Introducing the new and improved Irish rushing attack
One thing that I was glad to see from Notre Dame this past Saturday was how many times the Irish a) ran on 2nd-and-5 and on 3rd-and-2 or -3 or -4 and b) how many times they converted (which was most of the time). This is good news for those who have been hoping that ND would establish an effective running game; the bad news is that its not the style of running game they were likely hoping for. In short, it's a modern pro-style running game, as opposed as the power running game that Irish had under Holtz, the two-back pro attack Devine ran (at a time when most pro teams also used the I or a two-back set), or the misdirection-laden attack (with plenty of muscle, to be sure) that Parseghian ran.
No one in pro football today runs a power running game - not in an era where 300+ pound defensive tackles and 280 pound defensive ends have become somewhat commonplace. While it's true that pro offensive linemen average somewhere in the 310-340 range, and usually outweigh the defensive linemen lining across from them by 20-30 pounds, this provides a weight advantage of less than 10%; while a fellow weighing 190 will routinely overpower one weighing 165, once you get above 300 pounds, a 20-30 pound advantage doesn't count for a whole lot.
So, in pro football today, just lining up and trying to run over the opposing defense is not going to get you very far. Therefore, the modern pro running attack relies on the offensive line - instead of firing out and moving guys backwards - using footwork, technique, and body control to move defensive linemen sideways, left or right, thereby creating lanes for a running back to zip through. And when I say "zip", I mean "zip": these lanes open and close pretty quickly, and the back needs to be patient, have good vision, and then accelerate quickly through a lane when it opens. Due to the quickness in which these lanes open and close, in this attack - whether or not the ball carrier is to choose a lane to run through (i.e. the play does not require him to go through a specific lane to be opened) - a fullback becomes obsolete: as a ballcarrier, he likely is not the type of back who is going to "zip" anywhere; as a lead blocker, he would only get in the way of the ballcarrier trying to identify and then zip through a lane before it closed up.
As a result of the above, the rosters and training regimens of pro football teams have changed in small but detectable ways. First of all, teams now usually only keep two fullbacks on their roster (for short yardage situations and for extra pass protection; they rarely carry the ball) instead of the three that was commonplace up until the late 90's, and keep an extra tight end. Secondly, once running backs zip through the open lane, they are now in linebacker territory with no lead blocker, and with NFL strong safeties nowadays often resembling a hybrid between a safety and a linebacker, the RB will take even more of a beating than NFL running backs have been taking for years. Therefore, the running backs in this type of rushing attack need to be bigger and more durable (i.e add 15 or so pounds of muscle). Thirdly, while reading about various training regimens of a cross-section of NFL linemen, I was struck by how much traditional power lifting is now supplemented by training that concentrates on flexibility, agility, and body control.
What I've described above is pretty much the running attack that ND employed Saturday. As has been noted on this board, several of the Irish O-Linemen have gone through some "body makeovers" this past off-season, and in every case I can remember cited here, this "makeover" has included slimming down rather noticeably. On Saturday, rarely did you see an Irish O-lineman push someone 3-5 yards off the ball, but you did see plenty of lateral movement, with Allen patiently waiting for a lane to open up and then zipping through it. The bulk Allen added in the off-season repeatedly helped him gain an extra 2-3 yards after initial contact. And, tellingly, the footwork, technique, and balance of the O-linemen looks to have improved, as I rarely saw an Irish lineman on the ground - a staple of the last two seasons.
The advantages of ND employing such an attack is that it will give Irish linemen and running backs a head start in learning the skills needed to be able to contribute at the next level. It should also be noted that college teams that have employed a "power" rushing game over the last 20 some-odd years have rarely had more than a mediocre passing attack. Part of this is due to blocking: while the pro-style run blocking techniques transfer easily to those needed for pass blocking, power rush blocking and pass blocking are quite different, and given the practice time restrictions (for everyone except Michigan, apparently), mastering both is a tall order.
