Tommy Rees trotted off the field after Oklahoma safety Zack Sanchez forced a punt by knocking down a pass intended for Notre Dame sophomore Chris Brown to a rolling hymn of boos. With less than six minutes to go in the game and its outcome solidified, Rees, had he looked toward the crowd, may have noticed its impending dilution as throngs of green shirts poured out of Notre Dame Stadium. The incident was enough to spark a Twitter war between Notre Dame fans and former Irish defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore, with Moore tweeting the Irish faithful needed to “check themselves” as well as proposing the ND football team reserve the post-game playing of the alma mater for the locker room rather than the fans.
If the Michigan State game provided inconclusive results as to what kind of season Notre Dame had in its future, Oklahoma supplied a dosage of reality and forced it down the Fighting Irish’s throats.
As the cliché goes, what a difference a year makes.
Notre Dame’s offense has descended from a potential concern to an outright problem. In the past two weeks Irish quarterback Tommy Rees has completed 23 passes on 58 attempts for a completion percentage of 38.9. He’s netted 246 yards with 3 touchdowns and 3 interceptions for a rancid quarterback rating of 48.5. Despite the poor performance, pointing all fingers of blame toward Rees would be too simplistic, and Notre Dame’s offensive issues reside beyond the mere purview of the quarterback position.
On the third play of the game Irish All-American left tackle Zach Martin opted to double-team an Oklahoma defender with left guard Chris Watt, leaving a blitzing Sooner unaccounted for on Rees’ blindside and ultimately resulting in Oklahoma linebacker Corey Nelson returning an interception for a touchdown. On the very next offensive play Rees threw a clean pass on a slant route to senior wide receiver and captain, T.J. Jones, who bobbled the ball into Oklahoma linebacker Frank Shannon’s waiting hands for yet another interception. Three plays later, and three minutes into the contest, the score was 14-0 Oklahoma, a deficit the Fighting Irish would never erase.
The biggest issue with Notre Dame’s offense isn’t the turnovers, mistakes or inconsistent play – it’s the strong likelihood the offense is running at maximum capability. Five games into the 2013 season, enough of a baseline has been established to get an accurate reading on where the offense’s performance level resides, and it simply isn’t good enough. Notre Dame ranks 85th nationally in offensive scoring with 25.4 points per game, one spot below a USC squad that fired its head coach a few short days ago. Total offensive production is even worse, with ND ranking 88th and averaging a mere 380 yards per game.
The problems afflicting Notre Dame’s offense aren’t new to Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly or offensive coordinator Church Martin. The appearance of junior redshirt quarterback Andrew Hendrix in special packages is a testament to the coaching’s staff search for answers after Michigan State, one week prior, crowded rushing lanes against Notre Dame and forced a one-dimensional offense that simply could not be effectively countered without mobility and a strong arm at the quarterback position.
Hendrix played valiantly and chipped in a critical first down with his legs, but his presence has disadvantages. At the start of the 2nd quarter and down 14-7, the Fighting Irish faced an important 3rd-and-2 opportunity. A first down would be the difference between chipping away at Oklahoma’s lead or being forced to punt. Notre Dame approached the line of scrimmage in the pistol formation with Hendrix at quarterback. Running the read-option, Hendrix made the correct decision to keep the ball but was ultimately tackled when the optioned defensive end abandoned the halfback and targeted Hendrix.
The issue? If the read-option is to be run effectively the quarterback needs to be a legitimate passing threat as well as a rushing risk. Plugging in Rees to pass the ball and spelling him with Andrew Hendrix whenever a rushing play is needed is too predictable and serves as nothing more than a band-aid on a pestering wound.
The presence of Andrew Hendrix against Oklahoma on Saturday serves as evidence Kelly and Martin understand the status quo is not sustainable and that something must be done. The defining moment moving forward is what that “something” will ultimately be. How can Notre Dame win with a quarterback who, through no fault of his own, is limited physically in his ability to counter certain defensive schemes? What can be done to rectify the situation when the second quarterback on the team depth chart has never been able to best Rees in a quarterback competition? And finally, is it truly wise to throw a talented but unproven true freshman quarterback like Malik Zaire into the fire so soon into his collegiate career?
These are the questions Kelly and staff will have to answer while preparing for an Arizona State program fresh from hammering USC with 62-points, causing Trojan athletic director Pat Haden to fire head coach Lane Kiffin mid-season.
The answer they choose may be the difference between a season of success or one of survival.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles as well as co-founded a nationally-featured non-profit organization. In his spare time he takes his NCAA Football ’13 online dynasty way too seriously and alienates those around him by discussing football 24 hours a day. Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.