Target Practice

IrishEyes examines the nation's most efficient passing attack and how the Irish might adjust to the loss of sophomore wide receiver Michael Floyd.

Every group of kids had one. Growing up, playing football in the park or backyard, we all had a friend that no one could cover. He was too fast; too tall; too strong. Every once in awhile that friend could be considered all of the above.

So he got the ball. A lot. Way more than necessary and generally because the ball was thrown high and he simply out-jumped or outran the poor kid covering him.

That's what Irish junior quarterback Jimmy Clausen had in star receiver Michael Floyd and that's why 27 of his first 76 total passes this season were thrown in Floyd's direction. To be precise, that's why only five of those 27 footballs were thrown at Floyd when he was inside the hash marks – an area of the field which finds the receiver often removed from (an obvious) one-on-one situation vs. an opposing cornerback as he is when operating on the outside portion of the field.

Floyd made the most of those five inside-the-hash passes, catching four (one for a touchdown) while turning his three other receptions into Irish first downs.

Clausen has a similar scenario when he looks to his left – the wide side of the field on which junior receiver Golden Tate is generally aligned. Clausen has thrown Tate 29 passes (eight of which occurred after Floyd's injury in the second quarter last Saturday vs. the Spartans). Of those 29 passes to Tate, a whopping 26 have been thrown to the outer portion of the field (including Tate's bubble screen receptions – a play designed to flow outside and one that generally targets the receiver to the outside or at least on the hash mark).

In fact, of the 99 passes thrown by the Irish this season (including three penalized plays), only 21 have been targeted to a player inside the hash marks (if a player ran across the field and then caught a ball outside the hash marks, I've deemed it an "inside catch" as the goal of the route was to utilize the middle portion of the field).

  • Slants: 5 – (Three to Floyd (one incomplete when Floyd stopped and the ball was nearly picked off); one to Parris; one to Kamara)
  • Middle Outlet Pass: 3 – (Two to Gray; one to Allen)
  • Square-In: 3 – (Two to Tate; one to Floyd)
  • Posts: 4 – (Three to Rudolph, two of which were complete including the season's first touchdown; and one to Floyd, also for a touchdown)
  • Seam: 1 – (Incomplete to Rudolph vs. UM)
  • TE Screen: 1 – (To Rudolph from Crist)
  • RB Screen: 1 – (To Hughes from Crist - though this play was heading outside).
  • Shallow Cross: 1 – (Rudolph vs. MSU - though caught near the sideline and detailed below)
  • Deep Cross: 1 – (To Tate - also caught going toward the sideline, which is of course by design and necessary)
  • Wildcat: 1 – (Armando Allen threw a skinny post TD to Parris)
  • Unaccounted For: 2 – (There are two passes thrown during which the weather interfered with my Michigan game tape and TV signal).

Why the recurring emphasis on the outside pass? Well one obvious reason is the success rate. Floyd was a walking mismatch vs. any cornerback in a one-on-one situation: why bring him closer to other defenders who could possibly offer aid to their defenseless teammate?

A second, less simplistic (unless you're calling the plays) reason is that most teams have employed a Cover 3 defense vs. the Irish – one that employs a safety in the middle of the field. Again, why run Tate or Floyd deep into an extra defender when both have four route options near the sideline (out, comeback, hook, go) with which to torment a single defender?

Which leads us to the question? Why do teams play a Cover 3 (or Cover 4) when they had so much success in the past playing Cover 2 (which succeeds in taking away the deep sideline throw).

At the risk of oversimplifying: The Irish running game has improved in '09... and there's a big, extremely coordinated dude capable of splitting the seams.

Monster in the Middle

The player targeted inside the most thus far is (fittingly) 6'7" tight end Kyle Rudolph, who's seen six passes inside/over-the-middle as detailed above. But Rudolph has been targeted for more than twice as many sideline passes, flairs, and bubble screens through three weeks than he's been asked to work the interior – in other words, even Weis' prototype, over-the-middle tight end target regularly runs routes that take him outside the hash marks.

It's a point of contention for fans; a curious concept for me to grasp; and an extremely effective method of attack for head coach Charlie Weis and his quarterback as no team in college football has moved the ball as efficiently through the air as have the Irish.

The old sports adage for defensive players: "the sideline is your friend" apparently doesn't apply to cornerbacks facing the Irish in '09.

But the Irish might be forced to change over the next nine contests.

Different Skill Sets

To be blunt, there was one development early in 2008 that began the fan crusade vs. Weis (and/or Clausen) regarding the proclivity for the outside pass route: the insistence on the fade route to then-sophomore Duval Kamara.

