Notre Dame’s run game has driven the offense during its 3-0 start, but the pass game is still very much a work in progress. The Fighting Irish pass offense showed its first signs of life during the win over Florida State, and with Louisville on deck there’s an opportunity for the unit to break out.
Louisville’s pass defense was bad in 2019, and it is even worse through four games in 2020. Last season, Louisville gave up 234.2 passing yards per game, which ranked 79th in the nation. It’s 7.5 yards allowed per attempt ranked 74th and its 144.93 pass efficiency defense rating ranked 95th. The Cardinals also allowed 12.5 yards allowed per completion.
Through four games in 2020, Louisville’s defense is giving up 233.0 passing yards per game, 8.2 yards per attempt, 14.9 yards per completion and has a pass efficiency defense rating of 149.54.
To make things worse for the Cardinal defense, it has put up those numbers against four relatively mediocre pass offenses. Georgia Tech, for example, went into its matchup against Louisville with three touchdown passes and eight interceptions on the season, but it threw for three scores with no picks against the Cardinals. Georgia Tech averaged 11.7 yards per attempt, which was almost four yards higher than its previous season-best.
Notre Dame needs its pass offense to become more efficient, more diverse and more explosive. Louisville is the perfect opponent to get that going.
There are a few things that Notre Dame should focus on in this matchup, some big picture and some quite specific:
GET LENZY AND AUSTIN ROLLING
Notre Dame’s tight ends are having a strong start to the season, and if the Miami game is any indication, they should have their fair share of success against Louisville. Notre Dame also saw Javon McKinley have a bit of a breakout game against Florida State. Keeping McKinley as a focal point in the offense is a must, but to beat Clemson, to get to the College Football Playoff, to win a playoff game, Notre Dame needs more.
Specifically, getting juniors Braden Lenzy and Kevin Austin rolling is an absolute must. Head coach Brian Kelly wasn’t kidding about Austin being on a pitch count against Florida State, as Austin got only three snaps. He needs to play more against Louisville, and he definitely needs more targets. Getting Austin rolling along with McKinley and the tight ends would make this pass offense far more dangerous.
Lenzy has caught six passes in the two games he’s played, but those receptions have gone for just 63 yards (10.5 YPC). He has carried the ball three times, but they’ve gone for just eight yards. Notre Dame needs Lenzy to get going.
Step one is Lenzy playing better. He needs to continue improving his ability to win at the line and improve his route running. The staff also needs to be more intentional about designing ways to get him the ball in situations where he can make big plays.
Both Austin and Lenzy have the talent to exploit Louisville’s subpar secondary, and being intentional about ways to make that happen this weekend is a must.
TYREE NEEDS MORE PASS GAME WORK
Freshman running back Chris Tyree is coming off back-to-back strong performances, and it’s time to expand his role. Tyree rushed for 168 yards on 19 carries (8.8 YPC) and two scores in wins over South Florida and Florida State. Tyree was a strong pass catcher in high school, having caught 36 passes for 486 yards in his junior and season seasons, but he has yet to catch a ball at Notre Dame.
Getting Tyree touches in the pass game is the next step, and the way Louisville attacks with its linebackers, coming up with a couple of ways to use Tyree in the pass game could result in huge plays. Yes, starter Kyren Williams can also make plays in the pass game, but Tyree is the more explosive home run threat, and getting him involved in the pass game is a must.
There are three ways I’d like to see Tyree get the ball, and I’d like to see it start this weekend.
One is getting him some of the screens that are currently going to Williams, who has had a few drops already this season. Williams showed he’s capable of ripping off a big gain in the screen game, but Tyree can turn those long gains into points.
The second way is using him on quick arrow and slide routes against the blitz. Getting Tyree the ball behind blitzing linebackers could result in big plays for the Irish offense. This is in the repertoire for Notre Dame, and we saw them throw this ball to Jafar Armstrong against USF.
I’d also like to see Tyree get used on a seam or wheel route for the same reason. Getting Tyree up the sideline against a linebacker who will likely be stepping downhill at the snap could be result in six points for the Irish offense.
QUICK GAME IS AN EARLY KEY
One key to success in the pass game against Louisville is establish the quick throws early in the game. There are plenty of looks where the Cardinal defense will play off coverage, or show tight coverage and bail at the snap.
Establish the quick game early against Louisville accomplishes several positives for the Irish offense. One, it helps get quarterback Ian Book into an early rhythm. Two, it gets the offense into quality down-and-distance situations, which aids the run game and sets up downfield opportunities. Three, it is a good way to quickly get the ball out to the perimeter, which is a great way to attack Louisville’s blitzing defense, and again, it helps the run game.
There’s a fourth way, and that is an effective early quick game sets Notre Dame up for big play opportunities off double moves. You want to take advantage of these types of opportunities against subpar pass defenses for a number of reasons, the biggest of which is you put it on film and force future opponents to prepare for it.
IMPROVE HORIZONTAL STRETCH GAME
There are two very broad ways to attack a defense with your drop back pass game. One is with vertical stretch concepts, which we saw Notre Dame use effectively against Florida State. The other is with horizontal stretch concepts.
A vertical stretch is exactly what it means, you’re trying to stretch the defense vertically, top to bottom. That often includes a deep route, an intermediate route and then a short route all run on top of each other in some fashion.
You can see an example here:
A horizontal stretch is when you try to attack the defense more left to right. Notre Dame’s four verticals concept is an example. Yes the four verticals concept is a horizontal stretch, not a vertical stretch, but that’s a different conversation.
When Book has been on his game in the past this is an area where he’s had a lot of success, and the offense needs to be more effective with these concepts. Book finally took those shots against Florida State, but the offense needs more of it. Here’s an example of this play against the Seminoles.
Attacking horizontally means banging more back shoulder throws, being more effective up the seams, and of course, like we saw in the clip above, attacking down the field on the perimeter. A big reason I view this as important is that an effective and dangerous horizontal stretch pass attack makes it much harder for defenses to use their safeties to insert against the run game, which makes the Irish ground attack even more effective.
PLAY-ACTION GAME FOR THE WIN
The final piece is getting more out of the play-action game, and this is a great game to get that going. Notre Dame’s ground attack has been excellent in the last 10 quarters, and opponents are going to start working harder and harder to slow it down. An explosive play-action pass game will make teams pay for that.
Notre Dame needs to make Louisville pay for it.
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