Eye in the Sky: Passing Attack and O-Line

Nothing came easily Saturday for the passing game

O'Malley's second offensive film review of Saturday's win over BYU examines the Irish passing attack with Tommy Rees, red zone woes, and a lack of pace in the proceedings as well as offensive line notes from the contest.

Game No. 7 on the Irish schedule ended in the same fashion as the previous six, but this Notre Dame win contained none of the pre-game hoopla and hype as did its predecessors. And the pace, or lack thereof, of the Irish offense contributed to the sleepy atmosphere the Stadium produced Saturday.

Tommy Rees produced early regardless, hitting favorite target Tyler Eifert on two of the game's first three snaps, the first a 7-yard hitch ("stick") route to loosen up the defense, then a 33-yard fade vs. solo coverage two plays later, with Eifert adeptly pushing off then leaping to make a tremendous catch of a ball thrown intentionally outside.

The first of two frustrating red zone failures occurred thereafter, with 5th-year senior center Braxston Cave failing to time his shotgun snap to Rees, turning a 3rd and 4 from the BYU 18 to a 3rd and 9 situation, one in which Rees was nearly picked on an underneath cross to Eifert. Cave has had repeated issues with the snap over the last two games per his head coach -- teammates are being tagged with false start penalties as a result.

Brindza's Yips? It's not a major issue when a first-year kicker misses a 40-yard attempt as did Brindza to conclude Notre Dame's first drive Saturday, but the ensuing miss from 28 and a shaky PAT, plus oh-so-close connection from 24 yards out thereafter is at least of mild concern heading into Saturday night's showdown in Norman.

Brindza is 11 of 15 on the season. He missed his first (badly); hit his next eight including a game-winner, and has now missed three of his last six, while hitting two of three "clutch" kicks -- to tie Stanford, to pull close to BYU (14-13 in the third) with an end-half miss in what was then a close game vs. Miami (13-3).

Not a bad start to his career, but a perfect night inside 43 yards or so vs. Oklahoma is mandatory.

What you see is what you get

Its not that Notre Dame can't beat a Top 10 team with Rees at the controls, its that by nature, the margin for error on each snap is negligible, as Rees won't threaten a defense with his feet, a late pass downfield, or even a cross-field throw to a secondary receiver. In short, the passing game becomes reliant on quick throws, either short or on an immediate read fade, and with no bail-out plan to combat a blitz other than a hot receiver, and no bail-out plan whatsoever if a defender has a free run at the Irish signal-caller.

Notre Dame's second drive ended when right guard Mike Golic allowed inside penetration on third down, resulting in a sack of Rees. Golic, who is much better as a run blocker than in pass protection, showed a weak base when attempting to fend off the pressure and Rees couldn't escape -- not a pleasant combination for Irish fans…

Rees was at his best on the game's third drive, hitting a slotted Eifert on a 29-yard corner route as late pressure was applied to Rees' face. Eifert set-up his defender with a hard inside release (faking a seam route) before breaking outside to the vacated sideline, ending with a highlight reel leaping grab as Rees wisely put the ball high and a touch too far for a comfortable catch…Rees used a semi-roll right to hit T.J. Jones for nine yards on 1st and 10 -- it was an accurate pass Rees missed routinely last fall.

Rees' 34th career touchdown pass was a skinny post to Eifert, one made possible by backside protection from Troy Niklas and a frontside combo block by Theo Riddick and Ben Koyack as Eifert faked inside then burst to the back of the end zone to collect the high throw for six.

All four of Eifert's receptions occurred in the first period, in three of the four he aligned as a detached tight end rather than boundary receiver -- I much prefer the former as it allows him to work vs. linebackers and safeties. If he's doubled inside, the Irish passing game has a one-on-one situation on the perimeter…

Rees has excelled in short stints this season -- rhythm and pace his greatest ally, especially in game situations in which opposing defenses can't drop eight into coverage.

Bogging Down

Its the reality of an offense that has scored two touchdowns or fewer in eight of its last 10 games dating back to last November: overcoming seemingly minor errors is a challenge.

Senior slot receiver Robby Toma failed to recognize his assigned defender blitzing to Rees' front side. The result was Rees throwing away to Jones covered on the sideline (game announcer Mike Mayock blamed Rees, but it was Toma who never recognized the blitz). Riddick and the ground game picked up first down yardage but a needless post-play punch by Niklas to the face of Cougars linebacker Spencer Hadley, who's post-whistle shove to Niklas didn't warrant the response that could have resulted in Niklas' ejection by rule.

Rees missed Riddick wide on a sideline comeback for first down yardage -- Eifert had broken open on the play down the middle as well…Rees and Toma failed to read the defense similarly again as the latter broke free down the slot while his quarterback threw high to Jones who dropped the catchable ball…

The offense turned it over in its own territory when DaVaris Daniels allowed a pass to glance off his hands/helmet, the deflection easily intercepted on a delivery that should have instead yielded first down yardage. Daniels might have had his timing thrown by a leaping defensive end but he has to make that catch. It was his only pass target of the afternoon…

Rees was again high late in the half on a sideline comeback to Riddick. The miss forced a third-and-long that the Cougars swallowed up as Rees forced it to Eifert on the near sidelines as the tight end was double-covered and short of the sticks to boot.

Brindza's second missed kick gave the Cougars halftime momentum and maintained a 14-7 edge for the visitors. The slow pace, needless penalties (pre and post-snap), and wholesale inefficiency of the Irish passing game outside of the leaping grabs by Eifert contributed greatly to the deficit.

Running to Win

Rees threw just three passes in the second half: a cross to Eifert in which he was held (no call: you win some, you lose some as Eifert, like all of the greats, uses subtle shoves to free himself from defenders), a 31-yard go route to Jones who benefitted from a great release off the snap and an intentional under-throw by Rees, who also put the ball to the outside as necessary. His third pass was a pre-snap check to Jones, but the field-side fade route was broken up by solo coverage -- the 5'10" Jones and and end zone fade don't seem prudent…

24 of Notre Dame's 27 second-half snaps were runs plays, with left tackle Zack Martin appearing most often in my film notes for his outstanding efforts. The senior standout tallied 11 quality blocks on successful rushing plays to his side by my count. Classmate Chris Watt was second with 10 (including three errors, one a needless, uncalled hold), and Braxston Cave third with nine, though I had Cave for two crucial errors in the run game in addition to the aforementioned false start on 3rd and 4 in the red zone…

Maligned often on the message boards this season, I noted 5th-year right guard Mike Golic for four quality blocks in the Irish run game, though he allowed a third-down sack of Rees as noted earlier. Golic is improved at the point in the power game and is now above average (at worst) pulling from right to left to clear space on the oft-used counters employed by the rushing attack. His pass protection will have to improve this week in Norman, Thanksgiving Saturday in Los Angeles, and at a bowl site to be determined…

Martin played perhaps his best game of the season, sealing the edge, regularly winning on the move and at the point, and peeling off double-team blocks to chip an extra defender -- he's a dream tackle for a college offense, and could be better should he return for a fifth season in 2013…

Like Martin, Watt was at his best on the offense's final two possessions: the game's go-ahead touchdown drive and ensuing march that sealed the contest -- all running plays. I had Martin for six key blocks on the two drives, Watt for seven…

Cave wasn't at his best in the first half -- victimized by two stunts and the reference false start -- but he was nearly perfect in the second, showing up seven times in my film notes with key blocks (vs. two in the first).

The Irish front five will face its fifth stiff test of the season Saturday in Norman -- Cave and Golic will play a crucial role in the game's outcome.

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