Notre Dame turned in its most complete offensive performance of the 2013 season last Saturday night in a 37-34 win over No. 22 Arizona State at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The Irish gained over 450 yards, allowed no sacks and committed just one turnover.
How did the Irish succeed against an attacking Sun Devils defense that has yet to find a blitz it doesn't like? Let's look at the various formations the Fighting Irish used against it.
First, some background information. Notre Dame runs plays almost exclusively out of either the shotgun or pistol formation. The pistol differs from the classic shotgun in that, while the quarterback is not under center, a running back is lined up behind the quarterback.
Personnel groupings are identified by two-digit numbers such as "12" (one running back and two tight ends), "11" (one running back and one tight end) or "21" (two running backs and one tight end). With 12 and 21 personnel, there are two wide receivers. With 11, there are three. Make sense? OK.
Run vs. Pass
It doesn't take a playoff selection committee member to know that Notre Dame installed the pistol offense this offseason to boost its rushing attack. From rewatching the Arizona State game, however, it was noticeable just how infrequently the Irish threw the ball out of the pistol.
Conversely, the Irish passed out of the shotgun at nearly a 4-1 ratio. Of course, the empty set (no running backs), a Brian Kelly staple, is going to be strictly a passing formation with a quarterback like Tommy Rees. The history of Rees as a runner pretty much amounts to one touchdown on a designed quarterback draw in the 2012 Michigan game.
While not having a running back to help block can be risky, Kelly likes the luxury of having an additional pass option that the empty set provides. The Irish will run this formation with either three wide receivers and two tight ends or four wide receivers and one tight end.
With no threat of a run, this formation obviously requires Notre Dame to tip its hand before the snap. The Irish ran 20 plays out of this formation with Rees (and one with Andrew Hendrix), getting mixed results.
As evident in the completion-distance breakdown, the Irish are getting a lot of "chunk" plays out of the empty set, with four receptions of at least 20 yards last Saturday night. Rees' completion percentage has been low all season, as expected when the defense knows a pass is coming, but his yards-per-completion average against Arizona State was an impressive 19.0.
What constitutes an unbalanced formation can be murky. For the sake of this discussion, an unbalanced formation refers to the Irish lining up both tight ends on the same side of the ball.
When Notre Dame plays two tight ends, as it does frequently with Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack, they can either be on opposite sides of the ball or on the same side (duh), with Koyack generally slightly off of the line scrimmage when the formation is unbalanced.
This is a run-heavy formation, with the Irish throwing just once out of it Saturday night. On 15 carries, Notre Dame managed 76 yards, a respectable 5.1 yards per carry.
The more interesting result from Saturday night was the effectiveness of Cam McDaniel in it compared to George Atkinson III.
From a second viewing of the game, it was somewhat alarming to see the severity of the run/pass split out of the pistol formation. Rees completed two of his three pass attempts from the pistol, one going for a 19-yard touchdown to a wide-open Koyack.
There is a play-action element to the pistol due to the ability to carry out the fake much faster than with the quarterback under center. While a more mobile Everett Golson, who is better at throwing on the run than Rees, would be a better fit, I'd like to see Notre Dame throw more than 14 percent of the time out of the pistol.
Atkinson received eight of nine carries out of the shotgun, two going for at least nine yards. This is a testament to Atkinson's ability to change directions, a crucial element when running out of the shotgun and not already being in motion when receiving the ball.
The unbalanced formation allows Notre Dame to utilize its dominant left side of the line. Adding Niklas and Koyack to tackle Zack Martin and guard Chris Watt is an extremely difficult matchup for opposing defenses without significant backside pressure.
Notre Dame's offense was about as predictable as you can get on Saturday night. That's not necessarily a bad thing, especially with the Irish controlling the line of scrimmage against an overmatched Arizona State front seven. However, while Tommy Rees' physical attributes limit the capabilities of this offense, there is room for more diversity than what we saw Saturday night in Texas.