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Notre Dame Football

Four Things ND Needs More of on Offense

October 19, 2021

“It’s been a frustrating season for the Notre Dame offense.”
-Captain Obvious

No one needs me to point out how the Irish offense has struggled and I’m honestly a little tired of writing about it, but as it stands today they are 95th in yards per play and 104th in EPA/play. Every Notre Dame fan has been thinking about closing the gap to win a national championship and what we’ve seen is the gap widening.

Things need to change and they did change against Virginia Tech. With more of an emphasis on spread formations (47.8% of snaps), two new starters on the offensive line, and more snaps for Tyler Buchner at quarterback, we saw an uptick with the results on offense.

As my friend Michael Byran pointed out, the running game finally found some consistency with the reconfigured O-line and Buchner at quarterback. They averaged 5.3 yards per carry on 28 carries with a 60% success rate. Compare that to the 2.4 YPC they were averaging before this game and well, there is no comparison.

From what we saw with Buchner in obvious passing situations, it’s probably not going to be as simple as inserting Buchner to make the offense take off in the second half of the season. There’s going to be more to it than that and it sounds like Jack Coan will be the starter for USC and Buchner will play a significant role in some capacity.

With the idea of Notre Dame playing two, or possibly three, quarterbacks down the stretch, here’s four things I want to see more of from the offense in the final six regular season games.

More intermediate targets for Michael Mayer

The fact that Notre Dame was better on offense against Virginia Tech looks even more impressive when considering they did it without their All-American tight end. Michael Mayer wasn’t available that night, but sounds like he will be ready to play against USC.

With Mayer back in the lineup, I’d like to see Notre Dame attack with him more as an intermediate receiver (between 10 and 19 yards). He’s feasted on his targets there this season catching 7 of 9 passes for 148 yards. That’s 21.1 yards per reception and Notre Dame’s quarterbacks have a perfect quarterback rating on those targets. Those two other targets were his drops in the Florida State game so his numbers would look even better.

Teams are going to pay special attention to Mayer and should. They’d be foolish not to. But when Notre Dame gets a matchup they like, they need to get the ball to Mayer and let him cook.

More efficiency with deep shots

Notre Dame wants to have a more explosive passing game and they want to stretch the field vertically, but they haven’t been overly successful with it. After a strong start throwing deep against Florida State and Toledo (5 of 12 151 yards and two touchdowns minus the Hail Mary against FSU), Jack Coan has struggled to connect with his receivers deep.

Some of that is on them, but a lot of it is on Coan. He was 2 of 12 against Purdue and Wisconsin, although it should be noted that he dropped a dime to Kevin Austin against Wisconsin and Braden Lenzy dropped a touchdown against Purdue. Coan only attempted one deep pass against Cincinnati and Virginia Tech.

He’s completed 26.9% of his deep attempts and his adjusted completion percentage is 30.8% (103rd in the country).

He isn’t going to magically become a significantly better deep ball thrower. Drew Pyne has never been known for the deep ball and we haven’t seen enough of it from Buchner yet to determine that he’s going to be the answer there. It might just be that Notre Dame doesn’t have the quarterback this year to make this much better than it’s been.

Tommy Rees might have to be a bit more selective than he was to start the season and a little more aggressive than he’s been in the last couple of games. That and finding what works best to give the receivers a chance to make plays will be critical because they have players who are capable of being vertical threats.

More play-action with Buchner

Rees definitely doesn’t want to take away from how well Notre Dame is running the ball with Buchner, but they need to find a way to attack more in the passing game with him. They are running the football 70% of the time when he is in the game and that has to be eased back a little.

One way to solve that is to run more play-action with him. Only two of his 15 drop backs against Virginia Tech were play-action passes and it’s been only 6 of 22 overall. It’s a miniscule sample size, but he’s 3 of 5 for 75 yards and a touchdown on those plays (with one drop).

They’re expecting a running play when he is in the game. That’s part of the reason why he’s had success throwing on 1st and 2nd down (9 of 13, 14.7 yards per attempt). They aren’t all going to work as well as this call did, but there should be more opportunities for this with teams keying on Buchner.

More inside zone

The offensive line was moving Virginia Tech off the line of scrimmage on plenty of runs. That wasn’t a regular thing before this game.

The line was having more success because the runs suited the strengths of the players more. We saw plenty of counter and inside zone, which also meant we saw more double teams from the Irish O-line. It’s not a coincidence that Cain Madden and Josh Lugg had their best games of the season with the way the game was called.

Madden looked more like the player he was at Marshall and no one ran inside more frequently than Marshall did last season. 

If we see more inside zone, then I think we’ll see Madden run block much better than he did in the first five games of the year.

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