Irish OffenseHead coach Brian Kelly's offense ranks 22nd nationally with 467 yards per game, enjoying the balance of the nation's #29 passing attack and its #30 rushing effort. Historically poor in the red zone early in the season, the Irish have bounced back with nine touchdowns and a field goal in their last 10 trips, and 13 scores in 14 forays overall inside the opponents' 20-yard line. For the season, the Irish nonetheless rank 105th in red zone efficiency.
Quarterback #11 Tommy Rees – The sophomore replaced chosen starter Dayne Crist at halftime of Notre Dame's 23-20 season-opening loss to South Florida and the Irish haven't looked back since, though Rees has not been without his foibles. He tossed six interceptions in his first 115 pass attempts but hasn't thrown a pick in his last 97 (dating back to the first half of Game Four). Rees committed nine turnovers in his first five halves of football this season but has not suffered a miscue in the last five, throwing eight touchdown passes over that same span.
The Rees-led Irish have scored 97 points over the last two games after sputtering to a 15-12 win in Pittsburgh. As a true freshman starter in Los Angeles last season, Rees threw three interceptions and lost a fumble at the 2-yard line that led to USC's only score in a 20-16 upset win by the Irish.
Running Back #20 Cierre Wood – Notre Dame's breakout player of 2011 is on pace to have the most yards rushing, touchdowns, and highest yards per carry at the program since Julius Jones in 2003. Wood has produced the first three 100-yard rushing games of his career this season, amassing 650 yards and six scores on just 113 carries.
The Oxnard, CA-native led Notre Dame in rushing last season as a seven-game starter, finishing with 603 yards and five total scores (rushing/receiving). He finished with a game-high 89 yards on 18 carries in the teams' matchup last November at the Coliseum. Wood has improved greatly in pass protection since last year – his redshirt-freshman season, and has fumbled just once in 113 carries after dropping the ball four times in 119 last fall.
Wide Receiver #3 Michael Floyd – Senior star has produced four double-digit reception games as four (coinciding) efforts with more than 100 receiving yards through six contests. Floyd is the program record holder in receiving yards, receptions, receiving touchdowns, 100-yard games, and receiving yards per game as a four-year starter.
The 6'3" 220-pound target ranks as the team's best perimeter blocker and the best blocking wide receiver at the program since at least Maurice Stovall in 2005, if not the Lou Holtz era. Floyd has paved a path for three rushing scores for the RB tandem of Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray already this fall. He recorded 11 receptions for 86 yards and a touchdown vs. the Trojans on Thanksgiving Saturday, 2010 – oddly his only meeting vs. USC after suffering injuries prior to the teams' previous two matchups.
Wide Receiver #7 T.J. Jones – Ranks fourth on the squad with 21 receptions, two fewer than he recorded as a true freshman starter (7 starts) last season. Quick after the catch and a true north-south runner, Jones generally aligns to the field side of the offensive formation. After showing well as a perimeter blocker for the season's first five games, Jones struggled mightily vs. Air Force, missing three separate blocks that resulted in lost yardage on the offense's oft-used "bubble screen" pass. Jones did not play vs. the Trojans last season due to a neck injury suffered in Week Nine.
Slot Receiver #6 Theo Riddick – Had his best game in more than a calendar year in the 59-33 win over Air Force, catching a game-high eight passes for 83 yards including a back-breaking 24-yard short catch-and-run to bury the Falcons in a 42-16 hole at the end of the first half.
Riddick was held without a catch at Purdue and snared just one ball vs. Michigan State (both Irish victories) but nonetheless ranks third on the squad with 234 receptions, 236 yards, and three touchdowns. The former running back was slated to be the team's punt and kick returner as well but a lost fumble and another muff in the season-opener vs. South Florida laid waste to those plans (and Notre Dame's hopes for a 1-0 start).
Riddick will likely be used as a backfield weapon, often in motion prior to the snap, in Saturday night's contest.
Tight End #80 Tyler Eifert – One of Notre Dame's five best players to date, the massive junior (redshirt-sophomore) target already ranks among the nation's best tight ends and is second behind Floyd in receptions (32) and yards (363), through six games. Was named the John Mackey Tight End of the Week for his 8-reception, 75-yard, game-winning TD effort at Pittsburgh. The Fort Wayne, IN-product secured four passes on the game-winning drive, not including a two-point conversion catch following his score.
