Eye in the Sky: Xs, Os, and Rees

A breakdown of Notre Dame's success from the "Pistol" formation, its lack thereof in empty backfield sets, and a look at quarterback Tommy Rees cutting up the defense inside the hash marks -- in limited opportunities.

Coming Up Empty

Notre Dame employed an empty set (no running backs) on 28 of the game's 72 snaps Saturday night, including the entire final drive (out of necessity).

Trailing 17-10 midway through the second quarter, offensive coordinator Chuck Martin and head coach Brian Kelly dialed up the offense's first empty set look, and after completing a 23-yard pass to T.J. Jones on his initial offering, Tommy Rees and the offense produced the following results:

Prior to the final drive: No runs, eight incomplete passes not including three dropped passes, one interception, and gains of 7, 7, 9, 9, 13, and negative two yards.

Final Drive: One sack, one incompletion, gains of 10, 21, 12, 11, 7, and 7 yards, plus a game-ending interception.

Notre Dame's ability to move the ball on the final drive from the empty set is skewed as the Wolverines defense was tasked with keeping everything in front of them -- completions weren't of utmost concern.

The Irish first showed an empty set on the game's fifth drive (and a 23-yard gain to Jones was the initial result). Of those remaining five completed passes for positive yards (7, 7, 9, 9, 13), just one picked up a first-down (a gain of 7 yards on 2nd and 5), though the 13-yard gain was a well-conceived middle screen to Niklas on 2nd and 15.


Conversely, the Irish offense produced the following results when a shot-gunned Rees was accompanied by a solo set-back aligned behind him, aka, the Pistol formation.

Incomplete Pass
+0 run (on third and short)
+4 run
+12 run
+12 pass
+2 run
+6 run
+20 pass
Dropped pass
-2 run
+14 run
+7 run
+13 run
+7 pass
+4 run
+7 pass
+20 play-action pass TD
+5 run
+16 run
+11 pass

-No empty sets on the final drive (as a Pistol and/or play-acting would be ineffective down 14 late).

Of the gains made in the Pistol formation, only four snaps (+0, +2, dropped pass, -2) did not aid the offense, either by gaining a first down or contributing to an advantageous down-and-distance situation thereafter.

Inside the Hashes

Rees attempted 14 throws inside or on the hash marks Saturday (a crossing route caught outside the hashes is thus counted as well) vs. 37 outside the hash marks.

11 of Rees' 14 throws were completed for a total of 138 yards and a touchdown. He had one pass picked off (twice tipped) and another dropped that should have been.

+22 post to Daniels
3rd and 4 crossing touchdown to Jones (off of Atkinson)
Incomplete cross to Carlisle
+21 to Daniels on a post
Middle hitch to Jones incomplete
hitch to Niklas +9
Cross to Niklas for 20-yard touchdown
Slant to Jones +9
Middle screen Niklas +13
Dig to Daniels (dropped INT)
Seam right to Niklas +21
Slant to Daniels +12
Hitch to Niklas +11
Wheel/cross to Carlisle tipped twice and intercepted.

That's four gains of 20 yards or more including a touchdown, three others in excess of 10, two more for nine yards, an interception, a dropped interception, and just three total incomplete passes (including the pick).

Pass Targets

Rees threw 51 passes Saturday night (and Andrew Hendrix one). The breakdown is as follows:

- T.J. Jones: 19 targets, 9 receptions, 94 yards, 2 drops
- DaVaris Daniels: 10 targets, 6 receptions, 63 yards, (one target from Hendrix included)
- Troy Niklas: 8 targets, 6 receptions, 76 yards, a 20-yard touchdown, one interception, one drop
- Chris Brown: 4 targets, 3 receptions, 28 yards
- George Atkinson: 5 targets, 1 reception, 16 yards, 3 drops
- Amir Carlisle: 5 targets, 2 receptions, 9 yards, one interception
- C.J. Prosise: 1 target, 1 reception for 16 yards
- Corey Robinson: 1 target, 1 reception for 12 yards
- Spike to stop clock

Rees Much Better, But...

Does Tommy Rees have the hardest job among American amateur quarterbacks?

