Saturday wasn't a great performance for the Notre Dame offense, and it wasn't an especially wonderful day from sophomore quarterback Tommy Rees either.
Still, on a day where the Irish were often pinned deep in their own territory, they did enough to muster 417 total yards at 5.3 yards per play.
It's at least a somewhat positive sign that Notre Dame's worst offensive performances are now average in comparison to the rest of the country.
But ultimately you have to score points on offense and the Fighting Irish struggled to do that on Saturday against Boston College.
For most viewers many of the offensive struggles centered around Rees, so let's take a closer look at his performance this past weekend against the Eagles---and also what the future may hold.
Officially Rees was credited with 256 passing yards, completing 24 of 39 passes with no touchdowns and 1 interception---while also picking up 3 yards on a quarterback sneak.
Rees was not sacked throughout the game.
One of the frustrating aspects of the Irish offense is how dependent it has become on the short passing game, and how although you can finish the game with 250 yards and a quarter of 100 completions, the offense can still be stifled by a defense with a good gameplan as Boston College did.
So how much did Notre Dame live off the short passing game against the Eagles?
What I did was chart all of Rees' throw from the line of scrimmage to the point where the player touched the ball or where the player was when he could have touched the ball on incompletions.*
*One Rees pass was officially scored as a rushing play, but I charted it as a pass---giving Rees 40 attempts and 25 completions.
- 22 of Rees' 25 completions were from 11 yards or less.
- 20 of Rees' 25 completions were from 10 yards or less.
- 15 of Rees' 25 completions were from 5 yards or less.
What was obvious to everyone watching was how Rees was living off of an assortment of screen passes as well. I included the direct throws to Floyd as a form of screen pass.
- 12 of Rees' 25 completions (48%) were screen passes.
Throughout the game, Rees attempted 6 passes out of 40 that were 20 yards or further from the line of scrimmage---with none stretching the field more than 30 yards. Those 6 passes were each thrown 30 yards, 26 yards, 22 yards, 27 yards, 20 yards, and 23 yards.
Rees finished with 2 completions on those 6 passes---both being great catches by the receivers, but also great throws by Tommy as well.
Let's take a closer look at these longer passes:
- Incomplete 30-yard pass to Floyd: Equal faults of receiver and quarterback---Rees had Floyd wide open on a go-route after faking a screen. He should have put less air under the ball and simply drilled to Michael, but Floyd could just of easily put in a better effort to catch it.
- Complete 26-yard pass to Eifert: Outstanding catch by the tight end, but a very tough throw by Rees who fit it over a linebacker but behind the safety and only where Eifert could catch it. Bonus points for completing this immediately following the 30-yard miss to Floyd.
- Incomplete 22-yard pass to Eifert: Pure dropped interception by BC corner. Eifert ran a wheel route to the pylon but the corner jumped on the ball in his zone coverage. A stronger arm might not help much, but Rees' ball floated and made it easy to jump this route.
- Incomplete 27-yard pass to Jones: It might have been tipped, but looked like a clean drop on a beautifully thrown ball by Rees on a corner route to Jones after faking the screen. This was one of the two best throws on the day by Rees. Had he connected on this and the first pass to Floyd on the 30-yarder, he's looking at 2 long touchdown passes and a significantly better day for him and the team.
- Incomplete 20-yard pass to Eifert: Rees tried to hit the tight end on a seam route into borderline double coverage. This was a dangerous and unnecessary throw---forcing it to Eifert again near the goal line.
- Complete 23-yard pass to Toma: Beautiful thrown seam route and great catch by Toma. Likely the best pass of the day by Rees and the type he excels at---placed over a linebacker and in front of the safety.
The thing is, the deeper you dig the more you realize that Rees is generally playing well, but there's only so much you can do with short passes and hitting only two intermediate passes. Rees had two tipped passes, a couple screens sniffed out, a couple more drops, and one terrible interception on a blind screen pass.
That doesn't leave many more incompletions, and Rees was generally pretty accurate in this game.
But alas, when you have a quarterback who can't run in this spread---every throw counts---and you need a lot of playmaking ability and YAC on the shorter throws with how the offense is being run right now in order to be successful.
So, will Tommy Rees improve?
That's the big question and it is very likely that he will improve his decision-making.
But what of the arm strength and running ability?
