Eye in the Sky: Offense

Observations of the Irish offense as a whole, the touchdown drives, key personnel, and a disjointed fourth quarter offense in Saturday's 31-13 win over the Spartans.

Floyd and Eifert Aid Wood

Long down and distances situations, especially early in a given series, have yet to cause major issues for the Irish offense, and chief among the reasons is the Michael Floyd/Tyler Eifert tandem.

When aligned opposite and on the edge, the pair provides top-notch perimeter blocking for Irish runners. Aligned together, Eifert inevitably faces one-on-one coverage with a strong safety or linebacker, a matchup he'll win 4 snaps out of 5. Floyd has become a ridiculous open field blocker – a massive force on the edge – at one point in the first quarter pushing his defender back 10-15 yards on a Cierre Wood draw run for more than 10 yards.

The shifty Wood uses the tandem's seal blocks to his advantage on nearly every run that reach the second level. Though Eifert occasionally struggles with his technique as an in-line blocker, the spring time practice sessions that mixed him with the receivers rather than the tight ends has already paid dividends, at least in the ground game.

Eifert's game is reminiscent of a young Jeremy Shockey, the former Miami Hurricanes tight end who burst on the scene as a second-year player in 2000. Eifert can get downfield, make the difficult catch both high and low (his "drop" was a third-quarter surprise vs. MSU), and is tough enough to take a hit and secure the clutch catch. Five of his 12 receptions this season have occurred on third down though it seems like each have been crucial to the Irish cause.

Regarding Floyd – and with due respect to those that came before my time such as Seymour, Show, and Gatewood – if he's not the greatest possession receiver in program history, he's on the short list of three names in my lifetime. (I'm not one to choose a modern Irish player over greats from the winning past, I assure you.)

The slot screen – thrown most often to Floyd, but also to Theo Riddick – has been a boon play for the offense, augmenting the running game and taking the place of the nonexistent QB running play that usually accompanies a read-option offense.

Kelly & Co. are setting something up off that look in the near future; they've run the play far too often for the defense not to catch on soon.

With 299 yards and four rushing scores through three games, Wood has given the Irish offense exactly what it needed to reach 3-0…his teammates didn't follow suit. Wood's four scores matches the season-high for Irish runners in all of 2010 (Dayne Crist). The Rees' audible and subsequent two-handed shuffle to Wood has quickly become a per-game staple (used for a 28-yard, untouched score vs. Miami in last year's Sun Bowl, too).

Wood showed good discipline late, hammering into the line for 2-3 yards with 10-minutes remaining – a likely edict from the sidelines but also a good decision as the perimeter had waiting defenders.

I did, however, think Wood would be more of a downfield receiving threat than he has shown to date. He appears uneasy in pass-catching traffic, even on the sidelines.

Tommy Rees, T.J. Jones, Turnovers, and Touchdowns

When in sync, the sophomore signal caller runs a beautifully crisp passing attack. On occasion – and in nearly every game played to date save the Miami blowout – he's found intermittent struggles. Look for that to continue at some point in the second and third quarters in Pittsburgh and after the Irish jump to a double-digit lead vs. the Trojans under the lights weeks later – athletes bother Rees near scrimmage.

Rees – who I noted yesterday struggles rolling right (6 of 13 picks have occurred with this action), rarely misses on fade routes to the same side, so I blinked twice when he slightly overthrew Floyd to the sidelines in the first half (though the Irish star receiver did not appear as quick as usual closing the gap toward the football). Rees also threw high to classmate T.J. Jones who made an impressive stab on what should have been a standard sideline pass.

Regarding his interception, Rees flat-out did not see the backside safety (its notable that a great block by Cierre Wood gave him plenty of time). While air under the throw toward his intended receiver – a streaking Eifert – might have helped, I'm confident he didn't see the defender until after he released the pass.

Speaking of Jones, the slant to the quick-footed target is quickly becoming an extra chain-moving weapon, especially from the boundary side with Floyd opposite. Jones is an effective, willing blocker in space as well. His two touchdowns over the last two games have illustrated his versatility, but Saturday he showed a nice burst to the ball to secure the 26-yard go-route score – a beautiful throw by Rees.

I'm not sure I agree with game announcer Mike Mayock: Rees's 20-yard throw to Floyd in the third quarter between two defenders was the right decision – attempting to lead him past the admittedly too-late safety would have been tricky for a QB without a great arm.

Riddick and Rees struggled to connect; the former making two defenders miss on his only catch – a 7-yard gain on a slot-screen pass. Riddick also appeared to hook when he should have continued on a go-route downfield vs. solo coverage, part of the team's 92-yard scoring drive (highlighted below).

Nonetheless, the emergence of Jones as another weapon suggests back-to-back 30-point outputs are forthcoming for Notre Dame's two-game road trip to Pittsburgh and Purdue, respectively.

Touchdowns #1 and #2

In live action, Wood's 22-yard burst around the right side on delay draw was a thing of beauty. On replay, it was apparent right guard Trevor Robinson was overpowered and then got away with a blatant hold in the backfield – Wood would have lost 3 instead. Further, after executing a combo block, it appeared center Braxston Cave held as well.

Fortune finally followed the Irish in 2011.

