Eye in the Sky: Part II

Atkinson ran hard, struggled as pass target

The conclusion of our film review examines Notre Dame's two-runner backfield Saturday, the emergence of Troy Niklas, the need for a duo rather than solo mission at wide receiver, and a strong effort from an offensive line that paved the way for 5.1 yards per carry and yielded just one sack and three pressures, on 51 pass attempts.

Click here for Part I and a look at the offense's success from the Pistol formation vs. an empty backfield as well as Tommy Rees' preferred targets and observations of the senior quarterback's evening in Ann Arbor.

GA3 or AC?

Notre Dame's running back trio became a duo, however temporarily, Saturday night, with accepted third-wheel Cam McDaniel receiving one carry and less the a series of action.

In (painfully) limited action, Amir Carlisle had the best game of his brief playing career, hitting for 64 yards on 12 carries. Starter George Atkinson enjoyed even fewer carries, 5 for 39 yards but it was a solid running effort sullied by a trio of dropped passes along with an additional route error that caused an incompletion.

Said Kelly of Atkinson's tough day as a pass-catcher:

"He's got to stand next to me on the sideline, so he's either got to catch the football or he doesn't get scripted in those plays. George understands that if he's going to be in the game, he's got to run the right route. He's got to catch the football.

"Amir's got to do the same thing. He's got to run the right route and he's got to catch the football too. So we've got some work to do in that regard, but that's the nature of the offense. We can't make them one-dimensional. They've got to be able to do all those jobs."

(Kelly's comments suggest he was displeased with a final play interception that tipped off a well-covered Carlisle as his other four pass targets were innocuous or caught.)

Two-Back Attack -- Observations

Notre Dame was turned back on a pair of third-and-short yardage situations on its first two series. On the initial effort, Michigan out-numbered ND 7 to 6 in the box -- I'm surprised Rees didn't check out of the standard Pistol handoff to Carlisle that resulted in a blown up play and one-yard loss. Michigan was able to tee off on Carlisle because the threat of a QB keeper doesn't exist…

- Zack Martin and Troy Niklas both lost on the ensuing 3rd and 3 handoff to Carlisle that was limited to two yards. Michigan's best beat ND's best. Period. Can't fault the staff for that one…

- Atkinson hit the left edge with authority on 12-yard run early…Quality blocking up front by the Irish line -- especially center Nick Martin in space -- to allow Carlisle a full-speed lane and six yards down to the Michigan 4-yard line…

- Out of character, left guard Chris Watt lost two blocks late in plays, twice, both times Carlisle was slowed after hitting the hole with abandon. The Irish gained six yards on both attempts but one could have resulted in a 10-yard score (Rees hit Jones for a TD, anyway), and who knows what Carlisle might have created on the second…

- Ben Koyack and Niklas were both overwhelmed at the point on a second quarter Atkinson loss of two yards near the red zone. Michigan simply took the edge -- something Notre Dame's defense did with regularity last fall. ND kicked a field goal two snaps later. Niklas blocked well aside from the two notations above…

- Atkinson's first-half drop-fest was nearly all concentration-related: a dropped crossing route the Irish fortunately caught for a touchdown; a dropped arrow pass that would have resulted in a short gain; a drop at the end of the half (meaningless, but fitting for his evening) and a poorly run route that caused Rees' bullet to glance off Atkinson's backside (right) arm.

- It's worth noting Atkinson secured his toughest catch opportunity, a 16-yard frozen rope down the sideline in the second quarter…

- Overall I'd argue Atkinson ran more with more determination Saturday night than at any point in his career, at least considering the competition (his previous best included gaping holes vs. overmatched athletes on Navy and against a defense that quit, Miami). It's too bad he got the dropsies, because that sullied his effort and he's going to have confidence issues going forward. Better than fumbling, I suppose…

- Still, he contributed a crucial 50-yard kick return (did he delay on purpose to bring Michigan out of its coverage lanes? If so, kudos), plus gains of 7, 12, 16, 4 (for a first down) and 16 yards (on a catch). He also lost two on a stretch run blown up in front of him.

