Blue and Gold Illustrated

Oct 08, 2022

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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BLUEGOLDONLINE.COM OCT. 8, 2022 19 — especially considering it was the head coach who ordered such a strategy? Of course it is. Rees said so himself. "I will take every ounce of frickin' blame for all of it because I'm in charge of the offense," Rees said. The offense that Rees is in charge of has a long road ahead but not an un- manageable one. WINNING IN THE TRENCHES It all starts up front. An offensive line that was billed as one of the best in the country preseason struggled mightily out of the gates. All five starters along the line were ranked in the bottom half of the Irish's indi- vidual Pro Football Focus offensive game grades in the season opener at Ohio State. Notre Dame had 16 players receive offensive grades. The best of- fensive lineman was graduate student right guard Josh Lugg at No. 10. Lugg rebounded and ranked third in the Week 2 loss to Marshall. Sophomore left tackle Joe Alt received the best grade on the offense. Graduate student left guard Jarrett Patterson slotted in fourth in his season debut. The line was better against the Thundering Herd, albeit in a loss. It took the giant leap forward it needed to in the Week 3 win over Cal. The top three Notre Dame offensive players in PFF's game grades were of- fensive linemen; Alt, Patterson and se- nior center Zeke Correll. If those three players plus Lugg and sophomore right tackle Blake Fisher are up to the lofty standard set within the program, it changes everything for Rees. If the po- sition group is subpar, the entire opera- tion is set back and ineffective. "It certainly helps build an identity," Rees said. "It certainly helps give you a call where you say, 'We're going to ex- ecute this and stay ahead of the sticks.' It's a little bit of a safety net when you feel you can do some of those things." Those calls included RPOs (run-pass options) executed to perfection by Pyne. After early misses to sophomore wide receiver Lorenzo Styles and junior tight end Michael Mayer, Pyne settled in and was money on roll-out short tosses to that duo plus junior running back Chris Tyree. He finished the game with 14 completions in his last 15 pass attempts. Tyree and sophomore running back Audric Estime carried 35 times for 140 yards. That's asking a lot of the offen- sive line to line up and push the pile that many times. For an Irish offense that lost the trench war against Ohio State and then against Marshall for large stretches of those losses, 4 yards per carry for the two backs on such a large sample size wasn't so bad. With Pyne not being nearly as ath- letic as sophomore Tyler Buchner in the zone-read game, Notre Dame's rushing attack weighs much more on the run- ning backs than it was before. As long as the offensive line is generating push, that won't be a problem. Rees just has to figure out if the three-man rotation with sophomore Logan Diggs (who was out with an illness against Cal) that he was salivating over in August but did not work early in September is the way to go. The one-two punch of Estime and Tyree was fruitful. WHERE ARE THE WIDEOUTS? The lack of production from Notre Dame wide receivers has been problematic. Through three weeks, Styles led Notre Dame wideouts with 11 catches for 152 yards. Graduate students Braden Lenzy and Matt Salerno had 5 catches for 57 yards and 2 catches for 35 yards, respec- tively. Sophomore Jayden Thomas had just 1 catch for 8 yards. Nineteen catches for 252 yards and no touchdowns. There were 44 players in the FBS who had more individual re- ceiving yards than the four Notre Dame wide receivers who caught at least one pass in the Irish's first three games. The handcuffs head coach Marcus Freeman might've put on Rees in Week 1 in trying to control game flow against the Buckeyes pale in comparison to the limitations Rees' own wide receivers have put on him in not being options for the Notre Dame quarterbacks. It's a convoluted conundrum. Rees has to call the right plays. Everything beyond that is a nonstarter if Rees isn't on top of his stuff. But if he does call what he needs to and the offensive line protects well and the QB has his head on a swivel looking down the field and nothing happens, then at that point it's fair to say these Irish wideouts aren't holding up their end of the deal. Rees wasn't ready to say that after 7 catches for 53 yards by Notre Dame wide receivers in the Cal game. "That's certainly more about the flow of the game Saturday than anything about the wideouts," Rees said. "That was about what we were able to do and what we were doing well and what Drew was comfortable with in those moments than anything else. "We wanted to, in his first start, run things he was extremely confident in. As we continue to rep and continue to get practices under his belt and make sure he's ready to go, we'll continue to build the camaraderie and the timing with those guys." That's understandable. But if it gets to the midway point of the season and Notre Dame still isn't getting the ball to wide receivers in Pyne's third, fourth, fifth starts, then Rees is going to have to keep answering the same question. And the answer he gave after Week 3 isn't going to be as valid after Week 6. And so on. He's not oblivious to that. If anything, Rees is aware of the circumstances. He raised his voice at Pyne because he felt the intensification of an inflection point. If Pyne hadn't heated up and fin- ish the game 17-of-23 passing for 150 yards with 2 touchdowns and Notre Dame lost to Cal, the questions would have been much more burdensome than "Where are the wide receivers?" Rees saved some face — with the help of Pyne, Tyree and Estime — and bought himself some time with the way the Notre Dame offense played in the second half against the Bears. And maybe time is all he needs. "Hopefully in these next couple weeks we can put the pieces all together so we can be multi-faceted and teams have to defend us a couple different ways," Rees said. ✦ "Hopefully in these next couple weeks we can put the pieces all together so we can be multi-faceted and teams have to defend us a couple different ways." NOTRE DAME OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR TOMMY REES

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