Starting Offensive Backfield
Tommy Rees will make his ninth straight start and 13th overall since last November. The Irish are 10-2 when the sophomore opens as the offense’s triggerman. Rees has hit for 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions (plus four fumbles lost) this season while completing 65.6 percent of his passes for 2,096 yards.
With his next pair of touchdown throws, Rees will tie program legend Joe Theismann for seventh on the school’s career list.
Joining Rees in the backfield will be the running back tandem of Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray. Wood leads the Irish in rushing attempts (143) and yards (808) adding eight touchdowns. He’s added 23 pass receptions (5th on the team) while suffering two lost fumbles. Gray has started the last two contests and leads the team with nine touchdowns (all rushing). His 7.2 ypc average ranks fifth nationally and he’s supported Wood’s effort with 594 yards, though Gray leads the Irish in yardage over the last four games (268).
New Rotation: Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
Senior star Michael Floyd has been as advertised, leading the team in receptions (68), receiving yards (832), touchdown catches (6) and quality downfield blocks. Of Floyd’s 68 receptions, 43 have resulted in Irish first downs including nine in third-down situations. Floyd’s top supporting character is junior Tyler Eifert, who ranks second on the squad in each major receiving category (43 receptions, 506 yards, 4 TD) and leads the team in third-down receptions that have moved the chains (13 of his 14 third-down grabs have resulted in a first down or touchdown).
Eifert is in the midst of the best season for a tight end at the program since College Football Hall of Famer Ken MacAfee’s senior year of 1977.
Sophomore “X” receiver T.J. Jones suffered a blow to the head last week but he’s been deemed full-go by the Irish staff for tonight’s contest. Jones ranks fourth on the team in receptions (29) and receiving yards (296) while tying Theo Riddick for third on the squad in touchdown catches (3).
Riddick will miss tonight’s game due to a hamstring injury suffered late last week in Winston-Salem. He’ll be replaced in the lineup by fellow junior Robby Toma (third career start/first this fall). Toma caught the first touchdown pass of his career in Game Six vs. Air Force to kick-off October but has been quiet since with just one catch over the last three games and he didn’t see the field at Wake Forest last Saturday.
Jones can also move inside to offer reps in the slot, a move that will allow senior backup John Goodman more snaps as an outside receiver. Goodman registered the first big-time grab of his 2011 season last week at Wake Forest, a leaping 17-yarder near the end of the 3rd Quarter.
Look for a four-man rotation today with Floyd rarely leaving the field and Jones, Goodman, and Toma serving as interchangeable parts (Toma can serve at both slot and X receiver as well).
Senior Deion Walker and converted quarterback Luke Massa will both travel with the team should one of the quartet of pass targets listed above succumb to an early injury. Also available for emergency action is sophomore Daniel Smith, a member of the team’s kickoff coverage unit since returning from a leg injury for Game Eight (Navy). If the Irish become short-handed late (four injuries at wideout) expect more two tight end sets as Game 10 would be too late to lift the redshirt season from true freshman DaVaris Daniels (who generally travels with the team as well).
Eifert’s backups at tight end are redshirt-freshman Alex Welch and true freshman Ben Koyack – Koyack played extensively last week in the team’s full-house backfield, a running formation. Both players have one catch this season. Welch did not play last week at Wake Forest.
For the first time this season, the Irish front five will feature a new starter: senior Mike Golic takes over for injured classmate Braxston Cave, out for the season due to foot surgery. Cave is expected to return for a 5th-year in 2012 and join the Irish at practice next spring. Golic played the bulk of Saturday’s win over Wake Forest, faring exceptionally well after an early missed block vs. a quality nose guard in Nikita Whitlock.
Flanking Golic will be left guard Chris Watt (nine career starts, all this season) and right guard Trevor Robinson (36 career starts, 2nd only to Floyd among offensive players). Robinson, it was revealed last week, is in charge of the line checks (audible), making Golic’s assimilation to a full-time role a bit easier.
Zack Martin will man the left tackle spot for the 22nd straight game; the Indianapolis junior (redshirt-sophomore) is the team’s best offensive lineman and ranked second on Irisheyes.com overall player list entering November. 5th-year senior Taylor Dever will make his 19th start at right tackle since last season’s outset. Dever was out of the lineup for a portion of 2010 with a hamstring injury.
Fellow 5th-year Andrew Nuss will serve as the lead backup at three interior spots: left guard, center, and right guard, while redshirt-freshman Bruce Heggie is next in line should two interior injuries occur. Heggie’s classmate, Christian Lombard, will backup both tackle spots. Should he go down, Nuss is the next man in there as well.
Expect true freshmen Nick Martin (T) and Conor Hanratty (G) to both make the trip as emergency backups. Neither will play unless the Irish were to be faced with just four healthy starters – a highly unlikely event that would nonetheless burn a season of eligibility for either member of the pair that has been withheld from action to date.
Also expected to travel with the offense: QBs Dayne Crist, Andrew Hendrix, and Everett Golson and walk-on Matt Mulvey; running backs George Atkinson, Cam McDaniel, and walk-on Patrick Coughlin, as well as injured tight end Mike Ragone (out for the season, knee). Crist is the No. 2 QB while Hendrix could appear in special packages as he did vs. Air Force and USC in October. Golson will not see action this season.