- As for Carlisle: he deserves 12-15 carries, minimum each week. I'd advocate 10-15 for Atkinson as well and would prefer a third 'back emerge, either overall or weekly, to run with fury on a series or three per contest.

90 Yards and a Cloud of Dust

Kudos to offensive coordinator Chuck Martin for attacking with the run facing 1st and 10 from his own 10-yard line and a 14-point deficit. 14 points with 30 minutes of football remaining is an inconvenience, not a true deficit. I could have used a bit more of the ground attack when the Irish neared pay dirt, however:

Passes in the red zone: Incomplete pass…4-yard passing TD (tipped by Atkinson, caught by Jones)…Incomplete on first down….Incomplete on second down….Complete for four yards on third and 10….20-yard touchdown pass to Niklas on first down…Loss of two yards on 3rd-and-2 bubble screen…Incomplete in end zone on fourth down…Complete to Jones for 7…Complete to Jones for 7…Interception.

Runs in the red zone (a little easier to track): Carlisle +6 yards on 1st down…that is all.

- Regardless of their refusal to run at (or near) the Wolverines red zone, the offense's 90-yard scoring drive to cut Michigan's lead in half early in the third quarter was the most impressive march of the young season. Some highlights:

- Carlisle hit the crease hard on consecutive carries, first behind Martin and Watt with Christian Lombard pulling into the hole, then through a lane created by Lombard and Stanley on a double team plus a straight up block by Niklas at the point, which is encouraging…Niklas showed well in solo protection and as a run blocker on the drive…I agree with game commentator Kirk Herbstreit, Carlisle is going to grow into the "Riddick Role," but he's not as polished a receiver as the graduated Irishman…

- Atkinson ran much harder Saturday night than I'd seen in the past, he made something out of nothing to earn a first down in Michigan territory…Prettiest play of the season was a Rees play-action roll right to Niklas for a 20-yard score. Niklas' ability to catch a low ball, keep his feet, and extend for the goal line is remarkable at 270 pounds…That's a tough catch at 6'7" and then to maintain his feet? He's athletically ahead of where I thought he'd be as an overall receiver. Which reminds me -- has anyone put out an official APB for Ben Koyack in the passing game? Or Alex Welch on the football field?

- At no point did I think Greg Bryant or Tarean Folston would impact Saturday night's contest -- but I am surprised Bryant didn't get a look. That's what 18 total carries will do to a five-man backfield I suppose…

- I'm certain Notre Dame can beat quality defenses with both of their top two runners combining for 20 carries or fewer...

Coming Out Party

Back to Niklas: the Irish should have gained more than 12 yards on a beautifully designed and called tight end screen in the fourth quarter. Both Nick Martin and Christian Lombard were in space blocking no one -- either Niklas has to wait a half-second or they have to get out quicker. Something about the timing limited that play because Watt was also in front, and that should be a house-cleaning situation in the secondary, instead, Watt got a block, lost his helmet, and his man made the tackle anyway… P> Great day for the massive Irish junior -- I could have done without a one-handed effort on a perfectly thrown seam route to the outside by Rees. His ability to catch in traffic and move the chains will be huge in upcoming games vs. Michigan State, Oklahoma, and Arizona State prior to the team's early October Bye.

You heard it here first: 6 catches and 100 yards for Niklas vs. the Sun Devils...

Perimeter Passing Game

T.J. Jones was targeted for 19 passes Saturday night, catching nine, dropping two, juggling another (tough one), and taking plenty of punishment… Yeesh. He's going to be a sore dude if that keeps up.

