Rank and File

The bi-weekly feature offers our first rankings column of the season, thoughts on Rees, the recent dearth of sacks, the good, bad, and the ugly of Irish special teams, yards that lead to losses, a penchant for penalties, the brilliance of Michael Floyd, the future of Cierre Wood, and much more…

Two contests is far too small a sample size for our initial Top 10 Players list of the season. But the individual games broke down as follows:

5 best Irish – South Florida:

  1. Michael Floyd: A receptions, yards-producing, touchdown scoring, massive machine…
  2. Cierre Wood: 2011 debut was his best career outing…
  3. Tommy Rees: 294 yards, two touchdowns, and two picks (one his fault) in 30 minutes. More important, he gave them a chance to win…
  4. Robert Blanton: Delivered the game's best individual defensive play and allowed just one reception…
  5. Ethan Johnson: His pointless fourth quarter personal foul hurt – his play was otherwise outstanding…

Others considered: Manti Te'o, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Zack Martin, Louis Nix, Tyler Eifert, and Chris Watt.

5 best Irish – Michigan:

  1. Michael Floyd: Caught 13 passes, was targeted for 18, and burned the Wolverines after the catch….
  2. Cierre Wood: Was on his way to topping his sterling Week One effort until an unforced fumble killed an Irish drive in Michigan territory. Wood was tremendous in space and in pass protection…
  3. Theo Riddick: Bounced back from one of the worst offensive games in recent memory with a pair of touchdowns including what should have been the game-winner…
  4. Tommy Rees: His second interception was unconscionable; his fumble mysterious; his would-be game-winning drive – inspiring…
  5. Tyler Eifert: Emerged as a go-to force; Rees should go to him more, as the sophomore missed Eifert wide open down the seam in both halves…

Others considered: T.J. Jones, Robert Blanton, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Jonas Gray, Dan Fox, Ethan Johnson, Zack Martin (personal foul penalty notwithstanding), Taylor Dever, and Trevor Robinson.

Notably absent from the lists above is senior outside linebacker, Darius Fleming.

"Good, not great. We want more. We have a high bar for him," said head coach Brian Kelly of Fleming's two-game output.

"I think he's been good but he hasn't been great yet. We're waiting for him to be great. Maybe that's unfair that we put such a high bar for him because some other guys don't have such a high bar set. We think he's capable of more, and I know he feels he's capable of more."

Our first full Top 10 will appear at the end of September and update after October's and November's contests.

Reevaluating Rees

In four victories, Rees has thrown 20, 20, 32, and 29 passes, respectively, totaling yardage of 129, 214, 149, and 201 yards. In three defeats (one start; two backup efforts including a lone half vs. USF), Rees has thrown 54, 34, and 39 passes, totaling 334, 294, and 315 yards.

In the three games Rees has thrown fewer than 30 passes, he's tossed a lone interception (total) vs. six touchdowns. In the 3.5 games in which he threw more than 30 passes, he's thrown a combined 11 picks and lost two fumbles while tossing 11 touchdown passes.

Call me crazy, but maybe the Irish should throw less and win, and stop trying to force feed the theory that "80 total yards should equate to seven points"…

Special Purpose

Senior walk-on Chris Salvi won't lead the kick coverage unit in tackles this fall; he will, however, take out 1-2 key blockers on each foray down the field. Salvi offered at least two huge wedge-busting efforts vs. USF and another against Michigan…

Salvi's coverage mate Bennett Jackson has a knack for finding kick returners in traffic. Only a sophomore, he's the unit's (and likely the team's) fastest player, but also breaks down expertly to make the tackle, and is both physical and fearless – the latter trait cannot be taught…

Kendall Moore and Austin Collinsworth aren't far behind Jackson in terms of kick coverage importance. The Irish have yielded just 18.23 yards per return, though on far too many kickoffs (10) through two contests. Freshman kicker Kyle Brindza's first career touchback came at an opportune time, pinning Michigan at its own 20-yard line with 30 seconds remaining…

Conversely, Notre Dame's punting/punt coverage group has been abysmal through two contests, ranking 104th in coverage and 119th (out of 120) in net punting:

  • Junior Ben Turk has averaged 33.9 yards on nine punts; 27.8 net.
  • Of his two fielded punts, opponents have returned the pair for a combined 55 yards leading to 10 opponents' points.

To be fair to the sample size, I'll have more on the second go-round for John Goodman to punt return duties in our next edition...

Whoops

Notre Dame averaged 4.5 penalties per game in 2010 – it committed five in the first 1.5 quarters of 2011 and has been assessed 17 through two games this fall including five personal fouls, three of which were post-action penalties…

Notre Dame's 10 turnovers have been widely documented, but on 9 of the 10 no defender touched the player who suffered the miscue…

Brian Kelly noted over the summer that if the Irish were to be considered serious players in the new college football landscape they must first defeat an SEC team in a BCS bowl…that's not possible if you can't defeat a Big East team in autumn.

