Notre Dame isn’t worried about establishing an offensive identity as it transitions from the bye week to the second third of the season this week. The first order of business for head coach Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin is consistency.
Irish offensive coordinator Chuck Martin wants a more potent passing attack after the bye week
Despite being undefeated and ranked 10th nationally in the Associated Press poll, the Fighting Irish have a considerable amount of work to do on that side of the ball in order to maintain momentum. Notre Dame is 97th in total offense with 351.3 yards per game and 86th in scoring with 25.8 points per contest.
“Our run game has been better over the first four games than some of the things we’ve done in the passing game,” Martin said Wednesday. “We’re still trying to be consistent in both areas. When we’ve executed, we’ve been pretty good in both areas. When we haven’t, and we’ve been playing pretty good teams, if you don’t execute against the teams we’re playing, you’re not going to have much success.”
That the passing game has been erratic through four games shouldn’t come as a surprise; the Irish are breaking in a first-year starter at quarterback and a number of inexperienced receivers — both old and young. Senior Theo Riddick, who leads the team in rushing (60.5 yards per game), also paces the program in receptions (14). Sophomore wideout DaVaris Daniels, who didn’t play as a freshman, and senior tight end Tyler Eifert are both averaging just a hair under 40 yards per game receiving to top the list. Though 12 different players having at least one catch is a good thing, Eifert’s one reception over the last two games combined isn’t exactly the kind of production Notre Dame hoped for from the Mackey Award hopeful.
“Yes, definitely, no question,” Martin said when asked if Eifert needs to be more of a central figure on offense, before explaining the passing game in general must have more of a presence. “We’d like to get more involved in the passing game. I don’t think it’s as much right now a product of Tyler not being involved in the passing game, per se, as much as how efficient we throw the ball in certain situations, and make good decisions and make good reads and get the ball where it needs to get to.
“So, trust me, Tyler has been doing awesome, and he’s been an unbelievable teammate and competitor. Not just for him but for us, we’re a better team if the ball gets in [No.] 80’s direction more. It’s certainly not by design that the ball’s not going [his way], sometimes it’s just by a read or by things within the passing game that the ball may not go to him as much as maybe it should at times.”
The challenge is doing so without forcing the issue. Sophomore quarterback Everett Golson, who rightfully went into his rookie season knowing Eifert would be a security blanket, sometimes never took his eyes off the tight end in the first two games against Navy and Purdue. Eifert had eight catches for 120 yards and his only touchdown in the first two weeks. Opposing defenses, if they didn’t already know, now understand that blanketing Eifert is a top priority.
“When you’re in your five-step passing game, there’s a read … you’re not going to float one in double coverage,” Martin said. “We’ve tried that; that doesn’t work well. There are certain things the defenses certainly are doing. We have a route designed to hopefully get the ball to 80, but they rolled the coverage to him, which now it opens it up and maybe Robby Toma’s open and we’re flipping the ball to Toma and he’s getting some catches. I think it’s a product of both them trying to pay more attention to [Eifert], and maybe us not always reading it as clean as we’d like to read it.”
Through the first two weeks, Notre Dame averaged 172.5 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns per game while senior tailback Cierre Wood sat out due to suspension. In the last two games, the Irish put up 108 rushing yards and one score on the ground per contest with Wood back in the lineup. When the offense has needed the running game to step up, it has. Now Martin hopes the Irish can establish that part of the attack earlier in games.
“We were aggressive in attacking [the] Michigan State [defense] through the air,” he said. “We ran it some during the first three quarters, but we were more aggressive throwing the ball. They’re a very aggressive defense and were trying to take away everything … a lot of things in the run game and passing game. We kind of just really went to the run in the fourth quarter and we executed our run game pretty good. Our backs ran real good, too.
“The Michigan game was different because we were trying to run the ball the whole game. We had good run looks. We didn’t execute our run game through the first three quarters worth anything. Give credit to Michigan, because they got physical players that were disrupting and beating blocks. On our side of it, we were not blocking as well as we know we’re capable of blocking. … In the fourth quarter we just executed a little better, because it was the same stinking looks we had the whole game. The last two drives we have a six-minute drive and a three-minute drive, and we were probably running into tougher looks in the fourth quarter against Michigan, but we actually just did what we were supposed to do a little bit more.”