The drawbacks of such of attack with ND's current personnel were also on display Saturday. It is not an attack that will result in a lot of carries for Hughes or Aldridge, as both are more "bull-" than "zip-" type backs. They will be used to help pass block, for short dump-off passes, and as an extra blocker in short yardage situations. A reliable 2nd "zip" back is needed: when Allen went out on the Irish's final possession, Weis was left with these choices, none of them optimal:
a) put in back-up "zip" RB Jonas Gray, who had fumbled earlier and (according to some on this board) has had a problem with fumbles in practice
b) put in 3rd "zip" RB Theo Riddick, whom Weis probably didn't think was ready for such a high pressure situation
c) put in Hughes, who is more of the "bull-" type runner that this rushing attack isn't designed for, but at least he is unlikely to fumble or make a mental mistake.
He went with c), and Hughes' initial carry gained half a yard. At this point, Weis could have given the ball to Hughes two more times to make UM use their last two time outs; it is highly doubtful that Hughes would have gotten a first down, given that UM was stacked against the run. In 2006, UCLA coach Karl Dorrell employed this strategy at ND, leaving the Irish to go 80 yards with 1:02 to go (down 4, a field goal would do no good) with no TOs against a defense that had bottled up ND all day; ND scored, UCLA fans went berserk, and it is likely that only the Bruins' inexplicable win over USC two months later saved his job. Saturday, Weis employing this strategy would have left UM to go (given Maust's short punt) less than 30 yards to go for a tying FG and less than 60 yards to go for the winning TD, with more than two minutes left against an Irish defense it had been carving up the entire second half. So Weis decided to roll the dice.
We all know what play Weis dialed up, and much has been said here and elsewhere about the wisdom (or, more accurately, the lack of it) of this play call. While I have no intention of rehashing that argument, and pause to point out that we would all be singing Weis' praises had a certain official not decided to make one of the most egregious non-calls of pass interference that I have witnessed in 30+ years of watching football, I do think that, in Charlie's shoes, I would have opted for a quick slant to Parris or a dump-off to Hughes; however, with Allen on the sidelines and no "zip" back to put on the field with any confidence, having Hughes in the backfield meant that the two running plays were not going to net 9.5 yards. Also, given that Maust's punt was pretty short, and that UM didn't really use the TOs they were left with all that effectively either, and that regardless of how good your secondary is, if a QB that is allowed to scramble around for 10 seconds, someone is going to get open, I think all the focus on Charlie's last two play calls is to miss the forest for the trees: UM got the better of the Irish in two of the three phases of the game (offense, defense, special teams) in Ann Arbor with questionable (to say the least) officiating. This would require Weis to call a perfect game, which no coach has ever done in football history. I wonder what would have been the fallout when - against Miami in 1988, the Irish with the ball on their own 30-35 yard line with 31-24 lead about 3 and a half minutes left in the game and UM having at least 1 TO - Blessed St. Lou had option QB Tony Rice (whom a writer for the then-credible SI referred to as "occasionally scatter-armed") drop back to pass against one of the best defenses in college football (they had shut out FL St. and would hold LSU and Nebraska without a TD that season), a Miami defender stripped the ball from Rice, and the 'Canes recovered. Though this put one of the best offenses in the country 30 yards from a TD to tie or win the game, I've never heard a single Irish fan criticize Holtz for this call. Why? Because the defense stepped up and fought like hell - it took UM 2 1/2 minutes to go 25 yards, and they scored on 4th and goal - and Pat Terrell saved the game. The Irish D on Saturday did not.
To sum up, as Saturday's events illuminated brightly, the 2009 Irish need to develop a 2nd reliable "zip" guy to work into the rotation with Allen.
To close, for the first time in 2+ seasons, ND fielded the competent rushing game (5 yards per carry) against an at-the-very-least-formidable defense that many here have been hoping for. It's not the power running game that sets many Rock's House posters' hearts aflutter, but it was certainly effective, and (if Charlie manages to keep his job) could be advantageous factor in the recruiting of linemen and running backs.