Eye in the Sky: Irish up front

Part II of our offensive film review offers a look at Notre Dame's pass protection and running game in Saturday's 15-12 win at Pittsburgh.

Irish Running Game

The pleasant surprise of the season is Cierre Wood's ability to run through traffic – he morphed into an inside power runner as needed Saturday, but was able to utilize his "contact balance" (Bob Diaco's term) after sharp cuts to gain perimeter yards including an early game 3rd-and-short conversion run…Wood's determination Saturday to get two yards inside rather than potentially lose a yard due to a bounce outside was key to manageable down and distance over the final three quarters…

A Solo block by center Braxston Cave helped Wood convert second third-and-short early, and another pull by Cave cleared a path for Wood to gain seven yards over the right side…I don't think right guard senior Robinson has fared nearly as well as Coach Kelly has indicated, he's been beaten to his right shoulder each week – and twice Saturday vs. the Panthers…Robinson though joined Cave on a pair of pulling blocks to the right to spring Wood for his longest run of the day, 18 yards near the end of the opening quarter…(It's also relevant that Kelly and his staff are about 99 percent more qualified to evaluate their offensive linemen than am I, but I figured you'd like an alternate viewpoint.)

Left guard Chris Watt led the way for Jonas Gray's career-best run, offering a perfect pulling block to the right; both Cave and Robinson executed a combo block on the play to seal the left defensive end inside and wide receiver Michael Floyd gave Gray a free lane down the right sideline after the senior runner made two defenders miss on the edge…Gray's 79-yard run was the longest since 2000 and should serve as a further confidence builder after his season-opening gaffe…

A 10-yard gain on 3rd and 12 included a rare moment of awkwardness for Wood, who never recovered from an early stumble on the now weekly two-handed shuffle toss from Rees; tight end Tyler Eifert didn't help Wood, losing his block late downfield resulting in a tackle short of the marker. Left tackle Zack Martin destroyed his defender on the play…

Eifert and Martin caved in the left side to give Wood nine yards in the second quarter…Martin had a rare lapse in (relative) space when he was a half-step late getting to defensive tackle Chas Alecxhi who stopped what could have been a nice Wood run with the Irish backed up to their own goal line – it's a good sign for a player when this is the only noticeable critique of your run-blocking efforts on the day…

Former running back Theo Riddick's 2011 backfield debut resulted in a Notre Dame timeout – so much for the element of surprise…I like the call of a draw run for Wood, setting up a sure field goal to end the half, unfortunately, long-snapper Jordan Cowart fired a tailing knuckler on the snap, ruining the time of the (missed) chip shot field goal

Right tackle Taylor Dever, who I thought struggled in pass protection early (detailed below) missed a block in space but Gray ran right through 3rd and 3 tackle attempt for a key conversion… Gray gained another 9 yards on his third strong rush of the day but a holding call on Cave negated the effort…

Finishing Strong: Rees' game-sealing quarterback sneak on 4th-and-1 was the product of dominant blocking from the left side, notably: tight end Alex Welch (aligned to the left of Martin), left tackle Zack Martin, left guard Chris Watt, center Braxston Cave, and the effort of the day – a huge surge into the fray by right guard Trevor Robinson, notable in that the play went far to his left…

3rd and 3 situations are going to be a constant struggle for this offense without the services of tight end and lead blocker extraordinaire, Mike Ragone; Ragone served as an H-Back in the team's power attack with Robert Hughes bull-dozing behind him late last season…

Asked Sunday why Jonas Gray didn't receive more than three carries following his 79-yard run, Kelly bluntly offered that Gray is "the backup." I agree there's no reason to lessen Cierre Wood's 20-24 carries, but you can lighten the load on Rees (41 passes has generally been too many during the Kelly era) and Gray could have done damage with 10 carries rather than three Saturday afternoon.

Since his game-changing fumble in the opener, Gray has rushed for 235 yards on 24 carries, numbers that would remain solid if you took away his 79-yard score.

In other words: Wood same, Gray more, pass less…

Irish in Pass Protection

Zack Martin continually keeps his man out of the pocket, but the standout left tackle committed his second painful personal foul penalty of the last three weeks (vs. Michigan as well), his illegal hands-to-the-face (pictured) negated an 18-yard gain to Eifert down the middle with the Irish reeling in the third quarter… I'm not sure if Gray missed a blitz assignment or Rees didn't call the right protection, but he result was a big hit on the QB during a 14-yard completion to Eifert (Gray broke to the opposite side of the pocket as the blitzer came from his left)…

Dever was late getting into his stance and beaten by first quarter speed rush (good break on the snap by Pitt DE Brandon Linsey), forcing a quick throw by Rees on 3rd and long. Exacerbating the mistake: Dever had help to the inside as Robinson had no defender to contain…A Dever false start completed a rough opening first 11 minutes for the right side of the Irish O-Line…

It appeared Cave was the only player that could have negated Pitt's delayed blitz that forced a Rees fumble and subsequent Pittsburgh field goal. The pressure came in tandem from the left side but Watt, Martin, and Wood (great cut block) each picked up pass rushers. The sacker (Tristan Roberts) crossed over Cave's face from right to left – it was either his responsibility (Cave was late attempting to get there) or no one's, and Pittsburgh simply out-schemed the Irish on the snap…

As expected, Notre Dame's staple play, the slot ("bubble") screen was blown up by a well disguised safety moving into the scrimmage area late…For the fourth time in as many games I witnessed a one-on-one pass rush move through Robinson's right arm, each has resulted in a QB pressure or holding call vs. the senior…Robinson looked a step late chasing a stunting nose guard, though it could have been a technical mistake by Watt who pulled into Robinson's path to the defender…

Players need to execute, but you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who watched the game and performed a film review who'd disagree with this assessment: Pitt's defensive movement and scheme was far more impressive than Notre Dame's preparation and subsequent in-game adjustments, at least for the game's first 50 minutes…The defensive play-caller for the Panthers was light years ahead over the entire first quarter, one that including a quartet of 3rd and long situations for Rees and the Irish…Credit to Kelly for a crisp, balanced, and layered (passes at 2-3 levels) game-winning drive…

Riddick emerged from another non-descript game to catch three passes on the final drive including a beautiful toe-tapper on the sidelines for 17 yards…The delayed shallow cross to the slot gave the Irish 31 yards on the day: once to Riddick in the first half for 17, then to Robby Toma to begin the winning march for 16 more… T.J. Jones is underrated after the catch. He generally acquires 3-7 more yards that aren't readily available…Notre Dame looked like it was early spring rather than late September when attempting a pair of tunnel screens in the second half (both intended for Jones)…

Pass or Run? Two comments regarding the game's penultimate play – a 3rd and 9 pass to Michael Floyd rather than rushing attempt to bleed more clock:

  1. The defender over Floyd in the slot blitzed – and Rees saw this coming. I'd have preferred a quick throw to Floyd rather than hook at eight yards (a tipped pass could have been disastrous) but running the ball would require the following.
  2. A successful punt with the intention of pinning the Panthers inside the 20-yard line vs. an unsuccessful punt that lands in the end zone – a net of 15 yards. In either case, Notre Dame's prevent defense would then take the field for the final 25 seconds...which has previously proven, "interesting"…

Previous results mean Irish fans have to live with the "risk" of a safe throw to an open Michael Floyd and subsequent QB sneak.


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