Eye in the Sky: Offense

Notre Dame unholstered its Pistol offense 21 times during Saturday's competitive first three quarters. What was the new formation's success rate? That and much more is covered in Part 1 of our first Eye in the Sky film review of 2013.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly once offered he preferred to "attack a defense with formations."

That tactic was present in spades Saturday afternoon in South Bend in a 536-yard effort, one augmented by the 2013 offense's new wrinkle, the *Pistol formation.

(*The Pistol draws its name from the mainstream shotgun formation that shows a quarterback five or more yards off the line of scrimmage, usually with a running back aligned alongside him. The Pistol brings the quarterback a bit closer to the line -- no more than 4 yards -- with the running back instead aligned (closely) behind him.)

Kelly and the Irish wasted no time employing their new set, and it accounted for 77 combined yards and a touchdown on Notre Dame's first and third play from scrimmage:

Opening Run, Amir Carlisle: From a 3-Wide formation (and Pistol backfield), Amir Carlisle gained 45 yards to the field side as detached tight end Troy Niklas shielded a run blitz defender to the outside (successful block #1) while Zack Martin initially secured his assigned defensive end inside (#2), to open the initial hole for Carlisle, who showed great initial quickness through the first two levels of defense.

A slotted C.J. Prosise ensured Carlisle a huge lane with a crack-back block to aid Martin late (#3) -- Not a bad way to kick off your college career by Prosise and a heck of a debut run as a Golden Domer for Carlisle.

The most impressive block on the play might have been #4, by sophomore Chris Brown (lined up wide to the field). His execution in space vs. the Temple cornerback turned a 12-to 15-yard gain by Carlisle into an open alley down the sideline and eventual 45-yard pickup…

Two snaps later…

Rees to Daniels, Part I: Again from a 3-Wide formation and a Pistol backfield, Rees hits DaVaris Daniels (aligned solo to the boundary or "W" receiver spot) on an easy post-route, 32 yards down the pipes vs. single coverage for score. Credit right guard Christian Lombard for holding his block for more than four full seconds, and to Niklas, whose short crossing route occupied both the outside 'backer and safety aligned to Daniels' boundary side. With no safety to help deep, it was easy pickings for Rees and Daniels down the middle.

Kelly and the Irish offense utilized the Pistol 21 times during the game's competitive first three quarters. 10 of those 21 snaps accounted for either short-yardage first-down conversions, or big plays in the running (10+ yards) or passing game (15+).

Fire Away

The Pistol formation provided the following key plays over the first three quarters in addition to the two detailed above:

- A 51-yard bubble screen catch-and-run to T.J. Jones (aligned as an old-school slot-back in triple-option lexicon) in which detached tight end Troy Niklas and X wide receiver Daniel Smith murdered their assigned defenders in space. Jones gained 26 yards after initial contact…

- A 26-yard crossing route to Jones from right to left; 12 yards gained after the catch thanks to a perfect throw leading Jones by Rees...

- Two runs by Cam McDaniel, one for 18 yards made possible by McDaniels' in-line vision and cutting ability, then a 16-yarder to the Temple 2-yard line thanks to a nice seal outside by first-time starter Ronnie Stanley

- A 17-yard bubble pass to Jones, again with Jones as a slot-back and Niklas and Daniels again winning their blocks

- A 14-yard run by George Atkinson; a 3rd and 1 conversion run of 4 yards by Atkinson, and later, Atkinson's 2-yard touchdown plunge…

- ND enjoyed additional gains of 5, 9, 6, 3 (on 3rd and 1), 5, and 5 yards, plus minimal gains of 3, 3, 3, 1, and 3 yards (that did not end in first downs).

Under Center and Under Control

Notre Dame's two non-Pistol touchdowns both came through the air and from disparate formations.

