make adjustments there. It’s a give and take. Communication from player to assistant coach to coordinator to head coach is so important. That’s a learning process.

“Great teams have been doing it for a long time. Great teams understand how to do that. and that might be something Notre Dame needs to get a little bit sharper with — making some of those adjustments during the game.”

'Keep no secrets'

Josh Lugg, the sixth-year senior at right guard, has seen the improvement already this season in the way information flows at the midgame break.

“When we come out after halftime, we get our adjustments from the coaches,” Lugg said. “Just staying locked in from halftime, understanding the details.”

Lugg recalled a scenario against Marshall where two defensive linemen played opposite the left side of the Irish offensive line in the first half.

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“They were doing a ton of stuff, and I wasn’t seeing it,” Lugg said.

Comparing notes with Jarrett Patterson, the senior captain at left guard, gave Lugg vital information on tendencies and games those two Thundering Herd linemen were running on the defensive front.

“Jarrett and I know if anything really happened,” Lugg said. “We start talking like, ‘Hey, what moves are you getting over there from ‘99’ and ‘19’?’ Sure enough, come the fourth quarter, those guys were on the right side (opposite Lugg). Now I’m not blocking them for the first time because I have already received feedback from Jarrett and (left tackle Joe Alt) about what’s happening over there. I give them the same feedback, so we’re constantly learning throughout the game.”

Notre Dame's Josh Lugg prior to Notre Dame Fall Practice on Friday, August 12, 2022, at Irish Athletics Center in South Bend, Indiana.

You can watch all the cutups and game tape you want of your next opponent. You can be absolutely certain you will see a particular play out of a particular formation, but there are always wrinkles and stunners along the way.

“I look at it as a test,” Lugg said. “You go in and have your preparation. You know what is going to work, and (say), ‘This is what we are going to do. This is our plan.’ Maybe the test doesn’t have exactly what you studied for, but you know the basics of what you’re learning and now you start applying those fundamentals to the word problems you get on a test. You work through and learn.”

Information flows most freely at halftime, but clues are exchanged snap to snap, series to series, especially for those in the trenches.

“The big thing is communication with everybody,” Lugg said. “We say, ‘Keep no secrets.’ If you see a linebacker off the edge, you see a bandit, if the linebacker’s feet look a little different from 4 yards and 6 yards (off the line of scrimmage), just say something. It doesn’t need to be sentences out there. It could be key little words that trigger something.”

Mike Berardino covers Notre Dame football for NDInsider.com and the South Bend Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBerardino and on TikTok @mikeberardinoNDI.