Film study: What January’s Fiesta Bowl can tell us about Notre Dame’s game plan for Jim Knowles defense

Saturday night’s game between Ohio State and Notre Dame features quite a few unknowns.

The visiting Irishman will lead a 36-year-old head coach at Marcus Freeman who has only filled the role on the sidelines once prior to this competition at Ohio Stadium. In addition, the real sophomore, Tyler Buchner, is Freeman’s choice to stand under the ND Crime Center, starting his first career while attempting just 35 college-level career passes.

Of course, their opponents have plenty of questions of their own to answer.

Jim Knowles was brought in to great fanfare and is expected to revive a moribund defense that has prevented the program from reaching its lofty goals in the past two seasons. But there are many Buckeye fans who surely wonder how quickly his presence can feel.

In most cases, such a match in Week 1 would result in many writers like this giving Bossa’s brother ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ when asked to predict the outcome ahead of time. But this time, there’s a very clear outline of what we can expect when the Irish fighters try to move the ball against the Knowles defense that we can simply run the bar from their last game.

While most readers of this site remember January 1 as Jackson Smith Ngigba Day After his record performance that evening in Pasadena, Ohio State University fans remember that day for a different reason. Oklahoma State’s win over Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl is considered the biggest win in program history, after the Cowboys came back 21 points down to stun the Irishman 37-35 in Freeman’s debut as head coach.

While the former Buckeye midfielder made a number of changes to the coaching staff after officially taking over Brian Kelly, Brain’s offensive confidence remained largely intact with Tommy Rees called up to play for the third consecutive season. Although his opposing player, Knowles, had already left Stillwater for Columbus by the time preparations for the tournament were underway, the rest of his squad remained in place, as did the players who earned their place as one of the best defenses in the country last year.

Reese said of Knowles’ departure before the Fiesta Bowl: “You just have to prepare for what you saw in the movie. I can’t imagine 14 games in this movie that will deviate from what they have to do. They will probably have some wrinkles, but at the end of the day, you have to prepare for what You see it in the movie and get ready to deal with whatever it throws at us.”

To those familiar with the Cowboy defense under Knowles, it looked pretty much the same without him against the Irish. Longtime defensive line coach Joe Bob Clements doesn’t seem to change much after taking over as coordinator on a temporary basis, proving Reese was right in his prediction of what to expect.

“They have players who make the difference on all three levels. They are so versatile in what they do,” Reese added when asked about his preparations for the Cowboys. “They have so much in their scheme that you have to make sure you prepare for the things that they keep coming back for.

By all accounts, Reese’s assessment was spot on and the Irishman seemed well prepared for the system designed by Knowles, at least early on. The Irish took the field without running back Keren Williams’ backbone, and instead the Irish looked to attack OSU through the air, shattering Jack Kwan’s previous career with 68 attempts that afternoon in the desert.

Kwan struggled early in the season to find rhythm after he missed the 2020 campaign in Madison and moved to South Bend in his final year. But by the time the Fiesta Bowl rolled around, he was clearly more comfortable in the Rees system and the 30-year-old looked to attack weak points in the Cowboys’ system.

With OSU safety playing hard in the running game in the early descents, the corners played very quietly in Quarters Coverage, knowing that they were actually on the islands if the Irish chose to throw the ball. Kwan seemed more than happy to hit repeatedly near the sidelines, taking advantage of those generous cushioning and moving the ball around with ease throughout the first half.

In previous seasons under Kelly, the Irish could have easily been described as a “pro attack”, combining members of a larger base (often using two narrow ends rather than the more common appearance of three receivers) with notions of popular options. With Ian Book offering a respectable running threat from QB over the previous three seasons, these choices have been the typical reading area Concepts appear everywhere.

However, with the less moving Coan below the center, the Irish turned solid RPO Team, often packing fast patterns like the hurdles described above with an inside run.

Against the Cowboys, Reese showed more prowess, managing what were effectively three-choice plays as Michael Mayer became the man of the field with horizontal stock tracks to those unprotected flats.

Reese seemed more than happy to take what the Ohio State University defense had given him. With Cowboy High dropping seven or eight defenders in the contention zones below while aggressive pocket-breaking passes rush through, the Irish easily picked up chunks of yards across late back screens.

Without Williams, substitute Chris Tyree might have struggled to move the ball to the ground, scoring just 18 yards in six moves. But as shown above, he was so involved in the Irish pass attack that he pulled six passes for 118 yards and a touchdown.

This drop is worth noting because it came about because of one of the weaknesses of Knowles’ approach. The veteran defensive coordinator is notorious for sending all-out lightning attacks in the third defeats, and Clements followed suit early in the 3rd and 7.