Rees to Daniels, Part II: From a two tight end, max protection formation, Rees took the snap from center, faked a hand-off, and unleashed a beautiful post-corner route to Daniels for the pair's second 32-yard score of the opening quarter. It was passing football at its simplest: beat the corner once to the post for a score; come back a few snaps later and take him to the post before breaking back to the corner.

Niklas' 66-yard score to end the half: From an empty backfield and 4-Wide set, Niklas, attached to scrimmage, ran down the seam untouched as a result of miscommunication (at least according to Temple head coach Matt Rhule who noted the middle linebacker was not at fault as it appeared). The 6'6" 270-pound Irish tight end then did a nice job of maintaining his feet after an initial hit to sprint the rest of the way untouched.

Niklas spoke two weeks ago about needing to better engage the middle linebacker on his attached routes. He took that practice field preparation to game day on the play and reaped the benefits. The score should be a confidence builder for Niklas, and as important, one from which the Irish can now employ an adjustment to this play over the next couple of weeks vs. a trio of Big 10 foes…

Targets Acquired

A look at Notre Dame's 27 pass attempts Saturday shows the following intended targets:

  • T.J. Jones: 8, with 6 receptions and 138 yards
  • DaVaris Daniels: 5, with three receptions, two going for scores
  • Chris Brown: 4, with three receptions including a leaping 33-yarder on third-and-short
  • Troy Niklas: 2, including a 66-yard TD, plus one missed rather badly after Niklas was re-routed
  • Will Fuller: 2, still awaits his first collegiate catch
  • Amir Carlisle, 2, both short, for just five total yards (including one for -1)
  • 1 apiece: George Atkinson (complete for 14), Tarean Folston (9 to convert on 3rd and 5), and a trio of incomplete throws to Greg Bryant and C.J. Prosise

Pre-snap Looks

Notre Dame enjoyed only 62 snaps vs. the Owls (Temple fired off 76). Offensive coordinator Chuck Martin showed myriad looks and personnel groupings over those 62 opportunities:

Note: Usage of the Pistol along with the personnel groupings is indicated in parenthesis throughout:

First Quarter:

  • 3-Wide Receivers: 9 snaps (4). Rees took two snaps from under center as well.
  • 3-Wide Receivers + Niklas detached: 2 snaps (1). On one of the snaps, Jones was a slot-back
  • 4-Wide Receivers (including Niklas): 2 snaps (1)
  • Empty Backfield (4-wide + Nikas attached): 2 snaps (0)
  • 2 Tight Ends + 2 WRs unbalanced to the left side: 1 snap (1)

2nd Quarter: Just four of the 12 snaps included the Pistol backfield but Notre Dame enjoyed its most productive quarter, compiling 207 yards on 14 snaps (66 on the TD pass to Niklas).

  • 3-Wide Receivers: 6 snaps (4)
  • 3-Wide Receivers + Niklas detached: 2 snaps
  • 4-Wide Receivers (including Niklas): 2 snaps
  • Empty Backfield (4-wide + Nikas attached): 2 snaps

3rd Quarter: 10 of 14 snaps featured a Pistol backfield including five with an unbalanced line. Those five snaps provided 38 yards including a 2-yard touchdown and gains of 14 and 16 yards...

  • 3-Wide Receivers: 7 snaps (5)
  • 2 Tight Ends + 2 WRs unbalanced to the left side: 5 (5)
  • 2 Tight Ends + 2 WR Balanced Line: 2

4th Quarter: Of Notre Dame's 12 final snaps, 11 came from 3-WR sets...

  • 3-Wide Receivers: 12 snaps (6)
  • 2 Tight Ends + 2 WRs unbalanced left: 3 (3)
  • 4-Wide Recivers: 2 (0)
  • Empty Backfield (4-wide + Niklas attached): 1 (0)
  • 3-Wide Receivers + Niklas detached: 1 (0)

Note: Part II of our Eye in the Sky review will be comprised only of observations regarding Notre Dame's offense following Monday's film session...

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