- I don't think DaVaris Daniels was at full speed. That or he was protecting a groin strain. Still, he came up with two drive starters with post routes of 21 and 22 yards…Daniels was targeted for 11 passes but was ineffective in the second half. He took a bit of a shot on the end-half Hail Mary from Andrew Hendrix -- which reminds me, apparently Rees' bandwidth is somewhere south of 55 yards…

Niklas has emerged as the third target entering Week Three…

- Freshman Corey Robinson's first career reception was of quality, snaring a 12-yard hitch contested heavily by the cornerback. His absence in goal-to-go sets is puzzling considering the Irish abandoned the run in the red zone…

- C.J. Prosise remains a prospect, but I'm intrigued. He has good short-space quickness that turns to power through arm tackles…Also impressed by Chris Brown who continues to fight for 2-3 extra hards after catching hitches…No receiver was impacted more by Everett Golson's suspension than the deep-threat Brown…Not surprised the staff trimmed their wide receiver rotation: freshmen Will Fuller and James Onwualu did not appear from scrimmage on the evening.

- The Irish are telegraphing their bubble screens a bit. Michigan destroyed one late in the contest (one third down, too) and should have stopped the first of the night for loss but the cornerback showed hesitation...

Observations

I don't think either Kelly or offensive coordinator Chuck Martin realized Jones was marked down in-bounds after sideline catch. And with good reason: he was clearly knocked out of bounds. The curious call cost the Irish Rees did, but it wasn't enough as the clock ran from 0:58 to 0:28 before handoff and 14-yard gain brought it down 12 more to 0:16

Herbstreit saying ND was "down 17" the last time they where in the Big House is unconscionable. They dominated the Wolverines for 43 minutes before Michigan rallied from a 24-7 deficit…Oh well, we all get old…

Punt Return! Nice job by freshman safety Max Redfield, riding Michigan's gunner past return man T.J. Jones' catch point. Jones also received quality blocking by C.J. Prosise, Cole Luke, Jaylon Smith (wow, tremendous effort) and James Onwualu on his 18-yard punt return to end the first quarter.

That's the third-longest return of the Kelly era, and its disturbing how easy it is to know that off the top of my head -- that's what happens when you have three, total, over 11 yards in 41 games…

- I thought Christian Lombard played his best game vs. a team with a defensive pulse, and that includes the 2012 season. Lombard was a point of concern for me entering the contest and he played quite well, especially in space and pulling right to left...

- Right tackle Ronnie Stanley battles, but his best days are ahead. He's often "chasing" his block rather than engaging, especially when his defender skates down the line of scrimmage causing Stanley to block a bit off balance…Really like Nick Martin's use of leverage in the middle, he might be the best center of the Kelly era by season's end…

- Watt and Martin work exceptionally well together in pass protection, passing off defenders and rarely losing a man on stunts…Martin remains the best player on the team through two games but he's not infallible either. He had a hand in the sack vs. Rees on Notre Dame's last drive and in the aforementioned third-down stop in the opening series…

Throw For Show -- Run for BCS Dough

The Irish have carried the ball fewer than 30 times in just eight of Kelly's 41 games in South Bend. Aside from an evisceration of Air Force, the end result of each was predictable: the remaining seven account for seven of Kelly's 12 losses as head coach. An eighth loss included just 30 carries (Navy) and a ninth 31 (Stanford), as noted below.

  • 2011 -- 14 carries, 41 yards vs. USC, 31-17 loss.
  • 2013 -- 19 carries (including a sack), 108 yards vs. Michigan, 41-30 loss.
  • 2012 -- 19 carries, 31 yards vs. Alabama in 42-14 loss
  • 2010 -- 23 carries, 44 yards vs. Stanford 37-14 loss.
  • 2010 -- 24 carries, 124 yards vs. Tulsa, 28-27 loss.
  • 2010 -- 26 carries, 92 yards vs. Michigan State, 34-31 OT loss
  • 2011 -- 29 carries, 117 yards vs. South Florida, 23-20 loss
  • 2011 -- 29 carries, 266 yards vs. Air Force, 59-33 win
  • 2010 -- 30 carries, 106 yards vs. Navy in 35-17 loss
  • 2011 -- 31 carries, 57 yards vs. Stanford in 28-14 loss

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