Considered the weakest among six BCS conferences, but the oft-ridiculed group has fared well vs. college football's most storied program – its members defeating Notre Dame teams in five of the league's last six matchups over a 32-game span: Pittsburgh (2-1), Syracuse (1-0), Connecticut (1-0), and South Florida have handled the Irish for a puzzling 4-1 combined record in South Bend (the Panthers also won in Pittsburgh in 2009).

Notre Dame travels to Heinz Field to take on Pitt and new head coach, Todd Graham, next Saturday…

Pressure, Where Art Thou?

Bob Diaco's defense posted a four-season program-best, 27 sacks last fall.

Strange but true: just three of those 27 QB take downs occurred during the team's four-game winning streak. Diaco's defense has totaled just three sacks this season (48 pass attempts), and though a pair of opposing mobile quarterbacks are part of the equation, it seems unlikely the Irish will prevail over either Michigan State or Pittsburgh if their pressure packages don't begin to make an impact.

On the spot: the nickel package defensive line of (left to right) Darius Fleming, Prince Shembo, Kapron Lewis-Moore, and Steve Filer.

(In fairness to the team's pass-rushing efforts vs. USF, the Bulls threw most of their passes horizontally and immediately following the snap.)

Speaking of quarterbacks on the ground, Rees has been sacked just five times in 13 competitive halves. Dayne Crist, conversely, was sacked 17 times in 16 halves played dating back to the 2010 season-opener. Notre Dame's offensive line has improved, but Rees also gets the ball out quickly.

It should be noted that three of Rees' career interceptions occurred on quick throws from the pocket – extending those plays might have been more prudent…

Yards ‘R Us

Only 12 teams have bettered Notre Dame's 510 yards-per-game output over the season's first two weeks – none have faced two BCS conference teams as have the Irish.

Kelly's offensive balance to date is likely in congress with his ideal: 157.50 yards per game on the ground; 353 through the air, at least if you consider it to be mildly skewed by the unique circumstances of the season-opener (delays, possible cancellation, deficit, etc.).

Unfortunately, Notre Dame has lost nine straight when it exceeded 300 yards passing. That trend won't continue under Kelly (0-6), because the Rees/Michael Floyd combination will eventually break the team's aerial curse (Jimmy Clausen's Irish finished 6-6 when exceeding 300 passing yards), but its notable that the Irish would have been below the 300-yard mark last Saturday in Ann Arbor had the team not blown a 17-point advantage with 17 minutes remaining (Rees' compiled 61 of his 315 yards on the final go-ahead drive).

Thoughts for Thursday

Junior running back Cierre Wood could become the first Irish player to exceed 100 rushing yards in three straight games since Darius Walker, who did so as a sophomore at both the beginning (three straight) and end (four consecutive) of the 2005 season.

With the exception of blazing open-field speed, Wood has shown nearly every quality attributable to a consistently productive, sometimes game-breaking collegiate back. He's quick, has excellent (to borrow a phrase from Bob Diaco) "contact balance," can stop and accelerate in traffic or space with ease, and as Keith Jackson once mused: "he aint go no handles on him."

With good health, Wood will challenge Walker's career totals in rushing yards (3,249) and rushing touchdowns (23). Already a much-improved pass protector, Wood must add "reliable outlet receiver" to his skill set by this time next fall…

However, Wood can't carry the football 25 times per Saturday and survive through mid-November. Kelly must not only find a way to increase Jonas Gray's carries (perhaps 10 per game would be a manageable goal), but also work slot receiver Theo Riddick into the mix – that is, unless one of the team's two freshmen ‘backs, Cam McDaniel and George Atkinson, is ready for prime time…

The loss of Mike Ragone to ACL surgery is much greater than most Irish fans realize. The 5th-year senior emerged as the team's best blocking tight end and, aside from left tackle Zack Martin, its best in-space blocker and was the key lead-blocking component in the Irish goal package…

In layman's terms, Notre Dame's ridiculous final drive breakdown in Ann Arbor occurred because a player left his obvious deep responsibility to nonsensically cover a route 20 yards short of midfield with about 20 seconds remaining. That's tough to swallow...

Can anyone on the Irish schedule cover Michael Floyd?

Can the Irish win a game in which Floyd secures 10 or more receptions? (0-6 in his career)…

Can Rees complete his next 10 starts with fewer than 10 interceptions?

Can the Irish accumulate more than 50 punt return yards this season?

Notre Dame's streak of 27 consecutive victories when it out-rushes its opponent ended in Ann Arbor. Blame the team's pass defense, because at 6.0 yards-per-pop and 198 for the game, neither Notre Dame's run/pass balance offensively, nor its rush defense, were culpable in defeat…


IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories