The return of Mr. Floyd



With Charlie Weis delivering the official news today at his press conference, Michael Floyd is now officially cleared to return for the Irish offense. Let’s take a look at the return of the sophomore receiver and what it means to the Irish offense.

While Golden Tate has been building up his Heisman Trophy resume, Michael Floyd has been healing his broken clavicle. Saturday’s game against Navy will represent seven full weeks the gifted sophomore has rested after his collarbone broke against Michigan State. In the two-plus games that Floyd did play, the results were pretty much transcendent.

Floyd’s 2009 season started with astonishing efficiency. He had four catches against Nevada, three of which he took to the end zone. Against Michigan, Floyd had his way with the Wolverines, and was only slowed by the pavement surrounding the playing field, which sunk a deep cut into Floyd’s leg and kept him off the field for the pivotal minutes of the game. While Floyd was out, Jimmy Clausen’s critical third down pass sailed past Floyd’s replacement, true freshman Shaq Evans, giving Michigan the chance it needed to defeat the Irish in the final seconds. Michael returned to action against Michigan State the next week, seemingly unharmed by the flesh wound and started off his afternoon with a bang, hauling in a touchdown pass from Jimmy Clausen in the corner of the end zone and moving into a tie for 9th place in the Notre Dame record books with Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown at 12 career TD receptions. Brown played 43 games in his Irish career. Floyd was playing in his thirteenth. Just minutes later, in the opposite end zone, Floyd came down with what looked like touchdown catch number 13, but a replay official somehow disagreed. While settling for a short field goal was disappointing, seeing Floyd scamper to the bench with his arm pinned to his chest was devastating.

Last year, Floyd missed the final three regular season games with a knee injury. The maturing Irish offense went 6-4 in the ten games that Floyd played during his true freshman season, averaging 285 yards in the air with him in the lineup. With Floyd out, the offense fell apart, it’s total yardage down a third and the passing yardage down to just 147 yards a game. While this  year’s offense was clearly better suited to replace Floyd, even if he was a much larger part of the offense, I had my worries.

I wrote this after the Michigan State game:

When Michael Floyd went down with a broken collarbone in the second
quarter, the Irish offense changed. With Floyd, the Irish are a dynamic
deep-strike offense, with a capable second receiver in Golden Tate and
an emerging star at tight end in Kyle Rudolph. Without Floyd, the Irish
rode the back of Armando Allen, relying on key third down conversions
from the Wildcat, or short throws to the remaining receivers. In a best
case scenario, Floyd will be back for the USC game, but a capable
second receiver needs to emerge. Duval Kamara seems to be the most
likely candidate, but we’ve yet to see any true results from the
promising start of Kamara’s career. With Floyd on the field, the Irish
can take shots down the field and open up the game with a wide array of
screen passes and runs. Without him, the Irish need to execute better
than the opposing defense, a task made more difficult with the sloppy
mental play we’ve seen thus far from the Irish. When the Irish take the
field next Saturday against Purdue, a capable second receiver must

Golden Tate has done more than just emerge, forcing himself into the conversation for the nation’s best player. But for all the talk of the Irish offense not missing a beat, there’s been pretty good evidence that the offense has stagnated. In the red zone alone, the Irish conversion rate has plummeted. In the 10 red zone appearances the Irish made with Floyd, Notre Dame scored 7 touchdowns and kicked 2 field goals, converting 70 percent of their trips into touchdowns. In the 19 red zone appearances since Floyd was injured, the total conversion rate only dipped minimally from 90 to 84 percent, but the touchdown rate plummeted, falling from 70 down to 47 percent, dropping the Notre Dame offense to 75th in TD conversion rate.  (The 70 percent the Irish were averaging with Floyd would’ve been good for 20th.)

On a larger scale, the Irish’s total offense has also taken a hit without Floyd. While looking at yardage totals could skew the data even more, taking a look at Notre Dame’s offensive performance against the average performance of each defense does a good job comparing apples to apples. Notre Dame is gaining 91 yards more than what their opponents are giving up to the rest of their schedule. Yet to see the difference Floyd makes to the offense, note that in the games Floyd played, the Irish averaged a robust +126 yards over the average, while in the five games he missed they out-gained opponents at a more modest +68 yardage rate.

Some will argue that Floyd’s return against Navy might not be as important as getting him back and healthy for Pitt. Right now, the Irish are auditioning every week for voters and bowl representatives, and getting Floyd back in the swing of things against Navy makes a lot of sense, especially in the friendly confines of Notre Dame Stadium.

Besides, assuming he’s gotten a clean bill of health, we’ve been robbed of seeing Floyd on the field for the past six weeks. The fan in me is ready to see the Irish’s most talented player get back on the field.

(Special thanks to the always incredible FunkDoctorSpock for some statistical help…)

Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”