What We Learned From 2013: BYU

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                                                                               Photo by Matt Cashore

8.9.14

Craig Chval ‘15

The BYU game was probably the 2013 game that I remembered the least – except the weather. It was the coldest game I’d ever been to, including Syracuse in 2008. The 30 mph winds didn’t help, either.

So I didn’t remember much about the game other than how cold I was, but it was actually one of the more impressive performances of the year for Notre Dame given the circumstances. 

While not a great team, BYU actually had a Sagarin predictor score very similar to Notre Dame. In fact, the Irish were 29th and the Cougars were 30th. Between the weather and the stockpile of injuries, Notre Dame had its hands full in this game.

Nevertheless, they never trailed in the game, winning 23-13. It got a bit shaky at the end, but the defense shut out the Cougars in the fourth quarter.

What We Learned from BYU: Complementing Offense and Defense

I really liked the offensive approach this time around because of its impact on the defense. Entering the game, I worried about BYU’s offense because of Notre Dame’s previous struggles with mobile quarterbacks, as well as the Cougars’ high-tempo attack. As thin as the depleted defense was, I didn’t know if they could withstand such an offense.

BYU was second in the country in plays per game with 89.9, and they managed 247 rushing yards for 5.3 yards per rush against the Irish. Taking out sacks, it was 5.8 yards per rush. Nevertheless, the defense’s “bend don’t break” philosophy that faltered at times in 2013 was stout against BYU, allowing only 13 points. 

The Cougars had three drives of at least 70 yards, but they only totaled 10 points on those three drives because the red zone defense for the Irish was much stronger than against Pitt. A big difference was Jarron Jones, who suddenly morphed into an interior force, shedding blocks and making sound tackles at the line.

Oh, and he blocked a critical field goal in the fourth quarter that essentially sealed the game for Notre Dame. On those big plays in the red zone, other players who stepped up included Jaylon Smith, KeiVarae Russell, and Joe Schmidt. 

So despite the powerful rushing attack, Notre Dame’s defense held BYU to 17 points below their scoring average. It was the third-best discrepancy for the Irish defense after USC (20) and Temple (19).

So what does that have to do with the offense? The approach against BYU was nearly a complete 180 from Pittsburgh. I don’t know if that was because of the past week’s result or the weather, but it allowed Notre Dame to control the tempo.

After running on only 37% of plays against Pitt, the Irish nearly matched their highest run/pass ratio of the season at 61% (vs. Navy was 62%). They scored two touchdowns on their first two drives, giving them the lead for good. Although they wouldn’t find the end zone again, they did a number of things to help the defense retain the lead.

1. They kept the ball on the BYU side of the field. 

Until the very last drive of the game when the Cougars were down by 10 with 3 minutes to go, all BYU possessions started on their side of the 50. The average starting field possession for the Cougars was their own 29.

Notre Dame’s starting field possession was actually worse – their own 26. But that’s why the offensive performance is better than it looks. The Irish marched down the field on each of their possessions. Here are their drives: 

Drive 1: 5 plays 84 yards, TD

Drive 2: 8 plays, 75 yards, TD

Drive 3: 3 plays, 9 yards, punt

Drive 4: 14 plays, 60 yards, FG

Drive 5: 12 plays, 69 yards, turnover on downs (kicking into wind)

Drive 6: 5 plays, 52 yards, FG

Drive 7: 10 plays, 43 yards, turnover on downs (kicking into wind)

Drive 8: 8 plays, 58 yards, INT

Drive 9: 7 plays, 25 yards, FG

Drive 10: 3 plays, 9 yards, punt

With the exception of drives 3 and 10, all Irish possessions moved the ball down the field. And drive 10’s only goal was to chew clock at the end of the game with the Irish up by two scores. Finishing drives is an important trait, and it’s something the Irish have struggled with. 

But in this game, moving the ball and keeping it out of the hands of the opposing offense was the No. 1 goal. When eight of your 10 drives end in a score or on the other side of your opponent’s 30, that is incredibly helpful for your defense.

