Irish offense’s no-back set coming up empty

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Through five games, Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin are doing their best to try and find an identity for the Irish offense. With five running backs battling for snaps, a wide receiving corps that’s run hot and cold, and an offensive line that struggled until last week to dictate terms in the running game, a group many had high hopes for has yet to hit its stride.

But some of that ineffectiveness certainly falls on the system and the philosophy. After dedicating themselves to offensive balance last season, the Irish attack has once again fallen into a habit of relying on the pass game to serve as the engine of the Irish offense, a difficult bedrock for a unit searching for its identity, but operating almost a la carte.

No alignment better encapsulates the Irish struggles on offense than the empty set. One of the Irish’s most heavily used formations, it’s also one of the team’s most predictable. Outside of one quarterback draw that Tommy Rees narrowly converted against Purdue, the Irish have thrown exclusively from the formation, including all 15 snaps it took from “empty” last weekend against Oklahoma.

SBNation’s Bill Connelly, one of the great Xs and Os guys breaking down college football on the internet, took a closer look at the Irish offense and wondered what exactly was going on. Mostly, he focused on the Irish coming up virtually empty when the Irish went empty.

Of course, it didn’t used to be this way. Connelly points out something that’s probably vexed Kelly and Martin the most since the start of the year. The Irish were one of the most efficient teams in the country running a no-back formation, a conclusion perhaps even more impressive considering aggressive, downfield way the Irish used the formation.

Almost no offense in the country utilized the empty backfield better, and more frequently, than Notre Dame. With Golson’s ability to elude tacklers and throw on the run, this formation became a lovely weapon, especially on passing downs.

Notre Dame tends to use the empty backfield a little different than most teams, however. Quick reads are typically the name of the game, but the Irish almost aim for pro-style principles within the most spready of spread formations. Two-thirds of Golson’s passes out of the no-back formation traveled at least nine yards downfield, and only about one-sixth were thrown at or behind the line of scrimmage. Golson would frequently either roll out (via design) or scramble (via pressure) and eventually find an open man. These long throws out of the no-back were strangely successful: 60 percent completion rate (in charted games), 18.7 yards per completion.

Using this logic, you can understand why there was a belief that Rees could be successful this way as well. There’s no questioning Rees’s acumen when it comes to understanding the game. A quarterback that can find the right answer to a defensive look, Rees spending time in a no-back formation would allow Notre Dame to get plenty of one-on-one match-ups, taking advantage of those opportunities to strike down the field.

That happened immediately against Temple, and Rees had success against Michigan and Purdue as well, even if it came a little less consistently. But against Michigan State and Oklahoma, two defenses that have above average personnel, the misses were glaring, and the no-back formation only magnified the problem.

Here’s Connelly’s takeaway from Notre Dame’s use of no-back against Oklahoma, a formation that absolutely killed the Irish offense last Saturday.

The Irish went to an empty backfield 60 percent of the time on passing downs with almost no payoff whatsoever. Rees is the polar opposite of “run threat,” so all 15 snaps from an empty backfield were passes. Oklahoma sent five pass rushers at Rees 10 of 15 times and had reasonable success: Rees was 4-for-10 for 64 yards and was picked twice, once for a touchdown. A third incompletion was broken up by a defensive back, another was tipped at the line, and another was overthrown by a pressured Rees. Unable to scramble effectively to buy time, Rees found his options limited and his accuracy wanting.

And on top of that, the five times where Notre Dame went to a no-back formation and Oklahoma didn’t blitz, Rees went 0-for-5, throwing passes well downfield (average length: 15 yards) with tiny to nonexistent windows for success.

While I haven’t broken down the tape, third-and-short passes have been a disaster for the Irish, especially when they’ve tried to roll the pocket. Those plays were almost a specialty of Golson’s because of his ability to make things happen and buy time with his legs before finding a receiver. That’s likely why Kelly and Martin turned to Andrew Hendrix, who added a battering ram to the formation.

The point of all of this isn’t to produce another article about what Tommy Rees can’t do. Because there’s an offense that Rees can orchestrate very effectively, one based around a downhill running game with playaction passes used to catch defenses cheating up. And while the usage of Hendrix gave opposing coaches something new to think about, he might as well be Rees’s inverse. Until he proves he can complete a pass downfield, he’s a glorified Wildcat runner.

Against Arizona State, Notre Dame’s offense can’t afford to be inefficient, or they’ll very likely be run off the field. As Kelly desperately searches for balance in an offense that looks close to finding it with last weekend’s rushing performance, it’s looking more and more clear that one formation should find its way off the play sheet.