Rees on the Run (glass completely empty)The oft-referenced weakness of Notre Dame's current offensive attack contends that the read-option handoff lacks, well, the "option" in that Tommy Rees isn't a threat to pull the ball from Cierre Wood's gut and run away from the pursuit. But I don't think his inability to pick up rushing yards is a (major) issue – rather, it's his lack of escape or ability to extend a play.
He throws poorly on the move and Saturday appeared flustered whenever he needed to shift in the pocket, missing T.J. Jones wide open (thrown high) for an easy nine yards; lofting a horrid pass away to Cierre Wood on a check down (Wood was moving toward scrimmage and would have had options in the open field); and of course throwing late to Tyler Eifert at the goal line for a drive killing interception. Each of the three passes was the end result of Rees stepping up in the pocket or when he felt uneasy with pressure behind him (the pick).
Disaster was averted on the opening series when a rolling (right) Rees threw into the hands of charging linebacker Todd Thomas in the flat. The panicked decision was out of character, but inaccuracy on the move was unfortunately familiar.
Rees still predetermines throws, especially to Floyd…The slant-and-go will be there for Notre Dame when they choose to use it as teams are charging up on a passing game that stays inside a 17-yard range…Three of Rees' four lost fumbles over the last six games have been the result of blind side hits…As we've assumed for two weeks, the "bubble screen" (I've called it a slot screen) set up a downfield throw, one in which Jones appeared open on the far sidelines but Rees forced post pass (too high) to Theo Riddick that led to a big hit on the junior receiver…
Rees' scramble and run for a first down at the end of the first half might have been his first journey of more than a yard since he ran for 12 vs. Utah last November…Rees' missed seam to Eifert was more the fault of his top-tier tight end, who didn't look in time on a pass slightly behind him – but with the defender in front, it was actually the correct ball location…Expect a cadence chance (hand signal, leg signal, decoys) on Notre Dame's shotgun snaps next week and for the season's duration…
Rees in Crunch Time (glass overflowing)Fans use the term "winner," coaches consider it "moxie" or toughness, and teammates might not define it, but they respect it: And the "IT" serving as the true key to Rees' career to date is the undeniable fact that the kid will stand in and take a hit to deliver a pass – his second quarter sight adjustment throw down the seam to Eifert had one guaranteed end result: a shot to the chest – and that was the best outcome for the vulnerable passer. Rees took it; then took a second to collect himself after delivering a strike to his future All-America tight end. It was a difficult throw under most circumstances, but even more impressive during the worst passing effort of your career to date.
Prior to Notre Dame's mid-fourth quarter, game-winning drive, Rees had scattered 17 incomplete passes (including an interception and two near misses) for 135 yards on 15 uninspiring completions. But trailing 12-7 and set back at his own 15-yard line with just over 11 minutes remaining, Rees again led the Irish on a clutch, go-ahead drive, completing eight consecutive passes for 74 of the drive's 85 yards, then adding a two-point conversion toss to his new favorite target, Tyler Eifert (reviewed below) for a more comfortable three-point lead.
Including a third down gain of nine yards on the following series – one that set-up Rees' game-clinching QB sneak on 4th-and-1, Rees enters the Purdue contest completing 9 of his last 9 throws (plus the conversion) and on a two-game winning streak.
The drive was the third successful go-ahead effort in his four career late-game attempts, with only the Tulsa fiasco of 2010 proving unsuccessful (USC 2010, Michigan, and Pittsburgh each ended with go-ahead scores.)
Before fans burn Rees and his limitations at the stake, consider his irrefutable status as a "winner" if Notre Dame's prevent defense had actually prevented something at the end of the head-shaking loss in Ann Arbor.
Notre Dame has an aggregate 12 recruiting "stars" sitting behind Rees among its quarterback trio – the head coach has chosen his sophomore overachiever for a reason and he likely has nine more games to cement his status – one way or the other – entering the off-season.
Third-Down is Eiferts'Die-hard fans and daily Irish website readers already knew about him. But Tyler Eifert's ascent from third string tight end to legitimate zone destroyer and matchup nightmare ranks among the most pleasant surprises of the calendar year.
Eifert's performance on the go-ahead drive totaled five receptions, two of which resulted in first downs including a leaping grab down the post in which he took a vicious shot to the hip/back, the game-winning touchdown on a late duck from Rees, and the crucial two-point conversion.
Among Eifert's remaining receptions were two balls high and outside and one diving snare of a low bullet, and one catch short of the marker after which he bulled toward the chains: each resulted in an Irish first down…The 6'6" target is a nightmare down the seam, cannot be covered by standard zone looks, and has improved as an in-line blocker, though he's not without fault in that regard. While it's tough to fault Eifert for the occasional slipped block vs. talented defensive ends, he could have secured his perimeter blocks vs. smaller players a bit longer in Heinz Field – two blocks lost at the last moment resulted in runs stopped short of the marker.
That skill set will continue to develop and when it does, Eifert, like Michael Floyd, will be among the most complete players at his position in the nation. At present, he's a solid blocker that will annihilate a defense if given a free release off the line – and if pressed, one that can separate from likely 90 percent of his remaining foes this fall.
Eifert's first touchdown reception of the season should be the first of many over his next 22 games – but too many more games like Saturday's in the Steel City will result in his absence for the final 13 in which he's eligible. Eifert could become the best of seven NFL quality tight ends to wear the Blue and Gold since Y2K.