Eye in the Sky: Passing Game

Photo courtesy Matt Cashore- US-Presswire

O'Malley's breakdown of the Irish passing game in Saturday's 40-point blowout of Navy

Two words can best summarize Notre Dame's buttoned-down passing games Saturday vs. Navy: "short" and "left"

Head coach Brian Kelly, or redshirt-freshman quarterback Everett Golson, or both, decidedly favored the left side of the offensive formation against the Midshipmen, firing 13 throws left and five to the right (with none down the middle).

Saturday's reliance on throws to or outside the hashes was likely an effort to break Golson into the speed of the college game, with one or two reads on nearly every pattern and little chance for error on the dreaded late throw over the middle that fells so many young passers.

(For a full breakdown of Everett Golson's pass targets click here.)

Three of Golson's five passes to the right side were bootleg sprints after play-action. Golson connected with a wide-open Troy Niklas 15 yards downfield for an 29-yard gain on one of the boots. The play appeared identical to that of the drop suffered by Ben Koyack on the game's opening drive. (Golson also threw high and a touch to hot to Theo Riddick on a boot to the flat near the end zone, missing an open DaVaris Daniels in the back of the end zone -- the redshirt-freshman breaking open late on the play.

Of Golson's 18 passes, six could be considered mid-range or downfield (the two bootleg detailed above) along with two comeback routes to Daniels (one completed), a downfield go-route to Daniels for 35 yards, and what appeared to be an attempt at a back shoulder toss to Tyler Eifert that was way late and intercepted.

Three-Play

As noted in the film review of the Irish rushing attack, Notre Dame's trio of tight ends played a prominent role in the offense, both in the red zone and elsewhere, and on every offensive touchdown until the game's final garbage-time score.

With two "Rocket Screens" (tunnel screens) to T.J. Jones, three quick sideline looks, and multiple swing passes populating the attack, blocking in space was at a premium. I noted sophomore Troy Niklas for three solid blocks in the passing game but with two poor efforts as well, including a whiff and later a missed assignment that resulted in a 5-yard loss on a quick shuffle from Golson to slot receiver Davonte' Neal, who motioned through the backfield at the snap.

Niklas' best block was in space on a release from the line (outside right tackle) in which he completely controlled his defender to allow Riddick 14 yards on a swing pass to the right. Fellow tight end Ben Koyack looked the part in space as well, dominating his man from a detached tight end spot on the play normally occupied by Tyler Eifert.

Koyack dropped two passes, one that would have resulted in at least a 15-yard gain, the other an even easier grab late from Andrew Hendrix on the sidelines. Koyack later caught a pass from Hendrix and rambled for a 23-yard gain.

NIklas showed rare athleticism on his only catch, the second boot to the right, accepting a pass at waist-level from Golson on the run and reaching the shadow of the goal. The 6'7" 260-pounder probably won't allow a weak ankle tackle to keep him from pay dirt on his next opportunity.

As expected, Eifert was the passing game's focal point, targeted six times with four receptions and a touchdown. Golson's touchdown pass to Eifert was a flatly-thrown boundary fade route; the previous pass, one high and outside but ruled out of bounds, was much better despite the end results.

Eifert took two quick look passes from Golson for positive gains (one first down) and three of his four grabs resulted in first downs or a touchdown.

Perimeter Points

Junior T.J. Jones executed both of the Rocket screens (one to each side of the formation) running with abandon and spinning out of tackles for gains of 14 and 16 yards. The first was aided by a cut block from Robby Toma along with Toma cut, right tackle Christian Lombard and right guard Mike Golic showing well in space, as did Niklas. Zack Martin led the way on Jones's second such reception with left guard Chris Watt getting his block at the second level.

Jones began 2012 far better than he ended 2011.

Freshman Justin Ferguson got on the stat sheet in his debut, catching a 9-yard hook from Hendrix in the fourth quarter…Lost among the good vibes of slot receiver Robby Toma's first rushing score was the fact that the senior was not targeted for a pass on the afternoon…TOma's backup Neal was not targeted downfield, catching only the backfield shuffle for lost yardage…

The third true frosh, Chris Brown, played early but was not involved in the passing game, nor was senior John Goodman, who executed two nice blocks downfield despite a pulled groin suffered in practice prior to game week…Junior Daniel Smith's first career reception was a throwaway one-yarder down the line from Hendrix, well short of the sticks. Smith added a key block downfield on George Atkinson's 56-yard TD run as described in the rushing column linked above…

Redshirt-freshman DaVaris Daniels, a surprising contributor as a run blocker, was lazy and showed poor technique on two comeback routes to the left side (one completed). Daniels showed good concentration on a 35-yard catch-and-run down the left sidelines to make up for one of the poor routes, though he allowed himself to be pushed out of bounds too easily before corralling the pass -- all correctable mistakes that pale in comparison to solid blocking from a redshirt-freshman…Daniels time will come when the Irish passing game begins to stretch vertically.

Coach-Speak: According to head coach Brian Kelly, Golson's intercepted pass to Eifert was doomed from the start due to poor footwork -- he also appeared to stare down an initially open Eifert, breaking free of the line, for the duration of the play…

Golson suffered just one sack that apparently wasn't his fault Said Kelly of the play, (Zack Martin) recognized it as three-down, and it was a four-down look…so there was a communication error there.  So Everett didn't see it coming."

Observations

Golson showed his escapability in the only instance it was necessary, but his scramble up, the out of the pocket to the left for first down yardage was erased by a more costly penalty on the Navy defense. His ability to shuffle forward in the pocket, then bounce backward and immediately to the side will be valuable weapon in plenty of pocket escapes this fall…

Four of Andrew Hendrix's five passes were to the right side, the only incompletion a drop by Koyack. Hendrix never looked comfortable saddled with second string offensive lineman and what appeared to be a quintet of one-read patterns…Golson's attention to detail waned on a swing pass to the left side that sailed wide of an open Riddick, who had room to roam…

With starter Cierre Wood returning in a week, backup runner Cam McDaniel proving he can catch a short pass in stride and execute in space, and Riddick's obvious acumen in the short passing game, George Atkinson III might not get his number called often for screens and swings to the flat, at least until he proves trustworthy...

Saturday's matchup on the Emerald Isle provided very few tests in pass protection, either for the offensive line or Golson. Look for more scrambling out of the pocket for gains to the sideline vs. Purdue as the Boilers' defensive front will get better pocket pressure than did the Mid's.

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