Prior to the ascension of Michael Floyd as a starter; prior to the transformation of Golden Tate from athlete to receiver; Duval Kamara was Clausen's go-to guy. Outside-the-hash passes vs. San Diego State, Michigan, and Michigan State offered mixed results (and three interceptions intended for Kamara's hands) which caused a furor on Notre Dame message boards ("what happened to the slant?") and this continued reliance on the outside pass compelled your favorite beat writer to track every throw to the then-freshman Floyd (only 16 of his 48 receptions last season were caught inside the hash marks).

I spoke to wide receivers coach Rob Ianello about the development in the pre-season (he was intrigued, but offered a reasonable – and accurate – "Michael is very good on the deep route and Jimmy throws a very good deep ball") as well as acknowledging a freshman receiver won't have extensive route knowledge, that the comeback route is the adjustment to the deep fade, etc.

But with Floyd out. And with coverages sure to roll-up on Tate (to "roll-up" simply means that the defense will play its safety closer to Tate's side to take away the threat of the one-on-one deep sideline route), Charlie Weis will be forced to adjust, as Kamara and senior Robby Parris won't dominate defenders in outside one-on-one situations.

With Tate and freshman speedster Shaquelle Evans, the Irish will still attack defenses with the deep ball, but the inclusion of the field's middle region should also become part of the Irish downfield attack.

Slants to Tate (and hopefully Kamara, who caught passes on four inside routes in a breakout game vs. Purdue as an '07 freshman); Rudolph down the seam; a few more of those heavily drilled square-ins that we see practiced by a set of seven receivers each Tuesday during the media's viewing session… the Irish will likely intersperse each (in addition to his pinpoint control on outs and comebacks, Clausen throws the world's most impressive square-in pass) to augment what has been a complete domination of the opponents' sidelines.

The deep cross (a staple of the Quinn years) returned to the Irish passing attack in the second half of last Saturday's win over the Spartans (Tate's 54-yard reception on a 3rd quarter deep cross was the third longest catch of his college career).

So to did "the Shark," a pass pattern run repeatedly by former wideout Jeff Samardzija who, lined up on the near right of the offensive line, simply ran a shallow cross – behind the middle linebacker – to the opposite sideline, often getting lost by the defense after Irish receivers on that side had cleared the coverage with deep routes (Rudolph recorded a key 13-yard gain on 2nd in 10 midway through the final period running Shark's old route, though Rudolph didn't go in motion as did Samardzija prior to the snap).

The X-and-Z-Factors

Kamara will start in Floyd's stead and he, according to Weis, is full-speed after early August (arthroscopic) knee surgery. Parris, who stepped up in the spring and retained his role for the Week One, two-deep depth chart with a strong performance throughout August, will serve as a reliable underneath set of hands and as a player that can execute the in-line block for the running game. Evans (who can "really run" according to his coach) will likely run go routes and comebacks (and one can only hope be targeted on a few of Weis' beloved bubble screens).

But what about the two lanky athletic sophomores that had recruit-niks and diehard Irish fans all atwitter in the off-season? Tate's backup at X-receiver Deion Walker certainly looks the part, making four of the five best catches I've seen in our limited practice viewing, and grabbing an 18-yard comeback from backup QB Dayne Crist in the season-opener.

Kamara's backup at Z-receiver, John Goodman, took back a punt 24 yards on his first career touch earlier this season vs. Nevada, and has garnered the reputation of "football player" around the Irish program: an athlete that can play multiple positions in addition to his ability as a pass-catcher.

While one or both could emerge as a go-to guy over the next three seasons, the '09 Irish offense needs one of them now. From tonight's contest against the Boilers through next Saturday vs. upstart Washington and then over the ensuing Bye week, one unproven Irish receiver needs to step up, graduate from his current status as a promising curiosity of the fan base, and actually catch a key third down from the nation's best drop-back passer.

If not, the top-ranked Irish offense will regress. Deteriorate from special to simply solid, and the re-born running game would likely suffer a bit as a result.

Devastating Blow

A friend/colleague of mine once pointed out that "decimate" is an oft- misused term, as it means to reduce by a factor of 10.

Which begs the half-serious follow-up question: Did the loss of Michael Floyd literally decimate the Irish offense?

Floyd is the best Notre Dame player to suffer a season-ending injury since (at least) All-American LB Michael Stonebreaker tore his ACL in an off-season car accident prior to the 1989 season.

That the Irish offense will miss him is inevitable. But they'll miss him even more if Weis, a coordinator who consistently found a way to score vs. the top defenses in professional football by keeping opponent's off-balance, doesn't return to his roots and utilize the entire field. It's on Weis to ensure that the whole of the Irish receiving corps is greater than the sum of its parts.

There's enough talent among the wideouts to allow the ND passing attack to remain among the nation's finest. But the Irish have a slim margin for error after an underachieving and uneven '08, and the still distasteful loss two weeks ago in Ann Arbor didn't help. Weis, with his astute knowledge of the passing game, must again find a way to put players in a position to succeed.


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