2. They gave the defense rest

The Irish controlled the ball for nearly 34 minutes, their second best TOP of the season. Until the last drive (with BYU using timeouts), every single drive lasted at least two minutes. Contrast that with the Michigan game, in which more than half of the drives lasted 2:02 or less. 

The injuries Notre Dame’s defense endured in 2013 were staggering, and they were especially evident against BYU. The unit was missing Ben Councell, Jarrett Grace, and Louis Nix, all game 1 starters. That doesn’t even count Danny Spond and Tony Springmann. Several players were also coming off injuries and may or may not have been 100%, including Sheldon Day and Ishaq Williams.

So Notre Dame was working with a patchwork defense, moving Jarron Jones to nose, where he excelled, and relying on previously little-used upperclassmen Joe Schmidt and Eilar Hardy. The latter hadn’t played at all in 2011 and 2012 but made appearances in 10 games in 2013. BYU was his second career start. Schmidt, of course, is a former walk-on.

The “next man in” philosophy worked well for the Irish, but their depth was at a critical level. Working against a fast-tempo offense, it’s incredibly difficult to get the substitutions you want, and keeping the players rested is imperative. With the offense marching down the field and chewing up clock every drive, the defense was ready to go each time out.

3. They took care of the ball

Besides the one interception, Notre Dame kept the ball on the ground to set up play action. At halftime BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said the biggest struggle for his team was covering Notre Dame’s play action.

With snow on the ground and in the air, temperatures in the 20s, and wind in the 30s, turnovers increase substantially. Balls die in the air, receivers slip, and Notre Dame players lose their speed advantage. By keeping the ball on the ground, the turnover problem that plagued the Irish against Pitt was cut down.

Offensive Keys

The way the Irish offense succeeded in these areas was because of the significant change in approach, and the re-focus around Tarean Folston. After four rushes against Pitt, Folston tore off another big game with 13 runs for 78 yards (6 YPC).

With the Irish coaching staff relying more on Folston, they moved to a lot more under-center looks to utilize his downfield running ability. After the Air Force game, the major running formation switched from pistol to ace.

Percentage of total plays from pistol:

Games 1-8: 40.9%

Games 9-11: 3.9%

Percentage of total plays from ace:

Games 1-8: 7.5%

Games 9-11: 47.8%

That’s an incredible shift, and it paid big dividends for the offense. In 2013 ace backfield under-center yielded the best yards per run, yards per pass attempt, yards per pass completion, and passer rating. 

Now, you may think that because Folston is so often featured in ace that it inflates the results for that formation. However, for all four running backs, the No. 1 formation for yards per run AND yards per pass is the ace, with one exception. McDaniel’s yards/run is lower, probably because it is used almost exclusively in short yardage situations with him.

In my very first article of this series, I praised the virtues of the pistol, and I stick to that. The pistol is the best formation to feature a healthy balance between run and pass. Moving under center is best for a run-centric offense, but then it eviscerates run-focused defenses with play action daggers.

This is consistent with Notre Dame’s approach from under center, where they run at 5.4 yards per carry. Irish QBs are only 12-25 passing from the formation, but for an eye-popping 394 yards. That’s 15.8 yards per attempt and a gargantuan 32.8 yards per completion. Of those 12 completions, five are touchdowns. In those 25 passes, Rees has an absurd 238.4 passer rating.

So given the offensive approach this game, Brian Kelly picked his packages very well, with Folston and McDaniel (who had a career-best 117 yards on 24 careers) leading the team to victory.

Looking to 2014

The game plan for the BYU game was for the offense to take the lead and then help the defense keep it. That may or may not be the right approach next year, when the offense might need to shoulder a heavier responsibility.

However, if that’s true, the offense will need to score points and help out its teammates on the other side of the ball. Eliminating three-and-outs, cutting down on turnovers, and racking up points all help the defense.

Obviously, three weeks from the season, it’s impossible for us fans to know exactly how the offense and defense should work together. But whatever the strength of this team is, all phases of the game should work to build on that advantage.

Lessons From 2013

Temple

Michigan

Purdue

Michigan State

Oklahoma 

Arizona State   

USC

Air Force

Navy

Pittsburgh