When Charlie Weis first broke into the NFL, his teams figured out what they did best and that is what they did. But as the years went on, Weis and the coaches that he worked with started to pay more attention to what the defense did best and prepared specific game plans for different opponents.
"I'd say back in the early '90s maybe, you'd have a system, you'd draft people to fit that system and that's what you did," Weis said. "But the game has changed and at least the people I've been around have changed to try to be on the -- people say use the word "cutting edge" but try to be kind of a little ahead of the curve so that each week you come in, you still have your foundational plays, but now you're going to attack each opponent from a week-to-week basis. I think that maybe mid-'90s or so that came into play."
While Notre Dame changed their offensive identity in the second half of the Michigan State and now come out in multiple five-wide sets, the Irish have not scrapped the running game completely. Notre Dame now has the ability to come out in shotgun and throw the ball all around the field on one drive before coming back with a heavy run attack the next.
When Weis decided that he would no longer call plays he also left the designing of the game plans largely to his assistants, with offensive coordinator Mike Haywood as the chief architect. Haywood has coached at places that have used both philosophies, but has embraced Weis' opponent-specific approach.
"Every week is a different week depending upon what they do front-wise; depending on fronts, coverage; depending on the various blitzes which they run. We try to make sure that we match our protection through the various blitzes," Haywood said. "We carry a staple of protections every week and every once in a while if they give us something different, then we'll add a couple different protections."
Haywood coached at Texas before coming back to South Bend and the Longhorns have reached the number one spot by doing what they do best.
"You look at Texas which is having a great deal of success. Texas has a core of passes and a core of runs. You may get two or three different concepts a week or you may have core passes and you may run five of them one week. You may take out two and run another five or another three the next week" he said. "But they have a core and you get a lot of reps at those plays over and over again. When you watch Greg Davis plan, he does a tremendous job and the players understand and the quarterback, Colt McCoy, is throwing it at a higher percentage rate right now. He understands his reads no matter what the coverage is because he gets so many different reps of the same play over and over again."
But don't expect Notre Dame to change its approach of attacking defenses' weak spots. The ability to change modes, as Weis likes to say, keeps the defense off balance and gives the Irish staff the opportunity to stay a step ahead of the opposition.
PANTHERS POSE PROBLEMS WITH FRONT FOUR: As Charlie Weis mentioned in his press conference on Tuesday, Pittsburgh is 12th in the nation with an average of three sacks a game. What is surprising is how they are getting them, especially considering their defensive coordinator's history.
"Phil Bennett in the past has been a big blitz guy. However, he is a 22 percent blitz guy at this point in time. So you always have to be aware of his past," Haywood said. "Coach Wannstedt hasn't been a big blitz guy and with Coach Parmalee on his staff previously, we talk about those things from the past in their Miami days. We just have to prepare for the things we see on film and also some things which Coach Bennett has done in the past from his days at LSU, K. State, and SMU.
"They're getting pressure from the front four guys. Those front four guys are really good and they do a great job of putting pressure on the quarterback so you don't have to blitz as much."
The Notre Dame offensive line is aware of the production that the Panthers are getting from their defensive line.
"They're pretty good. We've watched them on film, they have a great d-line and some good linebackers," center Dan Wenger said. "It'll be a tough game, we're working hard, we're obviously going to be ready for them and anything that they bring to us. We're going to be fighting hard."
"Their front four are good," left tackle Mike Turkovich said. "We have to play on top of our game this week because the game is going to be won in the trenches."
WENGER, TURK STEP UP: The improvements of Wenger and Turkovich are two of the reasons for Notre Dame's offensive line.
Wenger is in his first year as a full-time starter and, as the center, is responsible for making all of the line calls.
"First of all, he's done a nice job managing the offensive line, because the guy up front is still the quarterback of the offensive line," said Weis. "Even though he doesn't have the responsibilities like we put on (John Sullivan) last year to make all the Mike calls, because Jimmy handles that now. He still coordinates the calls up front. He's done a nice job because we've been going in and out of a lot of modes from shotgun to underneath, from empty to not empty. And he's handled those things, knock on wood, but he's handled those things very well to this point."
Wenger started the final two games of 2007 in place of an injured Sullivan and said that was when he really started to understand what was going on.
"Probably last year really in the Duke game," he said. "Having learned from Sully, having been in and out of playing center during practice and getting some reps there and having to call the Mike ID's myself and other line calls. It's a lot easier for me this year, having gained that experience."
Meanwhile, the surprisingly solid play of Turkovich at left tackle along with the maturation of Young at right tackle have made it possible for the Irish to open up the field and throw the ball out of five-wide formations.
