Eye in the Sky: Passing Attack

Part I of our weekly breakdown of the Irish offense examines the play of Everett Golson, Tommy Rees, and each's pass targets in Saturday night's win over the Wolverines.

Quarterbacks Everett Golson (3-8, 2 picks) and Tommy Rees (8-11) squeezed off a Brian Kelly-era low 19 pass attempts Saturday night. The absence of a touchdown pass marked the third such occurrence in the 30-game Kelly era, though Rees accounted for a touchdown on the ground (his first).

Golson's initial offering and the first offensive snap of the game for the Irish, was a sideline route to an open Chris Brown that was thrown too flat and short, and into Cover 2 defense to boot, the latter the root cause of a Ramone Taylor interception that gave Michigan 1st and Goal at the ND 10-yard line after Golson showed his frustration with a 15-yard face mask penalty (the Irish defense, of course, held).

A perfect, front shoulder throw was necessary to squeeze the ball into the small window, and Golson threw to Brown's back shoulder instead.

The Irish ran three straight on the ensuing drive before Golson was stopped for no gain by Jake Ryan after dancing in the pocket. Tight end Ben Koyack lost his block vs. Ryan, an ill-conceived matchup vs. the high-effort Ryan as Koyack has struggled mightily in pass protection vs. three Big 10 teams this season. (Prior to the play, a press box conversation went as followed: "Ryan vs. Koyack on the left, this is trouble…")

Faced with a 3rd and 8 as a result, Golson threw high of an open Daniels on a left sideline hitch route that would have been good for a first down, forcing a punt. Dating back to the beginning of the Michigan State game (Week Three) through the end of Saturday's contest with the Wolverines, the Irish offense has converted just four of its last 23 third-down conversion attempts.

With the score still knotted at zero after an end zone interception by safety Nicky Baratti, the Irish again came out running, with four carries earning a first down as The Opening quarter ended. Faced with 3rd and 4 at their own 37, the passing game's preferred mode of transport to date -- a bubble screen -- was sniffed out by the Wolverines back seven as Koyack missed a block on Ryan (and held him, no call) in space, and Theo Riddick was limited to one yard. Left tackle Zack Martin executed with a crushing block in space while Troy Niklas whiffed in space as well and the Irish were forced to punt.

Missed Opportunity #1: Blessed with a 1st and 10 from the Michigan 17 after a Manti Te'o interception, Golson threw deep of an open Tyler Eifert down the pipes, a diving attempt by Eifert to no avail. The play was expertly designed and a first in my Kelly-viewing era, as Eifert served as the move blocker behind scrimmage (a de facto fullback), he then released directly between center and right guard down the middle of the field, past Michigan linebackers and into the open for what should have been six points for the Irish.

Golson has shown poor touch on the deep ball through four games this season.

Now faced with 3rd and 8, the Irish again called upon a tight end downfield, this time a post-route to Troy Niklas that was well covered by a host of Wolverines. The incomplete pass near the goal post was well-thrown by a pressured Golson as only Niklas had a shot at it (Irish left tackle Zack Martin was caved in on the play and Golson was hit upon his release on a ball that actually glanced off a diving Niklas' right hand) and the Irish settled for a field goal and 3-0 advantage.

Golson's 5th and final drive of the contest started better than the previous four, with the redshirt-freshman hitting Riddick on a backfield release to the right flat and a gain of 13 yards, the final four of which were gained by Riddick who likely employed a few too many fakes at the end of his run. The ensuing snap was a 16-yard (wobbly) rocket down the post to Golson's classmate DaVaris Daniels, who first stymied the throw located high and behind him before reeling it in for a first down.

Two snaps later, Golson committed his chief error of the evening, a colossal mental mistake in which the rookie rolled right and instead of airmailing the pigskin out of bounds (on 2nd down and goal from the 10-yard line, mind you), lofting a dying quail into the general vicinity of a well-covered Daniels. The result was a gift interception and the end of Notre Dame's best scoring threat of the evening to date. (My in-game note read: "worst pass/decision ever?")

It was appropriately Golson's last pass of the half, and in this case, his last of the evening as he gave way to Tommy Rees for the second time this season.

My two cents: Golson was clearly overwhelmed by the magnitude of the contest and never fully settled in. A read-option keeper and/or bootleg in which he eventually finds contact with a defender (or gains yardage) might be prudent to get him engrossed in the upcoming game against Miami before he's asked to read a defense and throw downfield as he was Saturday night.

