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Notre Dame Football

Breaking Down Notre Dame's Opening Offensive Series vs. Virginia

November 16, 2021

Written by Dave Beaudin

From the very start of its game against Virginia on Saturday night, it was clear Notre Dame arrived in Charlottesville with an aggressive offensive plan of attack for a Virgina defense that is subpar at best.

Without knowing for sure whether he would be combatting a Brennan Armstrong-led Cavalier offense, Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees showed he was prepared to exploit the holes in Virginia’s scheme and carve them up from the very first drive. 

While the opening series did not net points, it was clear Rees had answers to UVA’s defensive tests, which set up an easier path the rest of the way.

1st & 10, Notre Dame 25

On the very first play, Virginia’s defense lines up with “2 High” safeties. At the snap, the safety up top rolls down towards the line of scrimmage to fill the void left by the blitzing LB to that side while the safety to the bottom rotates to the deep middle of the field.

Getting into a “1-High” arrangement post-snap, gives Virginia 8 players around the ball. 

Immediately, you can see Jack Coan has been coached up to throw “away from safety rotation,” meaning, throw away from the safety who spins down toward the LOS. 
And, so it begins.

2nd & 4, Notre Dame 31

On the second play from scrimmage, Virginia again spins a safety down, this time to the weak side versus an unbalanced Irish left side.

ND has a 4-man surface on the LOS to the left, plus two WR’s on the same side. If Kevin Austin, who is lined up in the slot, blocks the man over him, this place would actually rip. Because he does not, the dual TE’s have to work to his man, leaving them one “hat” short in blocking the LB’s in the box. 

Regardless, Notre Dame is starting to send a clear message to Virginia, ‘If you spin a safety down, we will simply put the ball opposite.’ After just two plays, a pattern is emerging. 

3rd & 3, Notre Dame 32

The Irish continue to “go where they are not” with the perfect answer against straight man-to-man coverage.

The ideal call here is to throw the quick slant after going the same “tear” motion as 1st Down, clear all safeties out (plus get one less blitzer as he peels with the RB motion). 

Rees’ plan is dealing so far, with answers for the Cavalier safety play. 

This brings up 1st & 10 for the Irish at their own 45-yard line.  Once again, Notre Dame calls a run play that goes away from safety rotation.  The Irish don’t block it well up front, thus it brings up 2nd & 12. However, as the UVA staff is charting ND’s calls, I am sure they are noticing the same pattern. 

Another thing you can see on the 1st Down call is the safety who is supposed to rotate down the middle, is starting to get sucked up to the run.  To be committing 9 guys to the box on 1st & 10, essentially, is a scary proposition for any Division-1 defense. The payoff for this will come for the Irish offense in the second half. 

2nd & 12, Notre Dame 43

Virginia goes with a weak CB fire. 

The standard for this blitz is for the CB on the weakside to blitz from the boundary, with the near boundary safety rotating over the top of the otherwise uncovered WR. The far safety rotates down the middle, and the field CB bails, giving the WR to the field lots of cushion to run an out route. That is exactly what ND does here for the completion. 

Through film study, Coan is able to see the Boundary Safety is outside the weak hash marks and the Boundary CB is pressed on the WR. The Field Safety is inside the hash mark pre-snap.  All of this leads to poor safety disguise from Virginia and ND once again capitalizes on this, throwing the timing out-route for a first down. You can see it in action here:

1st & 10, Virginia 44

Virginia doesn’t rotate its safeties. 

This time they line up in Quarters coverage, yet again, void of any disguise.  ND sniffs it out and dials up the perfect call.  While everyone knows Quarters coverage as “4 Deep,” what is often overlooked is the fact that it requires safeties to be force players, meaning they step up to run and the CB’s bail for pass first. 

The play-action fake sucks the safeties up with a deep crossing route behind them.  While the pass is overthrown, this is extremely significant to how the rest of the offensive game unfolds. More on this later. Here is a look at the shot play from ND:

On 2nd & 10, Kyren Williams runs up the middle for a gain of 8.  The LB blitzes off the edge and the safety is late rotating down to the middle. Tough to know if ND knew it was coming or just guessed correctly.  Regardless, another perfect play call once again and the Virginia safeties’ heads must be spinning at this point.

On 3rd & 2, the entire Virginia defense, and what seems like the student section included, is up on the line of scrimmage.  ND can’t possibly block them all, but it doesn’t matter as Williams spins and weaves his way for a first down. 

On the ensuing first down, Virginia dials up an effective cross blitz by both inside LB’s bringing a total of 6 defenders, which forces Virginia to be in straight man coverage.  Coan misses the read here, as again, he’s provided with the perfect answer with an open Michael Mayer on a slot fade route. Understandably, Coan has to step up instead because the blitz was not picked up and he is able to gain two yards. 

2nd & 8, Virginia 28

Notre Dame runs a jet sweep from another unbalanced set, with Coan under center. This is a “call it & haul it” type play, meaning there is no pre or post-snap read.  Therefore, you can see the Virginia safeties rotate into the play for the very first time. 

3rd & 5, Virginia 25

Virginia puts their strong safety over the slot WR in soft man coverage.  This is the only receiver who is not covered in press coverage and Coan smartly throws the speed out, but it falls short of the first down and brings up 4th & 1. 

On 4th & 1, the QB sneak is not enough and it is a turnover on downs. 

While watching the game live, it’s easy to think, “Well, that drive was all for naught.”  Except, after further examination, it was far from it.  This drive ate up 5 minutes and 26 seconds to open the game while setting the tone for the Notre Dame offense in many ways. 

With Virginia realizing ND had answers for its safety play, the Cavaliers resorted to 2-High safeties at depth backpedaling for much of the game because of it.  This led to the Irish spreading the wealth, running the ball for 249 yards with Virginia hesitant to put more than 7 defenders in the box throughout the rest of the game. 

This also opened routes underneath in the passing game, particularly for Mayer, who finished with 7 catches for 84 yards and a TD.  With the safeties high, he was able to catch the ball on simple drags underneath while also finding himself matched up against linebackers much of the time and making them pay. 

All of this can be traced back to the opening drive which was initially viewed as a failure. As we can all see now, it was far from it. 

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