Onward and UpwardPlayers trending the right way after Saturday/the last three weeks:
Theo Riddick: The still-learning slot recorded his third high-volume reception game in as many weeks, securing nine balls and a touchdown. Riddick totaled 26 receptions and three touchdowns vs. MSU, Stanford and BC after catching just four balls the previous two weeks.
Saturday Riddick's yardage total was a bit low for nine grabs (69 yards) but as Brian Kelly noted Sunday, a good deal of that is on the Dayne Crist who needs to be more accurate on short and mid-range throws to allow Riddick et al room to operate after the catch. Riddick's 20-yard touchdown was a gimme; the result of terrible man coverage (rather than inside-out principles) by the BC secondary. No coach has offered a benefit (in my opinion) to the oft-used, true man coverage vs. crossing, same-side receivers, but I digress…
Carlo Calabrese: If this were 1990, and team's still featured power offense's, Carlo Calabrese would be an All-American candidate late in his career. He's nonetheless fared well as a (nearly) every down player in the 3-4 defense, showing much better in pass coverage than anticipated. Calabrese shoots the gap and makes plays at or behind the line of scrimmage better than most two-year starters the program has seen over the last, oh, 17 years…thank Coach Weis for not removing his redshirt late last season when the run D began to struggle. Calabrese is arguably (and likely) the third-best player on the back seven through five games (Manti Te'o and Gary Gray).
Trevor Robinson: Played his best ball of the season over the last two games, consistently winning Saturday night and serving as one of the few offensive linemen to play to the level of the competition in Game Four vs. Stanford. Against the Eagles, the junior missed a delayed blitz on the first play, but proceeded to dominate the opening drive, securing key blocks on Armando Allen's 30-yard run and owning defensive tackle Damik Scafe to open a lane for Dayne Crist's untouched read-option touchdown jaunt.
Robert Blanton: I'm not sure who occupied Blanton's jersey last season but the junior has been a revelation over the last two weeks: reborn as an aggressive, crafty zone defender who's also fared well when tested deep. Blanton's last two games have included three tackles-for-loss, a sack, an interception and three pass breakups. He denied another TD due to proper technique and positioning on the sidelines. Gary Gray's starting spot is safe: Darrin Walls should be on alert (though Walls has been better since Game Three as well).
Bennett Jackson: Jackson had been quiet since his four-tackle season-opening performance for the kick coverage unit. It's clear he'll serve as a threat going forward in the return game. The next step is to see if he can consistently catch punts…I assume he struggles in this regard as do many players transitioning from high school to college (there's a reason Riddick isn't the punt returner). Jackson is either really, really fast, or the rest of the team is really, really slow, because he operates in a different gear than other Irishmen with the football.
Top TwoManti Te'o and Gary Gray are two back seven players the defense cannot win without. Gray was beaten on a school-yard stop-and-go for a touchdown Saturday, but that's one of the few noticeable errors he's made this season (admit it: as a backyard or high school football player, you smiled a bit at that old school shake of a strong collegiate cornerback). Of note, the second half pass interference call against Gray was correct, but the senior has employed that savvy maneuver (hand on the receiver's topside, shielded from the ref) often over the last two seasons and only been flagged twice.
Te'o has played so well over the last three games that he's reached the rarified air in which 10 tackles – all near the line of scrimmage – now has him ranked No. 2 or No. 3 for his Saturday efforts. We expect him to dominate but he's not yet made his 15th career start.
The Former Top TwoMichael Floyd has become a consistently interested, effective, occasionally dominant downfield blocker. He's drawn five pass interference/holding penalties this season. Saturday night, Kyle Rudolph executed his best block of the season to set up his own touchdown on the ensuing play. Rudolph is battling a pre-season hamstring injury; Floyd is battling a new QB's inconsistency and double-team attention on every play (the latter was expected and unavoidable…ask Golden Tate).
Despite a lag in numbers over the last few games, Rudolph remains on his way to the best statistical season for an Irish tight end since 1977. Floyd is on his way to numbers reminiscent of his freshman season. At some point, the latter will explode and the Irish offense will respond in kind.
It's a WrapThoughts heading into Game Six vs. the Pittsburgh Panthers:
Junior John Goodman has earned some of freshman receiver T.J. Jones' game reps: that's good news for both, as the 18-year-old would likely wear down after 12 college games with few breaks and its even better news for Irish fans because no spread offense can succeed without a reliable backup wide receiver. It's not a provable point, but Jones will now be better in November due to the competition – and occasional sideline time – he receives in October…and no, I have no idea what happened to Duval Kamara either, though both Jones and Goodman simply appear to break open more often than did Duval…
I can't believe I'm typing this, but the Irish can ill-afford to lose Taylor Dever, who injured his hamstring Saturday night. Dever consistently finds his block in space and excels at sealing his assignment in down-block situations. He's still beaten occasionally to the outside (twice that I can think of vs. Purdue and Stanford) but he's the unexpected MVP (not necessarily best) of the offensive line.
I might need to re-watch the game with an eye on the stalled drives, but Braxston Cave appeared to play well Saturday night. He'll be a dominant force as a fifth-year senior…hopefully he can accelerate that development for 2011 and continue to improve through November 2010.
I believe I called Cierre Wood's fumble in May…it might have been June. First-year tailbacks have a penchant for that specific error under the lights; that excuse doesn't fly for senior Armando Allen, who's fumbled three times over the last three weeks (losing one). Allen has otherwise been an ideal contributor, getting the most from every carry.
If the rest of the senior class improved from 2007 to today as did Armando Allen, Notre Dame would be 4-1/5-0 rather than 2-3…I'll stop before the rant really begins. (It should be noted: Ian Williams and Taylor Dever are exempt from the above comment.)
Prince Shembo: 2011 starter? Fine, I'll say it – there's no way the senior drop ‘backers are good enough to preclude a series or three from Steve Filer. Darius Fleming has fared better than most fans realize at the CAT position, but he's nowhere near the level I forecasted for him. Productivity matters, too…Is Calabrese is good as I think he is? Time to watch the up-and-coming inside ‘backer a bit more closely play-to-play…I admit I thought Te'o was far behind schedule after the Purdue game – in fact, how did he miss that often? He in no way resembles the over-pursuing, easily avoidable ‘backer that showed up for the season-opener…
If Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph both return for 2011 (they should, NFL corners will stick to Floyd like flypaper as currently constructed and Rudolph will struggle to block any NFL linebacker), will Theo Riddick remain in the slot? Could Bennett Jackson take that job, allowing Riddick a chance to start at tailback? (I figured I'd be the first to offer the idea)…If freshman tackles Tate Nichols and Christian Lombard continue to improve, there could be a dearth of 5th-year offers out along the Irish O-Line in January; ditto Kona Schwenke and the DL…
I'm willing to chip in for a rope, tire, and possibly uproot a tree to hang in Dayne Crist's backyard over the off-season…David Ruffer is 13-13 to start his career; that deserves a scholarship, don't you think? Ruffer was a student at William & Mary in 2007.
Nothing like a deadline to end the random thoughts portion of a column 15 minutes sooner than expected. More to come Friday afternoon…