"We haven't had to spend a lot of time giving a lot of extra help with either of these tackles, which has allowed us to spread out more on offense than you saw us at any time last year," Weis said. "Because they've been able to hold their own pretty much one-on-one out there."
While Young was penciled in to his spot at the right side, the left side was up in the air until Turkovich grabbed it.
"This year, as you looked at our depth chart and you looked at, ‘Well, Sam's going to start at right tackle, and it looks like Chris (Stewart) is going to start at right guard and Wenger is going to start at center. And looks like (Eric) Olsen is going to start at left guard,'" Weis said. "Well, the only position you really had a spot was left tackle. So what we did was we put him out there together with Paul (Duncan). And Paul got a little banged up. And then Matt (Romine) was out there. He was a little banged up, too. So we really needed, we really needed Turk to step up and play and what he's been able to do."
But Turkovich's play has not surprised everyone.
"I have high goals for myself so I really wasn't surprised," he said. "I think the reason that I've gotten better is because like Coach Weis said earlier in the season, it's a confidence thing. I've seen myself do it in the games and I believe that I can do it now, every time. That's the major change from last year to this year."
CONSISTENCY KEEPS LINE GOING: In 2007, Notre Dame started five different combinations along the offensive line. Through seven games this year, the lineup has been the same every time out and that helps.
"You start to develop some continuity. And that's one thing with an offensive line, the more continuity you have, it usually means the play will continue to improve," Weis said. "That doesn't mean you can't get some guys in there like we've gotten Trevor (Robinson) more and more reps as time has gone on. At least he's being eased in there instead of thrown in there. And I think that we've been, the offensive line has led to a lot less mental errors and a lot more continuity with the offensive linemen."
Young has been impressed with Notre Dame's ability to plug in the next guy and not lose anything.
"Even beyond the top five, you've got Trevor working in, he kind of fit seamlessly. When Romine had to come in, when (Taylor) Dever had to come in, you didn't really see a break in the line," he said. "Being able to get up to the line and know what the guy next to you is going to be able to do without necessarily making a call. We've gotten to that point. We've got that trust from right tackle down to left tackle and even with the tight ends now. The continuity is remarkable."
Turkovich has noticed the difference too.
"Continuity is everything on the offensive line. Offensive line isn't five individuals, it's one group," Turkovich said. "Playing next to Eric, I know what he's thinking, I know what he's going to do, I can trust him. If the defensive lineman twists, I can trust him that he's going to be there and he's going to see it."
BOWL ELIGIBILITY NOT FIRST CONCERN: A win this week would give the Irish six on the season and officially make them eligible to play in a bowl game, but Weis does not want them looking ahead.
"I only talk about the game that we're playing. But I do tell them the magnitude of each game and I really try to cut it down into the basics," he said. "But it's like this: They want to be a top 25 team. You've got to beat the good teams that are on your schedule. I mean, it's really pretty simple. So you've got a team like this coming in here that's a nice solid team that's coming in and playing at home. You've got to beat them. And we'll worry about BC, we'll worry about them next week."
Weis does not feel the need to explain the importance of six wins because his players understand that already.
"Basically, the way I look at it, they already know that. The players, I give them enough common sense to realize that the magnitude, if they win this one -- they already know they're in. I'd like them to be thinking along the lines, let's beat Pittsburgh and then we'll worry about Boston College and let's beat Boston College then we'll worry about Navy," he said. "I like to stay the course, but they know the ramifications of each game. And one thing is being bowl eligible and the other one is how good a bowl. So one thing is just getting in, getting in the tournament. And the other one is how high are you going to get seeded.
"So I think that first things first, you want to get in where you know you're going to go somewhere. Right now I'm just playing one game at a time to try to get as many of those W's as you can to put yourself in the best position come the end of the year."
WEIS RECALLS FIRST COLLEGE CRITIC: Pittsburgh was the first team that Weis faced as head coach of Notre Dame and when he thinks back on it, he thinks about his first dose of criticism, which oddly enough came from someone in his own house.
As he was walking off the field his son, Charlie Jr., delivered the first critique of the head coach.
"I forget exactly the verbiage, but it was something like ‘Nice game, dad. Crummy second half, huh?' And here I'm feeling pretty good first game as a head coach, feeling pretty good about myself," he said. "We were walking off the field and he goes, ‘Nice game, dad.' He goes, ‘Crummy second half, huh?' I said let the naysayers and second-guessers begin. He's the leader of the pack."