As good as the Florida State defense was against the Irish -- perhaps the most impressive part of the game was the way the secondary limited Notre Dame's potent downfield passing attack, even after losing two of its three top cornerbacks in the third quarter -- this column will focus exclusively on the key offensive adjustments that, along with a critical interception by senior linebacker Nigel Bradham, allowed the ‘Noles to make their furious fourth-quarter comeback.
Many people, including former Irish coach Lou Holtz, have asked why Notre Dame gave up on the blitz after it had been so successful early. As it turns out, this is an excellent example of minor in-game adjustments going largely unnoticed, as the Florida State offensive staff made two small changes that proved to be the difference: 1) going almost exclusively to spread formations; and 2) quickening the offensive tempo, snapping the football often with more than 15 seconds on the play clock rather than 5-10, as had often been the case in the first half.
These adjustments, while almost invisible to the casual onlooker, made it very difficult for Notre Dame to continue to disguise defenses and bring pressure like it had early in the game, giving FSU's offense the initiative and ultimately allowing its superior skill players to change the game.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that a team starting four true freshmen on the offensive line -- two making their first career starts -- would be better off taking a deliberate pace, staying in "21" personnel (two backs, one tight end), running the football and using max-protection schemes to slow the game down and protect the youngsters up front.
As it turns out, however, Notre Dame was much more aggressive against 21 personnel than it was against the spread, bringing extra rushers from different angles to stop the run and get extra pressure on quarterback E.J. Manuel.
A few examples from the first quarter demonstrate this clearly:
Notre Dame matches FSU's 21 personnel with an eight-man front, dropping the strong safety into the box just before the snap and bringing extra pressure from the outside, beating the back for the sack -- the OL protection was actually good here.
Note the eight men in the box before the snap, with the extra rusher coming from the defense's left:
Here's another example below:
Notre Dame again shows a more aggressive front against 21 personnel and then shifts before the snap, this time sliding the defensive line to the right in an effort to "gap" the offensive line and confuse assignments.
Note how different the front looks in the next shot:
The front has changed from a 4-3 look with each defender responsible for one gap to a 3-4 "two-gap" front, changing the blocking assignments just before the snap and bringing confusion and extra run support from the strong safety, lined up just outside the box.
In contrast, when Florida State went to the spread, Notre Dame matched up with eight coverage players and three linemen:
On this play from the second offensive series, note how low the play clock is before the snap, as Notre Dame is jumping around in a "UFO" defense to confuse Florida State's offensive line:
The aforementioned plays from early in the game have showed two key tendencies: 1) Notre Dame responds to base formations with pressure; and 2) the Irish are not confident enough in their coverage players to bring the same kind of pressure against spread formations consistently, tending towards a three-man rush with eight coverage players so as to protect against the big play.
This makes sense, as it is much easier to disguise defenses and bring pressure against the I-Formation and traditional 21 personnel because the defense is more closely bunched together. Spread formations, however, make it more difficult to disguise and forces the defense to show its hand earlier, since coverage players spread out to cover the receivers and make it very difficult to mask which player is responsible for what.
It is worth noting how low the play clock is on each of the above plays, as Notre Dame is able to "game" the young offensive line by shifting late and disguising its fronts to create confusion. This was especially true after timeouts or penalties, as several of Notre Dame's biggest defensive plays early in the game came immediately after a break in the action, when the Irish had extra time to draw up something exotic.
The FSU staff noted these tendencies and made the necessary adjustments. They moved to a quicker-tempo spread look. By moving to spread formations, Florida State effectively simplified what Notre Dame could do and made it easier for the young linemen to communicate and execute their assignments. Shifting to a quicker tempo also made it more difficult for Notre Dame to do any late shifting or disguising, as the defenders would simply get caught out of position with a quicker snap. To top it off, with Manuel at QB, the Domers still needed to honor the run threat, even out of empty-backfield sets.
Here are a few examples from later in the game:
Note that the FSU offense has gone to a five-wide formation, forcing Notre Dame to spread its defense to match up across the field -- as it showed it would do in the first half. The ball is also snapped with 17 seconds left on the play clock:
On Rashad Greene's go-ahead touchdown catch, note that the offense is again in a spread formation (four wide) and snapping the ball quickly (14 seconds left on the play clock). The offense is again at an advantage here, as Notre Dame has been forced into a predictable look, which simplified the assignments and allowed the offense to dictate.
Adjusting to a quicker pace and sticking with spread packages helped simplify the game for the young offense, making it more difficult for the Irish defense to create confusion. It allowed Florida State's youthful talent to recognize and execute its assignments more quickly.
These adjustments, combined with the increasing comfort level of the young offensive line, helped make the second-half comeback possible.
Jason Staples was a walk-on wide receiver at Florida State in the early 2000s and is now a Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill.
The Chalkboard: 'Noles 18, Irish 14
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