Solid though unspectacular as an in-line blocker, Eifert is often detached from the formation where his 6'6" 250-pound frame adds an imposing figure in front of screen passes or on the team's stretch runs to the boundary side.
Eifert played a key role in last year's Irish win in the Coliseum, recovering a Cierre Wood fumble on Notre Dame's game-winning march. His 32 receptions and 363 yards is the best six-game stretch for a tight end at the school in nearly 35 years, unmatched by former first and second-round draft picks Mark Bavaro, Derek Brown, Irv Smith, Anthony Fasano, John Carlson, and Kyle Rudolph.
Left Tackle #70 Zack Martin – The team's best offensive lineman earned a starting nod in the spring of 2010 as a redshirt-freshman and never looked back, winning the program's Guardian of the Year award as a first time starter – an honor for which he's a lock this fall as well. Martin excels in space, performing second-level and downfield blocks of which no other Irish player – and few nationally – are capable. At 6'4" 310 pounds, Martin can hold up at the point as well.
Left Guard #66 Chris Watt – The line's only first-time starter excels at the point of attack and aside from Floyd, is the offense's most physical player from snap-to-snap. Watt's best two games of the season have been his last pair, both as a pulling guard through the hole and at the second level. At 6'3" 310 pounds, Watt has been described as a "bowling ball with legs" by classmate and Irish LB, Dan Fox.
A weakness in the early stages of his career remains his pass blocking facing opposing stunts up front.
Center #52 Braxston Cave – The 6'3" 303-pounder remains the team's strongest player and is in line to be a three-year starter as an expected 5th-year returnee next season. Cave is at his best in one-on-one situations, is also adept at blocking on the move, but as head coach Brian Kelly offered last season: "He doesn't always block the right guy…"
Cave seems to have corrected that weakness this season, his second as a starter. A key aspect of the team's running attack is his ability to perform "combo blocks," something the staff noted was a weakness for the nearby Mishawaka, IN-product last season.
Right Guard #78 Trevor Robinson – A senior and four-year contributor (Robinson has started the last three years and at the tail end of his freshman season), the 6'5" 311-pounder has played the best ball of his career over the last month, this after a curious 2010 season in which he struggled to adapt to both off-season weight loss and the new offensive scheme.
Kelly noted three weeks ago that Robinson was the line's most improved player. Over the last two contests, his ability to pull through the hole has helped the Irish to a combined 553 rushing yards and staggering 8.0 yards per carry.
Right Tackle #75 Taylor Dever – Solid backside protector and blocker at the second level, Dever is the least publicized of the team's suddenly strong front five but the 5th-year senior has played winning football since winning his first starting job as a true senior last August. Though far less talented than his predecessor at the position, four-year starter Sam Young, the 6'5" 301-pound Dever has arguably been a more consistent player, rarely giving up the big sack and committing only his share of penalties (one tripping call and a pair of false starts this season).
Key Reserves: Notre Dame's offensive line remains largely intact through the game, though 5th-year senior guard Andrew Nuss will see occasional time.
Running Back #25 Jonas Gray – The senior is the team's most improved player to date and one of the team's 10 best players through six games. Gray bounced back from an opening drive fumble (returned 96 yards for a score) in the first game loss to USF to average an astounding 8.4 yards per carry (43 rushes), while scoring the first four touchdowns of his Irish career. His 79-yard sprint-and-score at Pittsburgh was the longest touchdown run for an Irish player in 10 years.
Slot Receiver #9 Robby Toma – Diminutive junior target scored the first touchdown of his career last week vs. Air Force. Toma started in last year's contest between the teams; his 5'9" 175-pound frame has a knack for finding a hole in zone coverage and rarely does the first tackler stop Toma from gaining additional yardage. Manti Te'o's high school teammate through the block of the season for the Irish, taking out three Michigan players (one in a solo block on the perimeter, then crashing into two others in pursuit) to free teammate T.J. Jones for touchdown catch and run.
Tight Ends #82 Alex Welch and #18 Ben Koyack – Neither the 6'4" 245-pound redshirt-freshman (Welch) nor the 6'5" 253-pound true frosh (Koyack) have been involved in the team's passing attack; both are key members of the jumbo package in short-yardage situations. Both entered the season better regarded for their pass-catching skills, but only Koyack has a reception this season.