Opening Drive Success

It's easy to see why Charlie Weis likes to win the coin toss and elect to receive. The second-year Notre Dame coach is antsy to put points on the board right away. And whatever the game plan is for that particular week, he usually does.

In the 14-game Weis era, the Notre Dame offense has seven touchdowns and one field goal on opening drives. If they didn't get it done on the initial series, three times the Irish scored on their second possession. That number would be four but D.J. Fitzpatrick missed a field goal against Syracuse last season.

The Irish have gone three and out just twice.

Now the game isn't won in the opening quarter, but taking an early lead can dictate how you play the rest of the game. In what's expected to be a very close contest on Saturday against No. 11 Michigan, scoring first could make all the difference for the second-ranked Irish.

"We always go into the game being in the more aggressive mode offensively," Weis said. "I always try to dictate what we are going to do at least for a drive or two, and I'm not talking about no-huddle like we did last week, I'm just saying in all the formations and adjustments, we go and try and figure out what they're going to do. Once you figure out what they've decided what they're going to try and shut down, try to figure out how to attempt to exploit them."

Last year in Ann Arbor, quarterback Brady Quinn hit Rhema McKnight for a 5-yard score and a 7-0 lead over the Wolverines. With the defense playing well and Michigan constantly shooting themselves in the foot, Weis was able to play keep away all afternoon in a 17-10 victory. Without that opening touchdown, the game would have taken on a different identity.

Confidence soars when converting on the first possession, especially Quinn's. The senior signal-caller tossed six opening-drive touchdown passes last season to get himself and the Irish going. The defense loosened up for running back Darius Walker and company, while Quinn continued to pick teams apart all year.

Though the offense always arrived with a swagger that they could score on anybody, this confirmed things early. It also sucks the air out of the defense.

Weis will come at defenses in a different ways to open up, but exploiting the weakness right away. He has been known to come out in the hurry-up offense like he did against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl and Penn State last Saturday. Or he might methodically grind the ball down the field with short passes into the anticipated hole of the zone.

Five times the Irish took a 7-0 lead on the first drive, but scoring quickly can also weather the storm. One example was the Pittsburgh game last year.

In the opener of the Weis regime, No. 23 Pittsburgh scored quickly on a 39-yard reception by Greg Lee and Heinz Field was rocking. Unranked Notre Dame came right back with an answer in the form of a Walker 51-yard catch and run for the tying touchdown. The Irish scored on five of their first six possessions and the game was over by intermission.

That drive might have sparked a season.

In both games this season Notre Dame has received to open the game. Penalties prevented the Irish from reaching pay dirt on both drives, but ND salvaged three points against Penn State.

Against Georgia Tech the Irish won the toss. It was clear Weis was going to beat the zone blitz by running outside and throwing screens to the slot receiver trying to open up one-on-one situations. Two false-start penalties killed the drive.

Weis knew what he was going to do all week on the opening series against Penn State. He realized the offense needed a pick up after a sub-par performance against the Yellow Jackets. He also wasn't sure what the Nittany Lions were going to do defensively, thinking they hadn't shown their hand against Akron the week before. So he went with the no-huddle and the team started preparing right away.

"On offense, we usually practice no huddle on the second day of the week as well," Weis said. "This week was a little different because we practiced it on the first day because we knew we were going to open up the game that way. It was a bigger part of the game plan than just normal."

A drive-killing holding penalty forced Notre Dame into a field goal, but the series still set the tone for the game. The Nittany Lions were on their heals all afternoon.

The only time the opening drive is scripted is when the Irish come out no-huddle. If the team is huddled, Weis calls the play based on what hash mark the ball is on, what the defense is and what the end result of the last play was. When Weis does script things, he said he puts together 15-21 plays.

Sometimes Weis knows what he wants to do early in the week on the first drive, and other times it takes him until Friday to figure it out.

"I like to have all our practices done for the week before I make a final decision what we're doing," he said. "So Friday morning about five or so is when I start writing openers, get the call-sheet all set so it can be all laminated by our nine o clock staff meeting." Top Stories