Sunday Morning Drive Thru

Our weekly look at the yesterday's primary players, play-calls, and playmakers as Notre Dame's unlikely string of anxious Saturdays sets a school record.

According to Notre Dame Sports Information, the current Irish streak of six consecutive games decided by a touchdown or less is a new single-season school record (breaking the previous mark of five straight set in 1939).

Notre Dame has previously played six games decided by seven or fewer, but the contests spanned two seasons (1983-84).

The Decision

Weis was asked about Notre Dame's (failed) 4th and 1 attempt at the goal line. At the time, the Irish trailed 16-13 with just over 11:20 remaining in the contest.

"First of all I expected to score. We're only down three at the time. I figured if we get stopped it will be inside the one-yard line; the defense will (then) stop them; we'll get the ball back and we'll get right back there and score.

"Unfortunately we didn't get in. Fortunately the rest of the thought process worked out as planned."

The B-A-L-L-E-R

Two touchdowns, including the game-winner; a career-best 11 receptions; another 100-plus yard receiving effort, the 11th of his career (two shy of tying the program record held by Tom Gatewood).

The junior playmaker (11 separate plays covering more than 20 yards this season) has eight touchdowns on the year and ranks as the first Irish pass-catcher to top the 100-yard mark in three consecutive games since Derrick Mayes turned the trick in 1995.

Tate has become a complete receiver. He's reliable underneath, the ultimate weapon deep, and more importantly, nearly impossible contain over the course of 60 minutes in the open field.

"He's very good at making somebody miss," Weis observed of his free-spirited star. "You get this kid the ball and you try to tackle him one-on-one…good luck. If you're close to him you can make the tackle, but in the open field, one-on-one…it's tough sledding."

Tate was his usual amiable self post-game. "It's keeping people (tuned in) at home and making sure they continue to watch the game," Tate mused of Notre Dame's six-game string of nail-biters. "I don't know, I can't tell you why, but it says a lot about us. We don't give up. We do not give up. We will play until that clock is at 00:00 in the fourth quarter and says a lot about us that we will not give up and continue to play."

The Punahou Throw-In

Under-recruited before signing with the Irish last winter; panned by critics as the Punahou Throw-in (Toma's slightly more famous high school teammate at the Punahou School was Irish LB Manti Te'o) and lauded by his head coach in August, Irish true freshman Roby Toma made his first field appearance in Week Seven yesterday vs. the Eagles. The (generously listed) 5'9" 175-pound receiver caught two passes (and dropped a third) in extended first half action as the team's slot receiver.

The unexpected burning of Toma's first-year of eligibility was dismissed by Weis post-game:

"Late in the season?" Weis answered to the direct question. "It's halfway through the season.

"He's been knocking on the door for about the last month, and when (Parris) went down last week and then again early in the game, the guys that were waiting in the wings were the guys that were going to go in there. He was the guy waiting in the wings."

Toma's hands, route-running, and basic knowledge of his craft certainly appear advanced for a freshman, but he did appear to be the ideal candidate to benefit from an extra year of strength and weight gain prior to being thrown into the fray.

There is, however, little doubt the diminutive target can help the Irish move the chains over the team's final five regular season contests and winter Bowl game.

The Targets

Facing a Cover 2 defense that employs both safeties deep and its cornerbacks curiously soft up front, the Irish passing attack remained disciplined, rarely throwing downfield (once to Golden Tate in the shadow of their own goal) and often attacking the Eagles' cornerbacks and their huge cushions on the outer edges of the field.

"I told him (Jimmy Clausen) we're not throwing the ball down the field," Weis offered. "Now how would you like to be a front line quarterback told (he's) not throwing the ball down the field?

"(Weis told Clausen) They're going to play deep and we're going to dump the ball off. We're going to throw the ball in the flat, we're going to throw it underneath, and we're going to throw it all day long. As a matter of fact I saw he was 26-39 I thought that he'd be a little higher (completion percentage) because we were going to throw all dinks and dunks, but we didn't get the (running) ‘back out a few times…

"Offensively, that was the intent going into the game."

Irish Passing Targets vs. Boston College:

  • Golden Tate: 14 (0 between the hashes)
  • Duval Kamara: 8 (0 between the hashes)
  • Roby Toma: 3 (1 between the hashes)
  • Robby Parris: 2 (0 between the hashes)
  • Kyle Rudolph: 5 (4 between the hashes)
  • John Goodman: 3 (1 between the hashes)
  • Armando Allen: 1 – a check down from Clausen (between the hashes)
  • Robert Hughes: 1 – a dropped swing pass to the outside
  • Thrown-Away (No true target): 2 – both outside (obviously). One was called intentional grounding and resulted in a two-point Safety for BC.

(Note: The chart above was derived strictly from my game notes. A full film review Monday could show some of these were crossing routes, which I deem to be "inside the hashes" regardless of where he pass is actually caught).

Jimmy Clausen attempted 12 passes in the second half Saturday. All of which were directed toward Tate, Kamara, or Rudolph.

The (Continued) Conspicuous Absence

Through the seasons first five contests, freshman wide receiver Shaquelle Evans caught seven passes for 61 yards. He was targeted for three passes at Michigan; none vs. Michigan State; two vs. Purdue; and a career-best four vs. Washington (all of which he caught for a total of 34 yards). Each of Evan's seven receptions have occurred on hooks/hitches thrown under 10 yards and outside the hash marks, a fact that only exacerbates the confusion regarding the speedy freshman's now eight-quarter absence from the field.

