5 to watch: Irish offense

Irisheyes.com publisher Tim O'Malley offers Trojans fans five players to watch when the Irish have the ball Saturday night.

QB #5 Everett Golson -- The redshirt-freshman has improved in the season's final month, hitting for seven touchdown passes (plus three more on the ground) vs. just two interceptions in wins vs. Oklahoma, Pittsburgh, Boston College and Wake Forest.

Notre Dame's first true-threat signal-caller since the late 90s, Golson rushed for 239 yards in six contests preceding last week's win vs. Wake Forest when he finished with just one attempt -- but a career-best 346 passing yards in 2.5 quarters.

Golson has committed just one turnover in four starts outside of South Bend with six scores to his credit. Now the focal point of Brian Kelly's offense (he either passed or ran on 19 consecutive snaps in a comeback win over Pittsburgh), Golson has been sacked just twice in his last four outings after suffering five take downs vs. Purdue and three more vs. the stout defense of Stanford earlier this season.

RB #20 Cierre Wood -- His classmate Theo Riddick leads the team in rushing attempts and yards while ranking third in receptions and pass targets, but Wood is the team's best pure runner and a former 1,000-yard rusher in Kelly's offense. Remarkably elusive in space, fast enough to break off runs of 68, 62, and 55 yards to pay dirt this season, and very difficult to tackle once he breaks upfield, Wood saw his playing time dwindle much of 2012 as the result of a two-game suspension to start the season and Riddick's prowess as a pass catcher out of the backfield.

Look for both to receive more than 12 touches with the hot hand hitting as many as 20 vs. the Trojans in an effort to keep Golson in advantageous play-action passing situations. Wood produced his worst career outing vs. USC last fall, gaining five yards on five carries and showing little effort in pursuit of a swing pass fumble recovered by the Trojans in Notre Dame territory after the Irish had cut the lead to 24-17. USC iced the game three snaps later on a touchdown pass to Robert Woods.

WR #7 T.J. Jones -- Notre Dame's most improved offensive player since the teams met last October, Jones is second on the team in receptions, pass targets, and touchdown receptions while pacing the squad in first downs gained through the air.

Neither exceptionally big or fast, Jones is quick out of his break and shows excellent body control to contort for difficult catches, and operates at full speed on slants and tunnel screens, making him a dual-threat weapon when aligned to the wide field, either solo or in tandem with a slot receiver. Jones has developed as a perimeter run blocker despite a 5'11" 190 pound frame, and since he secured a sliding game-winning touchdown in overtime vs. Stanford, the junior has has trended as the team's second-best pass-catcher behind All-America tight end Tyler Eifert.

TE #80 Tyler Eifert -- One of the three best tight ends in program history, Eifert has the hot hand of late, catching 18 passes in his last three games including a touchdown and 85 yards last week vs. Wake Forest. He lines up as an attached tight end, boundary wide receiver, move tight end, and detached receiving option, often with a second tight end, 6'7" 260-pound sophomore Troy Niklas, serving as an in-line blocker for Brian Kelly's offense.

Eifert ranks first on the team in chain-moving receptions on third down (11) and is just four behind Jones with most first down receptions overall (29). When the Irish offense moves inside USC's 10-yard line, the 6'6" Eifert will get at least one if not two opportunities to go up for fade routes in the end zone as an isolated wide receiver to the boundary side.

Graduated wide receiver Michael Floyd was a first round pick last April but I expect the versatile, tough-as-nails Eifert to be tougher to replace following his graduation this spring.

C #52 Braxston Cave -- Left tackle Zack Martin will play well Saturday vs. USC. Ditto left guard Chris Watt. Right tackle Christian Lombard will battle through his share of challenges. Ditto right guard Mike Golic, Jr., at least in pass protection. The X-factor is Cave, a 5th-year senior playing his best ball of late but one who intermittently struggled relative to his three-year experience level through the seasons first seven contests.

If Cave plays well, both at the point and finding linebackers in space, its unlikely USC will control Notre Dame's rushing attack for 60 minutes. Conversely, if he struggles with the Trojans quickness up front, the Irish offense could find itself in too many second and long situations, and staying "ahead of the chains" has been crucial for the Irish on the road this fall.

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