Eye in the Sky: First Half Offense

Eye in the Sky: First Half Offense

Lack of imagination, but more important, a notable lack of aggression, physicality, and efficiency when needed plagued the Irish in a uninspired first-half effort.

Players Reviewed: QBs Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix, RBs Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray; WRs Michael Floyd, Theo Riddick, T.J. Jones, and Robby Toma; TE Tyler Eifert; OL (from left to right) Zack Martin, Chris Watt, Braxston Cave, Trevor Robinson, and Taylor Dever. Kick return team: George Atkinson, Troy Niklas, Steve Filer, Justin Utupo, Bennett Jackson, Dan McCarthy, Cam McDaniel, Chris Salvi.

Stunted Growth

"It's a long way from where we want it to be, we're just making really good progress. If you look at it in the long-term success, we're not there yet, but short-term we've made some pretty good progress."

Brian Kelly's words at the outset of Saturday's telecast, while accurate, did not manifest between the lines; his previously potent offense stymied by a USC rush defense that entered the contest ranked #19, a pass defense near the dregs at #105.

I don't mean this sarcastically, but the opening kickoff might have been the loudest point of the contest. It was absolutely electric in that Stadium – easily the best pre-game moment since the same teams squared off in 2005. Only George Atkinson's touchdown return and the kickoff following Jonas Gray's score early in the 4th Quarter came close in terms of energy/volume.

First Quarter Woes: Tommy Rees' ill-timed off game began early, his first throw to Michael Floyd on an open slant was a tick behind his target, allowing unlikely Game MVP Nickell Robey to bat it down – the Irish should have started with 12+ yards rather than a 2nd and 10… Cierre Wood got off to an inauspicious start as well, choosing the wrong gap as right guard Trevor Robinson pulled over the left side; Wood ran directly to (a filled) right side and was stopped for a yard…Wood then allowed inside ‘backer Chris Galippo a free run at Rees on 3rd and long, though a nice designed blitz by the Trojans, making Wood choose between two pass rushers in the same gap…

Wood's lone early play of note: an 8-yard swing pass with his requisite cut-back to gain extra yards in space on Notre Dame's 4th play from scrimmage… I can only imagine what USC outside ‘backer Dion Bailey ponder as he defended Rees and Jonas Gray on the second drive's surreal "option" call. Perhaps, "should I go tackle Gray, and if Rees keeps it, I'll just peel back and stop him before he gets to the line of scrimmage? And on a related note, doesn't there have to be a second option for it to technically be an option? Losing 2 yards on 2nd and 2 killed the drive...Wood's subsequent failure to go north-south after a short third down catch (caught short of the sticks forcing punt No. 2) looked more like the tentative redshirt-freshman of early last season rather than the playmaking force that had emerged in 2011…

Can one be mechanical and at the same time indecisive? That's how I'd describe Rees in an uninspired first quarter…

USC's defensive line was quick off the ball early, beating Robinson and either Martin/Watt inside to stuff Gray's first run. In fact, the Irish front four looked a step slow the entire first quarter…

Has there been a worse quarter of football this season? Notre Dame had as many total yards (14) as USC had points and the Trojans ripped off nearly as many rushing attempts (13) as the Irish had for the entire contest! (14)

Sometimes time of possession does matter: USC possessed the football for 10:26 of the game's first 15 minutes, completely destroying Notre Dame's prime-time music-filled momentum, and stifling a crowd that had no reason to cheer (other than joie de vivre, but I digress)…

2nd Quarter

Rees' first completion of note was to Robby Toma – on the first play of the 2nd Quarter – it was nice sit down route by the junior target who frankly needs to be in every third-down passing situation…Can Riddick move to the backfield on third-down when more than five yards is needed? At least as a change of pace, as he obviously has better hands and comparable running skills to Wood/Gray…

ND could have used an early break from the official on the no-call vs. Nickell Robey, who appeared to interfere with Floyd running down the post…It's criminal that Gray didn't get more carries; the senior offered an effortless, decisive cut inside to turn 0 yards into 11 on and inside draw. Gray was sprung by a late seal block from Robinson, but kudos to Gray for reading the hole…

Upon further review, I think more "blame" can be placed on Kelly for the team's uninspired start than I levied post-game. This was a mess vs. an athletic, but only average defense. Credit the Trojans for varying their scheme, however: not a lot of Tampa 2 played in the first half vs. Rees and the Irish…

Taylor Dever's false start was sloppy and its become a bit too regular for the 5th-year senior/2nd-year starter, turning 2nd and 4 to 3rd and 9 for an already reeling offense…In fairness to the mouth that roared, USC inside ‘backer Chris Galippo played well early: he pressured Rees into an incompletion on 3rd down, stopped Gray in space on a boundary swing pass two series later, and of course, hustled to recover Cierre Wood's fumble later in the contest. His one tackle seems fitting vs. a team that rushed an obscenely low 14 times for the game…How is that possible?