In his Tuesday press conference, Weis was asked why Evans did not appear in last Saturday's contest vs. the Trojans (Evans was in full uniform).

"He was in the two-deep," Weis explained. "He just didn't get in..."

Yesterday, after the press conference, Weis graciously spent a couple of extra minutes with a gathered horde when the conversation again turned to the curiously missing frosh, especially since fellow first-year receiver Roby Toma saw his first game action.

(Weis was asked if Evans is healthy).

"Ya, he's an outside guy, not an inside guy. Toma is an inside guy. That's the difference between the two. Toma's a slot receiver. Shaq and Deion (Walker) are more outside receivers."

While that certainly explains Toma's presence (Evans hasn't lined up in the slot, in my recollection, since his first field appearance against Nevada on September 5), it raises one tactical question:

According to Weis, Clausen and Tate, the Irish planned to dink-and-dunk, throwing underneath and outside all day vs. cornerbacks that would play off the wide receivers.

While starting (outside) Z receiver Duval Kamara stresses the defense with his power after the catch, it is Evans who possesses the change-of-pace/make-them-miss elusiveness with the ball in his hands. Evans had made his early wares on the stop/hitch/hook route…one that was the (far and away) primary route run by Irish receivers on Saturday.

The Superstar

Jimmy Clausen's last six 4th Quarters (and overtime):

42-71, 546 yards, 6 touchdown passes, 0 interceptions, 1 rushing touchdown.

Those are facts fans can follow at home over the next few weeks (though the final period should be irrelevant next week in San Antonio…at least it better be).

But the game-within-the-game was once again the key for the school's sublime signal-caller. Trailing 9-6 with 4:40 remaining in the first half, Clausen engineered a patient, nearly flawless end-half drive to regain momentum and give the Irish a halftime lead.

The junior completed 9 of 10 passes (the incompletion bounced off his open receiver's chest and hands) for 64 yards on a drive that culminated in a Clausen-to-Tate 11-yard touchdown pass.

Clausen converted both 3rd Down opportunities on the drive, one with his legs (carrying and stretching for three yards on 3rd and 3 from the ND 48-yard line) and the other with the Irish facing 3rd and 4 at the BC 18-yard line, drilling a pass to Tate for seven yards and a first down.

Clausen added a six-yard scramble on the drive, accounting for 73 of the 74 yards gained over the four-minute march.

The Fancy Fake

Leading 3-2 midway through the 2nd period, Notre Dame lined up for an apparent field goal attempt, snapping the ball from its own 10-yard line. But holder/former punter/baseball pitcher Eric Maust handled an awkward-looking snap and carried the ball 10 yards around the right side for an unmolested rushing touchdown.

The score was called back due to a holding call on sophomore Lane Clelland. To clear up any confusion, the faked ield goal attempt was designed as such...well, almost.

"The snap was supposed to be about six feet lower," Weis jokingly exaggerated when asked of his fake field goal ploy. "Actually it was a snap to Eric and if we got a certain look (defensively), which we got, it was a walk-in touchdown. It was supposed to be snapped like a regular field goal attempt.

"We had 3 for 3 (blocking) over there," Weis continued. "It was going to be a walk-in but the operation didn't run that smoothly and obviously we got the penalty."

The Good Question

In his post-game press conference, Weis was asked a fair, an ultimately troublesome question:

If BC could force you to keep the ball in front of them, and go ‘dink-and-dunk,' why can't you duplicate (that plan/scheme).

"You could," Weis answered. "You could go into a game and just play everybody in coverage and play two-deep behind it. You could try to do that.

"Now you leave yourself very vulnerable in the run game. (BC) just rushed the ball for 300 yards last week. If you do that (play back and force the opponent to run/throw short) against a team that just showed you the strength of their team coming into this game is their rush offense, you better take away what they do the best. And that's what we did."

While that certainly explains Notre Dame's plan-of-attack defensively Saturday, it nonetheless ignores the greater issue: the overall soundness of the team's defense through seven games and its propensity to surrender large chunks of yardage.

To be continued…

The Bottom-Line

Notre Dame held the Eagles to 70 rushing yards on 29 carries. Sophomore running back Montel Harris, he of the 120 yards vs. the Irish in 2008 and 264 yards vs. NC State last week, managed just 38 yards on 22 carries, fumbling twice.

The Head-Scratcher

Whether you prefer to call them wheel routes (Weis); picks (Irish fans/opposing play-callers); or short-crosses (to simplify), the Irish secondary continues to struggle to cover this backyard pass route.

It's been a simple formula for opposing offensive coordinators: align two receivers on one side of the field + 2 Irish defensive backs + said receivers immediately crossing paths in some manner + Irish defensive back(s) losing one of the two targets = open receiver and yardage gained.

My two cents as a guy that's paid zero dollars per year to coach defense:

Notre Dame never, and I do mean, NEVER switches defensively to guard against this basic football pattern. They're obviously coached not to do so, and that's fine…or at least it was in theory before Michigan (twice on the game-deciding drive), Michigan State (at least twice); Purdue (one) Washington (at least five occasions including an open incompletion 20 yards downfield); USC (three); and now Boston College (for a 2nd Quarter TD) hadn't each riddled the Irish DBs with the simple maneuver.

(And those numbers are off the top of my head, which suggests there are additional occurrences).

Since I'm still paid zero cents to fix the problem, my work is here is finished and in the hands of DB coach and Co-Defensive Coordinator Corwin Brown.

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