Eye in the Sky: On the Ground

Our weekly film review of Notre Dame's rushing attack shows the good, the bad, and the promising in Saturday night's win over the Wolverines.

Click here for Part I and a look at the Irish passing attack.

Notre Dame's opening play drive -- one play and one pick -- served as a precursor to an ugly opening quarter that featured just eight offensive snaps, six of them rushing plays.

Tight end Tyler Eifert (inline) and WR Daniel Smith (boundary) started off strong, both executing seal blocks to give Cierre Wood room for 7 untouched yards on the right side; motion by Theo Riddick stopped Michigan corner J.T. Floyd from breaking toward Wood off the snap…Wood adds five more over the left side thanks to straight up zone blocking success from TE Troy Niklas (inline), LT Zack Martin, and LG Chris Watt

Wood's ensuing 1st Down rush yields just two yards over right tackle as C Braxston Cave is late getting to middle linebacker Jake Ryan and a pulling Martin must abandon his assignment on the outside 'backer to take on the charging Ryan as the thus unblocked Kenny Demens makes the stop…

Poor pass protection on second down and an errant throw by quarterback Everett Golson on third ends Notre Dame's drive and the Irish have just 14 total yards, a punt, and a turnover through the first eight minutes and two possessions of the opening quarter…

2nd Quarter

Sophomore George Atkinson was quiet for the second straight home games, logging just four carries for four net yards including a 5-yard burst to start Notre Dame's third offensive series behind a strong push over the right side's zone blocks, and one snap later, Theo Riddick did the same, hammering over right tackle for six yards thanks to a tremendous block by RT Christian Lombard and a pancake effort from RG Mike Golic -- an a rare instance of back-to-back pushes produced by the line Saturday night...

The Irish managed another six yards on two carries by Wood (4 over the left side after a nice cut at scrimmage) and Atkinson (2 yards on a nice stop by unblocked middle 'backer), but turned to the bubble screen on 3rd and 4, falling short of the sticks due to missed blocks by both tight ends (Ben Koyack and Troy Niklas) in space, forcing a punt…

Neither of the next two series offered much for the Irish ground game with two carries -- one series apiece -- with a Riddick run stopped in the backfield on missed blocks by Watt inside and a free-running Jake Ryan from the left side, and a 1st Down at the 10-yard line carry by Atkinson resulting in no gain as the Wolverines won up front, including a strong charge down the line by Craig Roh inside of Lombard (Eifert was beaten in his attempt to block defensive end Will Campbell as well).

Golson threw an ill-advised pass that resulted in an interception one snap later.

The Irish ground game found similar results with backup Tommy Rees under center as Atkinson lost another 3 yards on a mis-direction handoff similar to the play that gained 32 one week prior at Michigan State. Unlike targeted Spartans defensive end William Gholston in East Lansing, Michigan backside defensive end Jake Ryan stayed home to disrupt the play and deny Atkinson an outside lane…

After a first-down throw, Riddick gained five on two carries (no push on the left side on the first; Lombard and Golic beaten at the point on the second), while Rees took the Irish to the shadow of Michigan's goal line thanks to three completions, two defensive penalties, and a culminating touchdown from from two yards out, the first of his career.

Rees' shotgun draw plunge was made possible by the efforts of a double-team by Golic and Cave and a great seal by Lombard as the Irish took a 10-0 lead into the break.

Second Half: Struggling Until Crunch Time

Notre Dame's third quarter consisted of four rushes, three passes, and just one first down, that coming on a 15-yard burst by Cierre Wood midway through the quarter. Wood was initially hit after two yards but ran through a shoulder and arm over the right side as Niklas, Eifert, and Lombard all executed key blocks...

Wood and Riddick were both corralled on the trio of remaining attempts: Riddick on a sprint right when wide receiver DaVaris Daniels failed to control 5th-year safety Jordan Kovacs in space, and a crucial 2nd and 6 carry by Wood stopped when the senior danced a bit too much in the backfield, likely the result of his prior run that earned four yards thanks to some nifty footwork on the edge.

(Wood was replaced by running backs coach Tony Alford following the play; the latter seemed to indicate to Wood he failed to turn it up and hit the hole as designed. Notre Dame punted following an incompletion on 3rd and 6 to end the drive.)

4th Quarter -- Finding a Way: For the second straight week, Notre Dame's rushing attack earned its keep late, this time firing off 24 timely yards (albeit on seven carries) to aid a field goal drive that extended the lead to 13-3 with 6:46 remaining, then finishing the game with five carries for 16 yards -- and the aid of a 38-yard pass to Eifert -- to kill the clock.

Riddick was the man for each of the 12 totes (and a reception), lowering his head for first downs on 2nd and 2 (four yards over the right boundary thanks to seal blocks from Koyack and Lombard), 2nd and 5 (seven yards thanks again to a hesitation cut by Riddick, then to domination by Eifert in space vs. the talented Ryan and a double-team by Niklas and Martin on the edge), and ultimately on 3rd and 8 (8 yards up the gut) to conclude the contest...

Riddick's clutch 3rd and 8 conversion was made possible by power at the point from Cave and Watt, a vicious down block by Martin, and a pull by Golic (albeit with the aid of an undetected hold) allowing the Irish to avoid a dangerous field goal situation -- up 7 from outside the 20-yard line -- and kneel out the clock.

Riddick's speed through the hole was essential on the play as well.

Observations

-- Riddick also burrowed through the middle for five yards twice on the final two drives, once completely shaking linebacker Joe Bolden in space, and another time for four more to keep the Irish in advantageous down and distance situations in an effort to move the chains.

-- The former slot receiver's one-cut, north-south style and low pad level is ideal for short-yardage situations. His toughness inside isn't a learned trait but ranks as the running game's pleasant surprise of the 2012 season to date. Among his greatest contributions to the win was a four-yard cut and fire through scrimmage on 2nd and 8 that set up Notre Dame for a manageable 3rd and 4 (the 38-yard "SLUGGO" route to Eifert the end result) on the final drive.

-- Irish receivers and tight ends need to be more consistent with their footwork in space, with notable missed blocks suffered by Jones, Daniels, Goodman, Koyack, and Niklas vs. the Wolverines. Jones has been solid in this regard most of the season while NIklas has been better in-line than in space. Koyack got the last laugh on his in-game nemesis Jake Ryan, securing the aggressive, crafty 'backer twice in the fourth quarter.

-- Daniel Smith and Eifert (especially in space) earn the highest grades vs. the Wolverines, though Smith has fewer opportunities than his co-horts.

-- Notre Dame finished with just 94 rushing yards on 31 carries, but 34 of those were earned on the game's final two series on determined runs by Riddick, who earned the Irisheyes.com offensive MVP award for his efforts.

-- Rarely do rushing attacks struggle throughout a contest then win at the point in the fourth quarter and when it matters most as has Notre Dame's in 2012.


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