Eye in the Sky: Running Game

O'Malley's first of four film reviews examines Notre Dame's rushing attack in Saturday's 50-10 win over Navy.

Three newcomers to the first unit offense offered solid debuts as run-game blockers as tight end Ben Koyack and the line's inexperienced right side of Mike Golic (RG) and Christian Lombard (RT) handled their business as potential question marks entering the contest.

I noted Golic for 10 quality blocks and one negative (rushing plays only) in film notes in his first start at right guard, the highlight a pancake block on Notre Dame's first touchdown of the second half, but perhaps the most impressive aspect of his opening effort was the execution of pulling blocks down the line of scrimmage; if that continues, Notre Dame will have its most athletic line in recent memory.

I had Lombard down for 7 solid blocks and no major errors (all notations have a direct impact on a play, not everything is graded away from the ball) but the real story was Koyack. The sophomore dropped two passes Saturday but was instrumental in both the 293-yard rushing effort and short passing game, appearing nine times in my notes for solid blocks on running plays with two more excellent efforts blocking on screen passes, vs. just two negatives (one a lazy finish downfield on a Cam McDaniel run of 19 yards, the other a error of indecision on The Opening drive.

That type of production from a No. 2 (or 2A) tight end will be crucial going forward.

The star of the show as expected was senior left tackle Zack Martin (10 positives, no negatives in the running game) with key blocks on two of the team's five rushing scores including completely collapsing his defender on the opening score, and 11-yard burst by Theo Riddick, a play that involved three tight ends in the formation (more on that below).

Riddick showed a decisive, one-cut style with low pad level explosive finishes to his runs, a major surprise for a player I thought might try to do too much in his first backfield start since 2009. He'll turn several would-be eight-yard gains into 20 yard runs over the course of the season.

Technical starter George Atkinson delivered the offense's highlight with a gorgeous cutback to the middle and sprint left for a 56-yard score. It was the only meaningful offensive touchdown in which three tight ends weren't on the field simultaneously (there were two: Tyler Eifert and Troy Niklas). Atkinson first gained 9 yards over the right side thanks to a Lombard block, then benefitted from a hammer blow by Niklas, a solid block from Eifert in the slot, and downfield efforts by Daniel Smith (right side) and DaVaris Daniels, who cut off Navy's remaining safety to give Atkinson a clear path -- top tier speed handled the rest.

Three tight ends contributed to each of the team's next three offensive scores as well as its first:

Rush TD #1: Three tight ends for the aforementioned 11-yard burst by Riddick was aided by Eifert on move, Koyack with a great block at the point and wide receiver Daniels sealing his defender at the second level. Martin collapsed his man to give Riddick initial room.

Rush TD #2: Two tight ends for Atkinson's home run as described above

Rush TD #3: Three tight ends again as the play goes over right guard: Lombard and Koyack control the point, Eifert executes on the move move and Daniels offers another effective seal block to allow Atkinson three yards untouched for the score. Golic pancaked his man to create the huge hole.

Rush TD #4: Three tights again, this time a 3-yard score for Riddick over left tackle where Martin offered a seal, Daniels held his block well at point, and Koyack delivered a shot in space (old-fashioned "wham" block) for the easy score. Riddick's sharp cut didn't hurt.

Three tight ends were also on the field for the offense's only passing touchdown, a 5-yard fade to Eifert.

A Closer Look

In the game's three decisive quarters, Notre Dame ran 18 plays left; 10 to the right; and four I deemed up the middle of the Navy defense. (LT/LG is left; RT/RG deemed right.)

Though Troy Niklas fared well, I thought he was a bit too high at times and was better in-line than on the move. I had Niklas for seven solid blocks and three in which he could have benefitted from a lower base/attention to detail…Eifert was noted for 10 quality blocks with just one error in which he lost his defender late downfield…

Chris Watt was a brute as expected with words such as "hammer, pile-drive, and drilled" accompanying my notes that included 10 quality blocks and one missed effort. Watt cut-down a Navy defensive lineman on the snap during Atkinson's 56-yard score -- without that seemingly innocuous execution, its likely the defender would have been in traffic during Atkinson's cut-back rather than on the ground.

Notre Dame's receivers seem willing in space with Daniels the most impressive in extended duty (noted for four quality blocks including twice on scores) and freshman Justin Ferguson showing well on the game's final drives with three nice efforts including a key downfield block that led to the game-ending score by slot receiver Robby Toma.


Third-string 'back Cam McDaniel will help this team, and a series per game is advisable for the hard-charging, quick-footed sophomore. McDaniel's low-center of gravity, decisive cuts, low-pad level, and knowledge of the position in the spread makes him a viable backup vs. future competition, even if he's generously listed at 5'10".

He never quit on a run, shows good power when he turns his pads, and nice vision in traffic. Like Riddick, McDaniel can be a weapon on screen/swing passes as well.

Atkinson runs strong through traffic and did a good job of protecting the ball with two hands in space (an obvious coaching point). He's a gazelle in the open field but the 9 carries he received yesterday might be ideal for when Wood returns as his feel for the position does not yet match Riddick's or Wood's. What the Irish can't do is allow him to fade from the offense when Wood is back, because he's a big play waiting to happen and appears to show good discipline in the backfield, following the old adage of Lou Holtz's offensive line coach Joe Moore, "Give me four yards; what you do after that is up to you."

I had C Braxston Cave for six solid blocks with no glaring errors…Senior WR John Goodman was effective as a run-game blocker in limited snaps despite a groin injury…Daniel Smith should be but playing time is crucial to that end…The line's ability to run in unison on zone-blocked stretch plays to the outside was impressive on film…If Riddick finishes runs with that much power all season, he'll hold off Wood for the rushing title as he'll likely have a 185-205 yard head start…

After a shaky first series, third-string center Matt Hegarty settled down to execute a couple nice blocks in space late…Freshman LT Ronnie Stanley will need to play less stiff, but he had a nice seal block to allow McDaniel an outside lane in the 4th…Backup QB Andrew Hendrix runs with power and abandon -- I still believe his role on this team is as a change of pace for Golson and possibly as a short-yardage QB or red zone weapon on the read-option…

Senior slot receiver Robby Toma showed some nice quicks with his one-cut toward pay dirt on an 11-yard rushing score to end the contest. Toma was not going to be denied, stretching every inch of his 5'9 frame to cross the goal. He can thank backup RT Nick Martin at the point and Justin Ferguson near the goal line for the glory. (If you're wondering why McDaniel wasn't in for the score, he appeared to turn his ankle two plays prior.)

Zack Martin and Watt give the Irish a chance to run the ball vs. anyone on their schedule.

Up Next: A breakdown of the Irish passing game.

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