Each play -- and in the case of Saturday night, 52 of them ended up relying on his right arm in the end -- Rees endures the following:

Study the defense relative to the initial play-call, adjust accordingly, make alignment change, alert potential blitz pick-up change, mind the play-clock, survey the defense, change cadence to slow their jump off the snap, read the safety post-snap, go through progressions on approximately a 35-yard patch of land occupied by seven or eight defenders and three to five pass targets, deliver a pass to the appropriate target, accurately, on time, maybe take a hit while doing so…

Lather, rinse, repeat, for 70+ snaps pending his total number of handoffs, none of which carry the threat that he might keep the ball and take off for cheap yardage. And therein lies the rub…

Because Rees can't do what Devin Gardner, or Conor Reilly, or Everett Golson, or even Dayne Crist could do, i.e., pick up yardage and a few first downs with his legs, his margin for error is miniscule. Near-perfection is necessary to complete a drive with seven points rather than three, or none.

Irish fans should root for Rees because he maximizes his ability; they should likewise prepare to lament the lack of deep passes this fall, the absence of a quarterback escaping on 3rd and 4 for first down yardage, and the likelihood that if asked to throw 35 or more passes, one of them will fall into the wrong hands…

A few game observations from Rees' Saturday evening in Ann Arbor:

A bit of foreshadowing by Kirk Herbstreit with this intro on Rees, "He's got to keep his composure, avoid the disastrous play, and when he gets his one-on-one opportunities, he's got to capitalize."

Rees missed an easy throw to T.J. Jones on the game's second play that would have resulted in first down yardage and the Irish punted two plays later -- he can afford that less than those quarterbacks that can make the spectacular happen…

Hit a nice seam on the third series to Daniels for about 22 between the safety and corner…Orchestrated a tremendous pre-snap blitz pickup -- executed by Amir Carlisle -- on third-and-nine that resulted in an 18-yard flag route by T.J. Jones. On the play, Rees checked pre-snap to bring a slotted Carlisle to the backfield, positioned him (physically) with his hands, and the junior 'back did the rest, stoning an edge blitzer to give Rees time to deliver the chain-moving strike…

Fired an early second quarter post to Daniels as well, maybe his most fluid throw of the evening for 21 yards…Followed in rhythm two snaps later from the game's first empty set, a 23-yarder to Jones on a corner route from the left slot. Jones appeared to injure his shoulder on the ensuing hit, and that's going to be the case each week if he continues to be targeted a remarkable 19 times by his quarterback…

Nearly four seasons in, Rees still struggles with the corner end zone fade…Still a bit hesitant to move away from a four-man rush -- he's just sitting in the pocket and waiting for it to collapse…I thought he threw too soon to Carlisle in the red zone, settling for four yards on 3rd and 10 from the 11 and a subsequent field goal…The red zone is going to be a problem this season if Notre Dame can't pick up at least six yards prior to third down…

Rees missed a few throws but that's to be expected in 51 attempts. One of note: Carlisle on a deep flag to the left with a huge window to throw into. The killer, of course, a game-altering interception on a roll left late in the half that handed Michigan a 20-yard swath of land and ensuing touchdown for a 27-13 lead at the break…Interceptions happen, but this was unacceptable as a veteran starter, pocket passer, or leader…

Blitzing Rees on 1st and 10 is pointless, unless your goal defensively is to set up 2nd-and-3 -- he's a machine picking the right read and hot receiver…

Rees showed guts taking a back side shot from Jarrod Wilson on a crucial 3rd-and-5 out route to Jones…Nice corner route to Jones that was a half-second late, but an All-American has to make that catch (or better, Cris Carter would have caught it for a 17-yard gain)…Bad read by Rees late on a dig route throw to Daniels that should have been picked by James Ross. Jones was open underneath…

A prime example of the need for perfection: on 4th-and-4 in the fourth quarter, trailing 34-27, Jones had a full step on his defender on a pass that fell in-bounds, two yards past him. It's a touchdown if Rees could buy a half-second with a slide to his left -- then again, Daniels ran a hitch when a hot-read slant would have resulted in an easy pitch-and-catch first down with room to run…

Notre Dame's running game will have to improve if the Irish are to score consistently vs. athletes from Michigan State, Oklahoma, Arizona State, USC, BYU, and (wow) Stanford. With a reliable ground attack and threat of more play-action passes, Rees can thrive as a senior whose confidence will not be shaken.

IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories