STOPPING THE TRIPLE OPTION
Of Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson, NBC analyst Doug Flutie said the following as it related to his attitude toward his spread-option offense.
“There is a quiet confidence about him,” Flutie said. “He feels he has an answer to anything you do defensively.”
Saturday afternoon in Notre Dame Stadium, Johnson ran out of answers. Brian VanGorder, with the help of special assistant Bob Elliott, defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, linebackers coach Mike Elston and secondary coach Todd Lyght, came up with a game plan that stymied Johnson, quarterback Justin Thomas and an offensive line that returned four starting linemen from 2014 and was considered a strength.
Late in the NBC broadcast, play-by-play man Dan Hicks and Flutie mentioned a comment that Johnson made to them in their Friday briefing.
“Physical superiority beats theory,” Johnson said.
A combination of physical superiority and a game plan that thwarted Johnson at every turn made this a one-sided game. Even as the Yellow Jackets managed to hang around on the scoreboard, there was a feeling throughout this game, particularly once the Irish took a two-score lead (16-7) early in the third quarter, that Georgia Tech simply did not have nearly enough offense to overcome the Irish.
The first clue: Thomas calling a timeout on the third play of the game and then calling two more timeouts within a four-play sequence in the second half. Notre Dame gave Thomas looks that he didn’t know how to deal with from start to finish.
We wondered during the week just what the Irish would do against Georgia Tech. On one hand, VanGorder thrives on giving opposing offenses different looks. Yet against the Yellow Jackets, just finding a pre-snap alignment that the players could feel comfortable with is the starting point. Fortunately, the Irish had nine months to take a good, long look at triple-option offense and came up with a plan that is a blueprint for the future.
“If you can change up the read key for the quarterback post-snap, after the ball comes out, or after (the quarterback’s) hands are under center, that’s a good thing,” Kelly said two days before the game. “But it requires you to have different and moving responsibilities.
“Is it better to be in one defense and get that down? Or do you want to move around and there’s a chance that you’re maybe not as strong assignment-wise? I think you have to do both. But I think first and foremost you have to have a base and you have to operate out of that base.”
Notre Dame’s base was a three-down lineman front predominately comprised of Sheldon Day, Jerry Tillery and Isaac Rochell. When Tillery and Daniel Cage were out, Rochell was in the middle. The Irish used a four-linebacker look (Jaylon Smith, James Onwualu, Joe Schmidt and Greer Martini) with a fifth player – Drue Tranquill at first and then Matthias Farley – creeping up as another linebacker, or a safety on the second level.
Cornerbacks KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke played man coverage on the outside and Elijah Shumate played the single safety when Tranquill wasn’t dropping back to give a two-safety look.
The Irish tried other looks. The one that failed was a 5-2 alignment that VanGorder got out of in short order after a four-play, 80-yard drive. There were some four-man fronts, some three down with Romeo Okwara in a two-point stance off the edge. There was a ton of pre-snap movement, and just as Thomas was getting locked in, some of that pre-snap movement led to serious confusion for the Georgia Tech quarterback.
Schmidt and Martini had anything that happened between the tackles, which generally was fullback Patrick Skov (Georgia Tech calls him the B-back). Schmidt and Martini tried to scrape/exchange on the quarterback. If one had the fullback, the other scraped to the quarterback. Shumate was in a good position to slide up and be responsible for the quarterback if Schmidt and/or Martini couldn’t fill the spot amidst the clutter.
When Matthias Farley replaced Tranquill and aligned on the same side as Jaylon Smith, Smith had the quarterback and Farley had the pitch man. When Tranquill and Smith were lined up on opposite sides, they had the pitch man on their respective sides.
If Okwara was in the lineup and Thomas ran the play to his side, Okwara had the quarterback from his stand-up position. Shumate worked in tandem with Smith on one side and Tranquill on the other. If Smith or Tranquill couldn’t get to the pitch man, Smith stayed on the quarterback and Shumate took the pitch man.
When afforded the opportunity, the cornerbacks pinched the action inside and/or came up and supported the run on the edge.
There was a correction for every potential mismatch, and by each player staying disciplined to his responsibility on that particular play, it made it difficult for Georgia Tech to string together successful plays.
It’s strange because to non-football coaches, it seems incongruous that the acceptable give in a triple-option attack is on the perimeter where those guys regularly average seven, eight , nine yards per carry.
Fullbacks Patrick Skov and Marcus Marshall combined for 19 carries totaling 66 yards (3.4) while Thomas – with his 14 lost yards – averaged just 2.5 yards per his 11 carries. Nearly 57 percent of Georgia Tech’s 216 yards rushing came from the A-backs (wingbacks), and that was 123 yards on 17 carries (7.2), which isn’t bad considering the effectiveness of the position. And again, on 16 of those 17 carries, the A-backs gained just 75 yards.
Tranquill played a brilliant first half. Martini – when limited to confined spaces and asked to play a specific role– is an effective football player (unless he’s simply overwhelmed by size as he was against USC last year). He also was used as a disruptive force to attack the lead blocker, thus jamming Thomas, who was then forced to pitch. By and large, Notre Dame had that covered too.
“Notre Dame’s defense shifted strong and knew Georgia Tech would audible to go weak side, and before they even snapped the ball, (Notre Dame was) running that way to the pitch,” Flutie said.
Jaylon Smith, per usual, played the role of Spiderman. Schmidt knew what he had to do in order to help execute the defense and played well. Onwualu is an effective player when he’s stationed on the inside of a four-linebacker look. Sometimes his job was to serve as lead battering ram on the Georgia Tech offensive line, as it was on occasion with Martini.
Even more problematic for Thomas was deciphering Notre Dame’s defense in 3rd-and-long situations. Obviously, the Yellow Jackets are not as experienced in reading pass coverages. One time Thomas came out of a timeout facing a 3rd-and-8 and still did not know what adjustment to make.
Of course for the Irish, it started up front. Day and Rochell quickly have become consistently effective, dominant forces. Neither gets moved off the football, and Day is defensive-end quick, which is why he’s been utilized as a three-down and a four-down end.
The most disappointing drive – the four-play, 80-yarder in that 5-2 look -- came after the Kizer interception in the second quarter. A-back Broderick Snoddy’s 48-yard run was littered with missed assignments. A-back Clinton Lynch blocked Shumate on perimeter and Schmidt was absolutely run out of the play by 6-foot-3, 307-pound right tackle Errin Joe. Okwara added insult to injury with shot in the back of Thomas.
Paul Johnson fought back in the second half with a series of counter-options as Thomas would take the snap, make a move to run the play to one side, and then reverse field. (Actually, it’s a bit surprising that Johnson didn’t make this adjustment in the first half.)
A Farley-Jaylon Smith collaboration caused a fumble that ended Georgia Tech’s first drive of the third quarter, but then the Yellow Jackets went on an 11-play, 43-yard drive that nearly ended in a 23-yard touchdown run by Thomas that would have made it a 16-14 game. But Errin Joe clearly held Day, the play was called back, and Georgia Tech lost the ball on downs when Thomas threw incomplete on 3rd-and-16 and 4th-and-16.
Johnson finally got around to isolating an A-back on Jaylon Smith downfield. So what does Smith do? He sprints downfield and picks up a couple of passes broken up.
It was a brilliant performance by VanGorder and his troops, and a blueprint for the future.
“Moving forward, as we see that the option is going to be something that we see each and every year, I wanted something that definitely could be duplicated and replicated from year-to year,” said Kelly the day after the Georgia Tech win.
“The way we play it is something that I want to continue to do, and we don’t have to have such a huge adjustment each year with our defense. I think we may have found the right kind of balance with the way we’re teaching our kids.”
As the pieces keep getting peeled away defensively – first Shaun Crawford, then Jarron Jones, then Avery Sebastian and now Drue Tranquill – the Irish could use more answers and fewer questions. Perhaps freshman defensive lineman Jerry Tillery replaced a question with an answer against Georgia Tech.
Tillery was supposed to be Jones’ successor in the starting lineup heading into the season, but in the two weeks after the open practices to the media, sophomore Daniel Cage beat out Tillery.
Cage and Tillery both played fairly effectively (and fairly inconsistently) in the first two games of the season against Texas and Virginia. Brian VanGorder and Irish players alike commended Tillery for not playing like a true freshman in his first game against the Longhorns.
Cage is better than he was last year, but he doesn’t consistently take advantage of his size and strength. Stamina and work volume remain an issue.
Maybe the Georgia Tech game is the one that gets Tillery going because this was a notable performance against a veteran left-guard/center combination. His length is a real asset, as is the great use of his hands. He’s quick and his pad level – starting with an excellent three-point stance – is very good. He was more effective than his three-tackle total indicates. He was disruptive enough to add to the confusion of the Georgia Tech offense, beginning with Justin Thomas.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if Tillery moved into the starting lineup against conventional offenses – particularly one that throws as frequently as UMass – and stays there for good. Cage remains the third best option at the nose behind Tillery and Rochell when he slips inside.
DESHONE KIZER’S FIRST START
It’s funny how our perspective on players varies from week to week. On Sept. 12, we thought of DeShone Kizer as a young, inexperienced, nervous, shaky presence at quarterback who converted a 4th-and-2 in Notre Dame’s last drive, gained some confidence, and then threw the game-winning touchdown pass to Will Fuller.
On Sept. 19, a mature, confident, optimistic DeShone Kizer started his first game for the Irish and led Notre Dame to what was a comfortable victory for the first 59 minutes.