Wood had a first down in his sights but slipped after the catch, forcing another Irish punt – three in three possessions. A terrible start by Wood, Irisheyes.com's No. 2 overall ND player through the season's first six games…Floyd was wide open inside on the same 3rd down, but Rees didn't see him….

Our first Theo Riddick sighting occurred on the fourth drive; a nice leg drag by the junior to secure a 9-yard catch on an out to the field side – that might have been Rees' best throw of the day…Change-of-pace QB Andrew Hendrix entered on the next play and Wood gained a first down thanks to a generous spot after his 2nd and 1 rush failed to gain an inch. That break doesn't come close to evening out the luck the Irish lacked Saturday night…

Hendrix's subsequent read-option was sniffed out immediately as no backside Trojans defender budged on the quarterback's fake handoff to Wood…Hendrix was lucky not to be picked off on 2nd down one snap later – that would have resulted in an epic rout…

Okay, Tommy, 3rd and 8, get back in there and make something happen: I'm not sure I agree with taking out Rees after his best pass of the game so Hendrix could try to provide a move-option vs. 11 defenders quicker than he…I think his insertion was a bit forced, though hindsight is 20/20…Rees responds with a flag route to Floyd as the senior target broke open on a comeback, incomplete…

Notre Dame's first 18 plays net 59 yards. USC struck on the next drive for a field goal and 17-0 lead…

Freshman George Atkinson provided the first sign of life, taking USC's third kickoff 96 yards to the house and cutting the lead to a more manageable 17-7 with 3:22 remaining. Atkinson was the beneficiary of a great early block by a flying Justin Utupo – the linebacker's second-best strike of his kick return season to date – and tremendous sideline blocks from freshman Troy Niklas and seniors Dan McCarthy and Steve Filer, though sophomore Bennett Jackson might have uselessly held McCarthy's already blocked man…Credit freshman Cam McDaniel for not clipping at the end, and for walk-on Chris Salvi's savvy: the grad student got his teammates out of celebratory mode as referees came over to spoil the unit's end zone fun…

After a defensive stop gave the Irish the ball with 1:55 remaining, Kelly dialed up an effective in-traffic crossing route underneath, Floyd springing Riddick free and the junior followed with a breathtaking move in space, gaining 25 yards for Notre Dame's best play through the first 28 minutes of the first half (Robey lost some laundry, never touching Riddick on the juke)…

Rees followed with another field side out to Jones for 16 yards, then after an awkward throw-away on a roll to his right, found Riddick for 9 yards on 3rd and 8 – good speed and field awareness by Riddick to run directly to the marker and out of bounds. Riddick beat Galippo on a shallow cross on the play; that's six short crossing routes to Riddick resulting in five first downs (one a touchdown) in Notre Dame's last two first halves (Air Force and USC)…

Bad sign No. 2 (you know, after rushing totals in single digits): Tyler Eifert recorded his first catch with under a minute remaining in the opening half…A Rees drop-off screen to Wood one play later costs the Irish their last timeout. Kelly appeared furious at Wood, but that was likely frustration; Wood hesitated, but he had nothing in front of him and couldn't have made it to the sidelines if he was Barry Sanders (or Robert Woods). Either a bad play-call by the head man or poor decision by Rees to drop that ball off underneath…

How did Einstein define insanity? Doing something over and over and expecting a different result…since Rees has proven he can't throw a fade route accurately, why call it? His no-chance pass to Floyd vs. the miniature Robey sailed out of bounds, but the routes opposite were terrible: three nothing slants all easily covered. Where's the inside-the-10 imagination? A bunch? A cross? A combo of Floyd and Eifert? The Irish rarely made USC defenders make a choice...Rees ended the half's best drive missing an open Eifert on a smash route in the corner – a poor throw from the harried sophomore…Good pace to the drive but an uninspired, inefficient finish ends in a field goal and 17-10 halftime deficit.

In short, the Irish offensive front struggled with Trojans quickness early; Rees was off target and overwhelmed by the moment and the team's two stars, Floyd and Wood, were disengaged from the jump. Credit Theo Riddick for a solid first-half effort.

Note: Our review of the offense in second half review is forthcoming…

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