Though walk-on Chris Salvi was rightfully credited with the key block to spring George Atkinson on his kick return score – Salvi took out two defenders, drilling one into the other near the 20-yard line – Steve Filer and Bennett Jackson also executed key blocks – Jackson's the final efforts vs. defenders that were unlikely to stop Atkinson in chase, but you never know with sideline angles.

Atkinson showed great patience to fake out the kicker who had the sideline as an extra defender; as the photo above shows, the speedy freshman also used some sleight of hand work on the play.

The best thing that could have happened to Atkinson on a later return? A lost fumble that he recovered with no harm to the Irish. He's unlikely to drop another this fall.

Though not on film, it's notable that Atkinson made the exact hand sign – showing the interlocking ND on his gloves – as did T.J. Jones on his third quarter score. Jones was erroneously penalized; the refs didn't blink at Atkinson.

Winning Football

Despite the head coach's assurances, I didn't think the Irish offensive line played winning football in Week Two. There's no doubt the unit did last Saturday, even with the lapse in protection that resulted in a sack/fumble and with a nondescript fourth quarter.

Kelly unveiled a delayed draw (nearly a wrap-around handoff) through backfield traffic that sprung Wood for a long gain – such runs work because Notre Dame's tackles – Taylor Dever and especially Zack Martin – excel at finding defenders to block at the second level. The pair's across-the-formation kick-out blocks later sprung Jonas Gray for a significant gain as well. He might not have the pro potential, but Dever is a great fit for this blocking scheme and is better in space than his predecessor Sam Young.

Dever had a rare miss in space – a swing pass that resulted in an 8-yard loss to Wood as the Irish tried in vain to bleed clock in the final period…

Martin is, and has been tremendous creating paths on the move since his first start last fall. His pull block, coupled with a great inside seal by Dever, allowed Gray room around the right side – a quick cut and burst of speed by the senior ‘back resulted in 13 yard gain to set up Wood's six-yard scoring run.

Joined by Trevor Robinson (of whom Kelly was effusive in his praise Tuesday) and Braxston Cave, the Irish have a quartet of move blockers that make the running game tick.

Conversely, Chris Watt is an absolute mauler at the point of attack, and from my non-coaching eye, a keeper after just three starts at left guard. Watt paved a path for two Gray rushes on the team's third scoring drive and seems to thrive at the point of attack. Watt appears more than happy to hammer defenders in the power game…

Upon further review – it might have been Watt's fault on the sack/fumble I had originally attributed to Martin. Watt appeared to zone block while Martin followed his man on the stunt inside…

Robinson still gets overpowered inside at times – twice noted in my game day and film viewings vs. the Spartans….

Gray's admitted penchant to bounce outside served him well early; the result a 13-yard gain that was so well blocked at scrimmage, a pulling Cave had to wait a full second for someone to block to seal the backside. Floyd was pushed in the back (thereby missing a crack back) or Gray would have scored easily from 57 yards out.

Mildly disconcerting at the conclusion – The Irish offensive line paved lanes for five yards per carry for the backfield tandem of Wood and Gray through the game's first 22 rushes. The final six (non QB) carries yielded just 10 yards and the final three drives of the contest – 13 plays in all – produced just 37 total yards (not including the minus 5-yard drive designed to set up a clinching field goal under three minutes).

Tell-tale Drive: a 92-yard march

The game's most important drive occurred midway through the second quarter. With the Irish holding a 14-10 advantage and set at their own 8-yard line, Rees and company set out on a 10-play, 92-yard drive that nearly ended with a standard three-and-out instead.

After a needless pass interference penalty on the Spartans gave the Irish a first down(receiver Theo Riddick was stopped well short of the first-down marker); and following an illegal lineman downfield call on Trevor Robinson, a patient, prudent call by Brian Kelly kick-started Notre Dame's best drive of the day:

Facing 2nd and 14, Jonas Gray powered for six yards through the hole – crucial because only 2-3 were readily available – and the effort set up a manageable 3rd and 8 situation. Rees took advantage of soft coverage vs. Tyler Eifert for an easy 9-yard out route to the boundary and a simple pitch-and-catch first down.

Another six-yard power run by Gray (behind a cleared path courtesy left guard Chris Watt) began the new set of downs and following a timeout due to an alignment issue (appeared to be the fault of Michael Floyd), Rees struck the drive's big blow, hitting the redemptive Floyd for a 35-yard post on the ensuing play. Rees' pass was under thrown due largely to late pressure inside Trevor Robinson's solo block (more on that below).

Mixing in the run, a Zack Martin pull block sprung a patient Gray for 13 yards around end (good speed by Gray following hesitation to set-up the Martin block) and another strike from Rees to Eifert – this time on what game announcer Mike Mayock called a "stick-nod route" (you and I would refer to it as a well-run post pattern) set up the Irish with a 1st and goal at the Spartans six-yardline.

Wood, now in for Gray who keyed the drive, sprinted right behind executed blocks from Trevor Robinson, Taylor Dever, and on the perimeter, Floyd, for a nearly untouched score (Wood delivered a blow at the goal line for good measure).

In total: 10 plays – six of them successful – uncanny play-calls by the head coach, two clutch throws, the brilliance of Floyd: both the receiver and perimeter blocker, execution up front, and the continued ascent of Jonas Gray as reliable No. 2 ‘back put the Spartans in a 21-10 from which they would never recover.

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