Irish offense catches USC with an up-tempo attack

58 Comments

In the afterglow (or more appropriately, aftermath) of Notre Dame’s 14-10 victory over USC, most of the talk on the offensive side of the ball has been about Andrew Hendrix‘s struggles and the hit that knocked Tommy Rees out of the game.

But before either of those things occurred, the Irish offense had a breakthrough. They actually took a team to task with an up-tempo attack, moving the ball well with a check-free, call-it-and-haul-it approach that Irish fans have been waiting four seasons to see.

After the game, Kelly talked a little bit about the up-tempo offense, and how the Irish spent some of bye week finding a set of plays that would work.

“I thought we got some really good things out of it,” Kelly said, when asked to evaluate Rees in the hurry-up offense. “We had been trying to settle on a few plays that we really felt like Tommy could handle well without putting us in a position where we had to check anything.

“I didn’t want to check anything with him, and I didn’t want to be in a position where he had to pull it. And that’s not easy. So we settled on some plays, a cluster of plays that we felt were going to be good for us. I thought the tempo worked well, and I thought he played well.”

For those trying to parse some of that, one of the keys to Kelly’s comments were the, “I didn’t want to be in a position where he had to pull it.” That may be because Rees isn’t the fastest guy in the league, but it now seems more likely that the staff didn’t want to put Rees in a place where he could get hurt. As we saw, Rees is clearly the best option at QB1, which we found out just a few minutes later.

Heading into spring ball, it would have been impossible to see the current situation coming. Rees was the No. 2 quarterback and a great safety net. Gunner Kiel was a five-star, blue-chip No. 3, pushing for snaps. Even if Kiel wasn’t happy and looking to find a way out, Hendrix was a fourth-year player that had a ton of time in the program. For going on three seasons, many believed Hendrix could serve as a situational change-of-pace guy at the very least, and most likely could challenge Rees as the every-down quarterback as well. Add in an early-enrollee in Malik Zaire, and the Irish quarterback depth chart was the envy of college football.

Not anymore.

In many ways, this feels like starting over for Kelly. Four seasons ago, the Irish had a quarterback that they desperately needed to keep healthy, limiting the offense from using Dayne Crist as a runner because they couldn’t risk the injury. The gamble didn’t work, and Crist’s injuries — first “blurred vision” against Michigan and then another knee injury against Tulsa — gave rise to the Tommy Rees era.

For those clamoring for Zaire, the staff’s reluctance to play him is likely as much because he’s not ready as them wanting to save a year of eligibility. Here’s a young quarterback that came from a run-first high school program (just like Hendrix), was buried as the No. 4 quarterback during spring drills and then battled mono for much of the early season. To think the Irish will burn a redshirt if they don’t need to, and to think Zaire will be the guy that keeps the Irish BCS hopes alive, is pretty dicey. When the Irish went to Rees back in 2010, it was because they didn’t have another scholarship quarterback on the roster and Nate Montana had shown he wasn’t capable.

For now, the plan is to get Hendrix playing better and to get Rees healthy. If the Irish can do that, they’ll have a chance to use the up-tempo wrinkle some more, giving defenses one more thing to think about.