The running issue isn't going to change, other than the fact that Rees might become more confident in taking off when no one is open and picking up some yards rather than throwing the ball away.
Against Boston College, he threw the ball away in the 2nd half on two crucial third down plays when he might have been able to make the first down with his legs.
Rees isn't doing himself or the team any favors by not running the ball on the zone read, but we've seen the Irish be successful in the running game without that threat---as other similar offenses do too. Still, it puts even more pressure on everyone to block perfectly, the running back to be just a little bit more dynamic, and the passing game to be even more productive.
As it was, Boston College crashed hard on the running back on 6 of the 8 zone read plays where Rees could have kept the ball.
The arm strength issue isn't going to go away and despite what the coaches say, Rees has a very weak arm.
However, as some experts have noticed, Rees' fundamentals are still fairly poor. If he can improve his fundamentals then Rees can "hide" his weak arm a lot easier.
For example, Rees' near interception at the goal line on the 22-yard throw to Eifert mentioned above:
This was a designed rollout and one in which Rees did not drive off his back foot, but instead does what is common for many quarterbacks---a little jump pass---leaving his feet. The result, is not much velocity on the ball as it hangs up in the air---a bad recipe for someone without a naturally strong arm.
In the second half during the 11th offensive series, Rees once again rolled out and hit Floyd on a 11-yard comeback route to the boundary side. Obviously a pass half as short as the one just mentioned to Eifert, but Rees took the time to quickly stop, plant his feet, and fire the ball on time.
If you have a weak arm like Rees, you are either going to have to improve your fundamentals or get rid of the ball quicker. The further the attempted pass, the more stress it will put on the fundamentals and timing.
Here are two more examples of Rees' arm strength and its affect on the offense:
- Complete 5-yard pass to Jones on the Rees' second attempt of the day.
- Incomplete 6-yard pass to Toma on a quick out during the fourth offensive series.
Here are two seemingly short throws, but both which tested Rees' arm strength because they were made to the field side and all the way across the hashmarks.
On the first to Jones (a hitch route to Rees' left), it was completed but it took so long to get to the receiver that Jones couldn't do anything after the catch, and the pass was nearly broken up anyway. The better defenses can and have broken up these passes, and the smarter corners will pick these off.
The second throw was to the long side of the field to Toma out of the slot who ran quick out but nearly had the ball picked off by the linebacker jumping in front of the pass.
Rees also was not accurate enough and threw it slightly behind Toma---a perfect example of how Rees can't get lazy and doesn't have the arm to simply flick his wrist and power the ball across the hashes even 6 yards from the line of scrimmage without a good deal of risk.
One of these passes was completed, but they are exceedingly dangerous throws and really put a strain on the offense with little gain and a lot of risk.
So while people may say (as Mike Mayock has) that Rees can "make the throw" across the hashmarks he's...
A. Not making the really long deep out pass across the field (a staple of the Clausen-era Irish teams)
B. Short out routes and comebacks, even across the field, are inherently safe throws, but with Rees' arm there is a higher level of danger.
Rees has many things in his favor right now---of which experience and a good starting record are the most important. Barring some sort of epic collapse this season, Tommy is going to be difficult to unseat as the starting quarterback in 2012.
However, there may come a tipping point when the younger and more gifted quarterbacks get a serious chance to see the field.
Rees decision-making and accuracy are still pretty good for his level of experience, but the amount of "safe" throws he makes on a game-to-game basis won't be that difficult for Hendrix or Golson to replicate.
Curiously, Rees has been very good at making the seam pass (most of the time because he's decisive with the throw and drives through with his legs) which is a difficult throw for someone without a strong arm. But other than this, Rees' throws are almost always very high percentage and safe---and remember even some of these safe throws are increasingly dangerous because of his lack of arm strength.
Rees won't attack down field more than 30 yards from the line of scrimmage, and the vast majority of his "deep" passes are also in safe areas down the sideline, where interceptions are difficult and only his receiver can get the ball.
This isn't to say that Rees is average or that what he does is easy, but what he is being asked to do in this offense is very basic for a top-level BCS program.
Rees may never relinquish his starting spot for the next two years, yet it won't take much more than competent decision-making and decent accuracy for Hendrix/Golson to open up the offense with stronger arms and running ability.
Can the Irish passing game and offense ever move out of Safe Mode™ with Rees as its quarterback?