Next Phase of Passing Game: Stretch the Field Vertically – 247Sports

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The plan against Cal was to give Drew Pyne something he felt comfortable with early in his first starting assignment as the Notre Dame quarterback.

Then he short-armed his first throw, got deep in his own head, and everything went haywire for the first five offensive series of the game.

After connecting on just 3-of-8 out of the gate with bobbled and fumbled snaps mixed in, Pyne stabilized by connecting on 14-of-15 for 131 yards and two touchdowns in Notre Dame’s 24-17 victory over the Golden Bears.

Head coach Marcus Freeman knows the Irish offense and its coordinator, Tommy Rees, will have to take a more aggressive stance – particularly this week against a high-powered North Carolina offensive team – if they are to successfully keep digging their way out of the 0-2 start.

“If you go back and watch the Cal defense, they were primarily a one-high team and one-high teams a lot of times are built to, one, stop the run, but two, stop the vertical passing game,” Freeman said. “We had a game plan to be more lateral in our passing game and we missed a couple shots.

“We haven’t done it yet to the percentage we want to. But to be able to win the upcoming games, you’re going to have to be able to complete some balls downfield.”

Once the ground game kicked in against Cal, it opened up a couple of avenues in the passing attack for running backs Audric Estime and Chris Tyree. With both on the field, they caught 36- and 21-yard receptions respectively. Estime’s 36-yarder set up a short touchdown pass to Michael Mayer and Tyree’s 21-yarder put the Irish on the board in the second quarter.

And yet of Pyne’s 17 completions on 23 attempts, the two longest were to the running backs. Ten of 17 completions were for six yards or less. Fourteen of those completions were single-digit yardage with a 19-yarder to wideout Lorenzo Styles the only other double-digit gain through the air.

The running backs were targeted eight times among the 23 passes. Mayer was targeted five times with just two receptions for 10 yards, although one of those grabs went for a six-yard touchdown. Styles and Braden Lenzy had nine of the 10 targets to the wideouts.

Styles and Lenzy caught seven of the 10 targeted passes but netted just 53 yards – 7.5 yards per reception. Outside of Styles’ 19-yarder, the other six wideout receptions gained 34 yards – 5.6 yards per reception.

Rees tried to get Pyne settled in with more manageable throws. When a nerve-wracked Pyne struggled early, Rees had to consider alternatives.

“You have things in the game plan where you have to feel out the game a little bit and where your quarterback is when you call those,” Rees said. “A lot of that stuff depends upon the week of practice and then getting the quarterback in a nice rhythm early and still having the ability to say, ‘Okay, we’re going to let these couple rip.’

“Cal’s a post-high, NFL-style defense where they’re going to keep the top on things. Seam balls can attack them, but posts and those type of deals (are utilized) a little less in that area of the field.

“We’ll continue to attack that. We’re always looking for weaknesses in the defense and trying to expose those. We had a couple shots at it Saturday and we’ll try to add (more).”

A 24-point effort in Chapel Hill this weekend probably won’t be enough. The Tar Heels are averaging 51.3 points per game after tallying 56 in the opener against Florida A&M, 63 at Appalachian State in a two-point victory, and then a “modest” 35 points in a seven-point victory at Georgia State before a bye week leading into Notre Dame’s visit.

“We’re going to have to throw some balls down the field,” Freeman said. “We’re not going to get away with running five-yard routes and RPOs and running the ball the entire game. We know that.”

North Carolina is an opponent that should allow for the Irish playbook to expand. Against Appalachian State and Georgia State, the Mountaineers and Panthers combined for 523 yards rushing on 97 carries (5.4-yard average). Appalachian State rushed for 288 yards on 43 carries (6.7).

And yet the Tar Heels – under new defensive coordinator Gene Chizik – are equally porous against the pass. Charlotte is the lone FBS team that has allowed more than the 11 touchdown passes versus the Tar Heels. North Carolina is 112th in passing yardage allowed per game at 275.3. It also ranks 121st in completion percentage (.697).

Add it all up and North Carolina is 123rd out of 131 FBS teams in total defense (468.3).

To out-score the Drake Maye/Josh Downs-led offense, the Irish will need to be proficient in the passing game as well as the rushing attack. Wide receivers as well as the running backs must contribute in the passing game.

“There are specific looks you try to take advantage of,” said Rees of the success throwing the football to the running backs against Cal. “We did a nice job (dealing) with (the) pressures and (had) a nice coverage deal with Chris (on the 21-yard touchdown). It was part of the game-plan looks and things you prepare for during the week. You try to find those nuanced things that can help give you an advantage.

“That was more about what we were able to do and what Drew was comfortable with in those moments. We wanted, in his first start, to make sure we were running things he felt supremely confident in.

“We were running the ball at a high (level) and had some easy completions to the wideouts in the flat. We have to continue to have them involved and make sure we’re doing things offensively to get the ball down the field.”

The Irish cannot afford another slow start from Pyne. His start against Cal was nothing short of putrid. The follow through after the first five drives was what Rees expects from Pyne.

“You obviously want to be ready to go right off the bat,” Rees said. “If you hit a couple of those plays early, you’re probably calling a different game.

“We’ve got to continue to get him feeling really good going into the game, get him in rhythm with the guys and that starts to open things up a little bit.

“He cares a lot. He wants to be there for his teammates. Drew responded like we knew he would.”
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