ND’s running backs grade high in loss to OU

ND-Oklahoma report card.
Posted on Sept. 29, 2013 at 1:00 a.m. | Updated on Sept. 29, 2013 at 12:15 p.m.


Brian Kelly can deflect blame away from certain players all he wants, but Tommy Rees’ three interceptions lost the game for Notre Dame. Sure, the first wasn’t Rees’ fault — the blame falls on a rare missed blindside block by Zack Martin — but the senior quarterback can be blamed for the next two. This was the third time in Rees’ career he’s thrown three interceptions and the first time in 10 years a Notre Dame quarterback has thrown three interceptions in a half. Not exactly the kind of stat you want attached to your name. Rees has established weapons in receivers TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels, yet he’s only connected with them a total of 10 times in two games. Yes, Rees is a stand-in under center while Notre Dame’s long-term answers are either suspended or a true freshman, but as a senior veteran, Rees is taking steps backward rather than forward. His saving grace from a failing grade are the two touchdowns to Jones and Troy Nikas.


Where have you been, George Atkinson? Atkinson posted a career game, running for 148 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. He finally looked like the strong, between-the-tackles ball carrier that he’s needed to be all year. “He’s 220 pounds and I thought he ran the ball today like I expect George Atkinson to run the ball,” Kelly said. Atkinson’s 80-yard touchdown skews his numbers a bit, but even if you take that away, he averaged 5.2 yards a carry. Tarean Folston only touched the ball twice, but he still managed to gain 43 yards at a time when the Irish didn’t have many other answers on offense. In a game where Notre Dame breaks off 220 rushing yards — especially with this year’s team — you don’t expect the final score to read the way it does.


Blake Bell threw 22-of-30 for 232 yards against the Irish but wasn’t the big arm threat he was against Tulsa. Notre Dame’s glaring defense weakness continues to be its inability to cover short pitches and shovel passes. More on that below. Bell overshot receivers on deep looks more often than not. His longest true pass of the day was his 26-yard touchdown pass to Lacoltan Bester, which can be blamed on a lack of pass rush moreso than a collapsed secondary. Bester made a great effort coming back for the ball. Otherwise, Bell was mostly successful in short pitches. Again, more on that below. Stephon Tuitt had his best game of the season against Oklahoma. He looked faster and more mobile, knocking Bell down three times (one sack, two quarterback hurries) in his pursuits.


Don’t let the stat sheet fool you. A big chunk of those Blake Bell “passes” were runs marked under a different statistical category. Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said so himself. “Those are long handoffs,” he said. “They’re not designed as passes, they’re called runs.” Short pitches and shovel passes they may be, but Oklahoma consistently moved seven to eight yards on the Irish after catching the ball behind the line of scrimmage. Bell’s longest “pass” of the day was a short pitch to Shepard, who turned a five-yard gain into a 54-yard touchdown after blowing by linebacker Jarrett Grace. Manti Te’o had his doubters after dropping off in the national championship game and subpar NFL Pro Day tests, but there’s no doubt the Irish are seriously hurting without his talents. On the upside, Bell couldn’t convert on third-and-short situations. The Irish showed glimpses of their 2012 defense on a handful of red-zone stands.


A fairly quiet game for Kyle Brindza, who averaged a middling 41 yards on five punts but pinned Oklahoma deep in its own territory on two occasions in the second quarter. He registered a touchback on one of his four kickoffs. A 40-yard kickoff return by Trey Franks set Oklahoma up for a third quarter field goal to extend its lead from seven to 10. There weren’t many opportunities for the special teams unit to help — or hurt — in this game. Overall, Brindza’s punting game gave the Irish a slight defensive advantage.


Kudos to the coaching staff for not panicking after going down 14-0 so quickly. After the game, Brian Kelly maintained that the offensive game plan didn’t change a bit in the face of such an early deficit. The Andrew Hendrix QB package was interesting to watch. Hendrix can’t control the offense as well as Rees does, but he does provide a compelling option in third-and-short situations, where Notre Dame has been known to struggle. Kelly finally turned to his running game, which yielded fruitful results. Not sure why Kelly elected to punt on the fourth down so late in the game, but he did offer his thoughts on why they took a knee at the end of the first half. “Forty-three seconds wasn’t enough time in my estimation,” he said. Rees’ interceptions can’t entirely be pinned on the coaching staff, but for a team that has been trying to improve on its slow starts, the opening five minutes against Oklahoma was about as backward of a step it could take.

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