He completed 21-of-30 passes for 242 yards with a 46-yard touchdown pass to Will Fuller and an interception in the end zone that prevented the Irish from taking a two-touchdown lead in the first half.
His rushing stats said five carries for 17 yards gained, 11 yards lost, and six yards net. But he had a 13-yard run off the drop-back where he showed a nice burst toward the sideline to his left. He also had a 14-yard run midway through the fourth quarter on the read-option that was negated by a Ronnie Stanley hold.
Kizer was sacked once. He also took a chance by trying to throw the ball away as he was getting yanked to the turf. Perhaps there are some instances where an incomplete pass is the more prudent alternative than scrambling further behind the line of scrimmage.
Kizer and the offensive line – particularly Stanley – had trouble with the rookie quarterback’s “elongated cadence” when Georgia Tech shifted and showed the threat of pressure.
“I know we can get that corrected for next week,” said Brian Kelly Sunday.
Kizer’s interception in the end zone could have proved critical for Notre Dame. They were up 7-0 at the time (midway through the second quarter), and Georgia Tech converted that into momentum with a game-tying four-play, 80-yard drive.
There were low throws to C.J. Prosise, Chris Brown and Torii Hunter Jr. (who made a nice diving catch across the middle). But again, the perception of Kizer’s accuracy after the Georgia Tech game is that it is much better than he showed through those first 12 shaky plays against Virginia.
Doug Flutie offered insight and a nice explanation of Kelly’s interpretation of why some of Kizer’s passes land at the feet of his receivers. Kelly said that Kizer gets “stuck on his back foot, heavy on his back foot, and doesn’t get weight going forward enough.”
Fortunately for Kizer – and every other signalcaller that takes a snap with Will Fuller on the field – he has the ultimate bailout receiver. The 46-yard touchdown pass to Fuller was a beautifully-designed play that left strong safety Jamal Golden in a real trick bag. It was an especially fortuitous play because the Irish were facing a 3rd-and-20.
Fuller went on a straight streak up the sideline and cornerback Chris Milton immediately was caught in a catch-up situation. The pass was into about a 15-mile-per-hour wind and it hung up a bit. Fuller benefitted from the fact that it was underthrown and Milton was so concerned about keeping up that he couldn’t get his body turned until Fuller had elevated and pulled it in.
Golden had two choices and both were bad. He could stay with the receiver to Fuller’s left – Torii Hunter, Jr. coming up the right seam after nickel Lawrence Austin, playing zone coverage underneath, released Hunter – or Golden could keep sliding to his left to help Milton.
Golden chose to stay with Hunter, which really was the only thing he could do, otherwise Hunter would have been wide open for an even easier pitch-and-catch for the touchdown. Free safety Demond Smith was preoccupied with Corey Robinson, who was running what looked like a post on the other side of the field. There was no way Demond Smith could catch up to Torii Hunter if Jamal Golden had indeed chosen to help Chris Milton on Fuller.
Kizer has a good presence in the pocket, knows how to move within the pocket, buy time and keep the pass play alive downfield. He knows how to let certain plays unfold, allow the pass rush to come to him, and then make the throw. There’s a very natural feel for the passing game as it pertains to movement behind the line of scrimmage. (Frank Stams, in our Captain’s Corner, compared him to Ben Roethlisberger, which I thought was a pretty good snap judgment call between quarterbacks of similar stature.)
He made the wrong decision on a second-quarter read-option keeper. He probably should have had his first rushing touchdown on the play before Prosise’s one-yard plunge, but the refs refused to call it.
All told, it was an extremely impressive first start. Let’s see if he can build upon that against a more vulnerable UMass, followed by the ultimate test at Clemson at night.
BRACKETING AND HOW TO BEAT IT
When a receiver is “bracketed” as Corey Robinson was on Kizer’s interception, the cornerback (D.J. White) suspects a fade to the corner of the end zone and takes the high side in the coverage. So as Robinson made his initial move, White overplayed it to the corner, taking away the fade.
Robinson appeared to recognize what White was doing, so he turned back inside. Kizer needed to recognize how White was playing Robinson, but it was a quick shift of the feet after receiving the shotgun snap and throw. It’s a snap decision, and by the time Kizer realized what he’d done, it was a split-second too late. Kizer threw the fade, and once Robinson cut off his route, it was easy pickings for White.
The bracket – the defense’s answer to the fade route -- was formed by free safety Demond Smith, so even if Kizer adjusted to White’s maneuver, he still would have run the risk of Smith sliding over and making a play on the ball.
When a defense forms bracket coverage, it’s a pretty small window for the quarterback and receiver. You better throw that ball with some authority ahead of the converging free safety. It’s a play that can be made because a window has been formed in that bracket by White playing the high side of Robinson and Demond Smith using a deceptively late break to converge on Robinson from the back side.
It’s tight, but there’s enough room for a quick-reacting Kizer to squeeze the ball in for a score. Another lesson learned for the young quarterback.