I don't think Kelly had a "short-leash" on Golson in this game, I'd have benched him too because that pass was an unconscionable, potentially game-changing mistake, but I'd have likely gone back to him to begin the second half with a 10-0 lead.

Rees Rides Again

Two snaps after he entered the contest, Rees escaped inside pocket pressure and scrambled to his right and found Daniels for a 16-yard gain. Daniels maneuvered from far left to beyond the right hash to secure a low, back-shoulder pass from the rolling Rees for a first down. Nice read of Rees' scramble by the young target…

After a pair of Irish runs gained 5 yards down to the Michigan 30, Rees threw intentionally short (a back-shoulder fade) down the left side line to classmate T.J. Jones, who leaped and chest caught the offering for a 25-yard gain despite defensive pass interference vs. Michigan's best cornerback, J.T. Floyd.

Set up at the 6-yard line, Rees then fired a 1st and Goal wheel route to Riddick for 5 yards as the latter took a shot just short of the goal line -- nice concentration by Riddick and an alert hit by the omnipresent Jake Ryan to stop him short. Following a pair of penalties on the Irish offense (illegal shift; false start), Rees missed Daniels deep in the left corner (threw cautiously too far) before Eifert drew his fourth pass interference call of the season and second at the goal line, changing the Irish fortunes from 3rd and Goal at the 11 to 1st and Goal from the 2-yard line.

The element of surprise took over thereafter, with Rees in a spread-out empty set taking the shotgun snap and sprinting over right tackle for an uncontested score. The first rushing score of his career seemed to take advantage of Ryan, who shifted to middle linebacker on the play and took two false steps to the offense's left (with in-line tight end Troy Niklas his responsibility) as Rees dove over the right side.

Credit a double-team block by Braxston Cave and Mike Golic and a nice outside seal by right tackle Christian Lombard for the easy score.

Notre Dame entered halftime with a 10-0 edge as a result.

Rees' first two series of the second-half included a pass broken up at the line (Ryan again); an 8-yard hitch on 3rd and 10, a field-side out that died before it could reach Jones.

Notre Dame's third series of the half and first of the fourth quarter produced the half's only scoring march for the home team, one that answered Michigan's first score, a field goal that cut the Irish lead to 10-3 with 13:10 remaining. Rees began the series with a quick swing pass right to Riddick and the elusive senior did the rest, planting his right foot for a vicious cut-back in space that made would-be-tackler Thomas Gordon look foolish. A tremendous block by Koyack (vs. Ryan) and a nice seal by Niklas gave Riddick room to go one-on-one: advantage, Irish. Good to see Koyack bounce back for a key block in space...

Following three Irish rushes, Rees tossed his first dangerous pass of the day, a roll right and high sideline throw to Jones for 11 yards, but one that could have been intercepted by a better cornerback. Nice catch by Jones on a contested high pass…

Rees didn't throw again on the drive, but five rushes, 13 yards, and one encroachment penalty by the Wolverines later, Kyle Brindza kicked a 39-yard field goal to put the Irish back up by 10, 13-3 with 6:46 remaining.

Rees would throw just one more pass and it was the most important play of the contest. Leading 13-6 with 2:35 remaining and facing a 3rd and 4 at the ND 31-yard line, Rees diagnosed a Cover 0 (no safety) defense and immediately checked out of a designed quarterback draw (one that had worked for a score previously), signaling instead for Eifert to run a SLUGGO route (slant-and-go) from the near sideline.

Isolated one-on-one vs. Michigan cornerback J.T. Floyd, Eifert stepped hard inside at the first down marker, then broke down the vacated sideline, running under Rees' cautious throw at the 49 before finally being brought down at the Wolverines 33-yard line. The catch was Eifert's first since midway through the third quarter in Game Two vs. Purdue and was the decisive play of the contest.

-- Rees made the perfect throw to Eifert -- cautious and slightly behind him -- as the goal was a game-clinching completion, not a big downfield strike.

-- Rees attempted just seven passes in the second half, due partly to a dearth of snaps: Notre Dame had just seven in the third quarter with a lone first down.

-- Notre Dame is 10-0 under Brian Kelly when attempting 30 or fewer passes in a contest.

Note: Part II will examine the Irish rushing attack and include overall observations of the offense against the Wolverines.

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