In 2011, Notre Dame completed a school record 302 passes. However, only two of them went for more than 40 yards.
This year, the much more versatile and balanced Irish offense didn’t need to pass nearly as much and completed 205 passes. It doubled the 40-plus-yard completions to four, but more telling is the yards per completion went up a full two yards from 10.9 in 2011 to 12.8 in 2012.
When you play a defense of Alabama’s caliber, a “three yards and a cloud of dust” approach won’t get it done, according to Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. For the Fighting Irish to emerge victorious, it will need at least a couple of explosives, or what he refers to as “chunk plays.”
The Oct. 27 win at Oklahoma is Exhibit A, with the game turning on a “chunk” in each half. Cierre Wood’s 62-yard touchdown run in the first half put Notre Dame ahead for the first time. Then in the second half, with the score knotted at 13 and about six minutes left, quarterback Everett Golson launched a 50-yard completion to freshman Chris Brown to set up the go-ahead touchdown in what would be a 30-13 victory.
“We’ve got to get big-chunk plays — I can tell you that right now,” said Kelly of the Jan. 7 national title showdown with Alabama. “They know that and we know that. What are they, 2.5 [yards] per play I think they’re giving up? (The Crimson Tide is yielding only 2.5 yards on 421 rushing attempts against it, and 4.1 yard per any play.)
“If you think you’re going to win the game just trying to pound it in there, you’re not going to win the game. We’ve got to find a way to get those chunk plays.”
A vital component to that plan was added with the return this week of sophomore receiver DaVaris Daniels, who suffered a broken clavicle in the second half of the Nov. 10 game at Boston College and missed the last two regular season games. He began doing some light 7-on-7 work earlier this month in a red jersey (meaning he was off limits from contact), and on Dec. 28, the first practice since Christmas break from Dec. 21 through Dec. 27, he was back in full contact work.
“It was different,” admitted Daniels of readjusting. “I was a little hesitant to go across the middle but you gotta do what you gotta do. You have to get the jitters out of the way. It was almost like a confidence boost … You don’t want to take it at first, but once it’s over you feel about the same as you did before the hit.”
Daniels’ 25 receptions this season were the fourth most on the team, behind tight end/boundary receiver Tyler Eifert (44), TJ Jones (43) and running back/slot Theo Riddick (35). However, Daniels’ 15.0 yards per catch was the best among the five players who caught at least 10 passes — and even dwarfed the 11.5 figure of first-round pick Michael Floyd last year.
Daniels made his varsity debut with a 35-yard grab against Navy in the opener, and the next week against Purdue he snared a 41-yard pass from Everett Golson to set up the first touchdown in the hard fought 20-17 win.
His most crucial grab was a 45-yard reception in the closing minutes Nov. 3 against Pitt that set up a touchdown and two-point conversion that allowed the Irish to go into overtime and survive with a 29-26 triple-OT triumph. Does Daniels believe he can provide that big-play element against Alabama?
“I do, but we’ve got a lot of guys that can fill in that role,” said the 6-2, 190-pound sophomore. “It’s on all of our shoulders. Everybody has to make a play, we need all 11 guys to play at their best ability.”
He said he feels like he’s back in a rhythm with classmate Golson in timing.
“After a few balls, it was just kind of normal, I’d say natural for us to get back into the groove,” Daniels said. “It wasn’t anything I didn’t expect … I just tried to stay with the team [during his rehabilitation], stay in meetings, stay at practice, learning things every day, going through the same things I would if I was playing. I think that really benefited me to get back to where I am right now.”
According to outside receivers coach Mike Denbrock, the presence of the All-American Eifert as the man split wide in the boundary is what all opposing defenses will concentrate on foremost versus the pass. That and a mobile quarterback in Golson facilitates the big-play chances for a Daniels, Jones, John Goodman, Robby Toma, or even Brown.
“Having [Eifert] on the field and the things that he can do makes defenses pay extra special attention to what’s going on with him, which has really done a nice job of kind of freeing up some other guys at times to do some things,” Denbrock said. “It helps others to step into a role that [we] needed to fulfill to be successful offensively.”
Daniels said the primary lesson he’s learned his first two seasons of college football is everything has to be earned.
“I’m way more comfortable, just learning defenses, learning how to convert routes, the tempos, how corners are going to play you week in and week out,” Daniels explained. “… The different ways people are going to play you. You can’t do the same moves every time. There’s always a new curve.
“… You shouldn’t expect to be completely open in college football. Very rarely does that happen. So just going up, getting contested balls … A lot of football is instincts, especially when the ball is in the air. You've got to have a mentality to get it.”
And the chunkier the result, the better.