Late 14-0 in hopes of regaining momentum as the first quarter ended, Clements sent seven defenders into an all-out attack, leaving only four defenses in coverage. But this blitz assumed the back would stay to help prevent blitzkrieg, rather than dropping out for one of the easiest 53-yard catch-and-runs we’ll ever see.

The Cowboys were reluctant to call in such pressures after that long touchdown, but Reese continued to demand pass concepts that favored his staff. Meyer proved almost unguardable in the red zone, as he proved his ability to escape from the cowboy vaults ditched on him in one cover…

…as well as using his large frame and excellent hands to fend off smaller defenders like McAllister while battling for the ball near the goal line.

“We knew he was going to be a big part of their offensive scheme,” Colby Harvell-Bell, OSU safety, said of Mayer after the match. “You don’t really realize how big it is until you go out and try to cover it up.”

But as the game went on, those early flat-footed Oklahoma State defenders began making more and more plays. Reese had only a lot of tricks up his sleeve and after the Cowboys saw something once, they proved they could stop it the second time around.

McAllister, who followed Knowles to Columbus and is expected to start in the same spot with the Buckeyes on Saturday night, popped up on multiple occasions throughout the second half, diagnosing a pre-blitzer alignment and simply outpacing his opponent to make a play.

More noticeably, OSU’s corners stopped playing with such a big cushion, throwing away those quick throws to the edges that not only helped ND move the ball, but seemed to get Coan into a good rhythm.

“In the first half, they were doing a lot of quick hits, a lot of quick hits, and we were playing from coverage for seven or eight yards,” Cowboys quarterback Jabbar Mohamed said of his team’s first-half adjustments. “The focus in the first half was we have to get up in their faces; we have to be aggressive. And that’s what we did. And I felt like that’s what we should have done from jumping. That’s what we are.”

Despite the multitude of concepts available to them in Knowles’ extensive playbook, the Cowboys turned things around in the second half by employing a great deal of simplicity devoid of humans cover (cover 1), betting its employees against the most famous Irish. While it may appear that Notre Dame has consistently recruited Oklahoma, the group of veteran defenders Knowles has long studied has proven to be able to read and react quickly.

No game is better exemplified by the interception of senior linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez late in the fourth quarter, effectively taking the Cowboys to victory as they played thief A role in the otherwise man-to-man scheme.

“We knew they were hitting blank a lot at the end and they were hitting hash marks,” Rodriguez said of his critical pick. “We were at a free guy, and I kind of baited them on the receiver’s side. And I knew it—like I said, they were hitting the hashs. I kind of sank the hash, and I ended up throwing on the hash.”

A 5-foot-1 quarterback and 11 out of high school, Rodriguez was the estimated 1529 inductee in the 2017 class. But the Cowboys’ senior captain made the biggest play in his school’s biggest win by keeping it simple.

“Joe Pop [Clements] Rodriguez added when asked about his team’s turnaround in the second half, and the defensive apparatus wanted to become more aggressive. It’s one of those things where we’ve been throwing punches on the line of scrimmage. We pressed. We played in the first half, and it didn’t work out. So we entered and adapted and went in their faces. We wanted to play aggressively, and that ended up being a practice.”

Perhaps because this focus on basics and instinct has proven to be the difference between his former team and his upcoming opponent, Knowles downplayed the Fiesta Bowl when preparing for Saturday’s game with Notre Dame.

“It’s a good game, to look at what Oklahoma State did and to look at what our opponents did, but it’s just another game,” Knowles said this week. “It’s just one game among many that you look at.”

Unlike the veteran crew that Reese and the Irishman saw in Glendale, Arizona eight months earlier, Knowles had only months to dig for his new assignments. The talent may be as rich as Buckeye’s defense on paper, and it remains to be seen if they will be able to respond the way other OSUs have done when they hit the mouth with a well-designed game plan.

Fortunately for them, Reese is not working with a veteran player pinned under the position, which means his playing card may be much shorter than the one he was playing with a senior year five player playing his last game, as was the case in January. But this is still a coordinator who has proven his ability to light the very chart, Buckeye fans are so excited to see, as Coan netted 509 passing yards that day in the desert, 202 more yards than the previous high that the Cowboys had succumbed to all season.

Despite the massive yardage that Reese’s team faced against rational order just months ago, the young OC still commands a great deal of respect for Knowles and can speak from experience when discussing the challenge ahead of the Irish on Saturday night.

“They do a really great job of confusing the fronts and I think they do a really great job of keeping it simple on their men, but complicated by the offense,” Reese explained last week. “If we can get 11 guys on the same page, you can work. Coach Knowles does a really good job of creating hesitation about the offense.”

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