Notre Dame Football: FSU Pass Rush Makes Theo Riddick Key in Champs Sports Bowl

Gerard MartinCorrespondent IDecember 22, 2011

STANFORD, CA - NOVEMBER 26:  Theo Riddick #6 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action against the Stanford Cardinal at Stanford Stadium on November 26, 2011 in Stanford, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Notre Dame Fighting Irish face a tough challenge against the Florida State Seminoles in the Champs Sports Bowl. If the Irish are to get a victory, they’ll need a multifaceted contribution from their offensive Swiss Army knife, Theo Riddick.

Led by defensive linemen Brandon Jenkins and Bjeorn Werner, Florida State averaged 3.5 sacks per game when its opponent attempted more than 30 passes this season.

That’s bad news for a Notre Dame team that averaged 34.5 pass attempts per game this season.

Notre Dame’s offensive line was great for most of the 2011 campaign; the Irish only allowed 13 sacks all year. Yet when Braxston Cave went down with a foot injury, the formerly stout offensive line faltered.

A unit that had developed a fantastic chemistry through the first nine games of the season was crippled by the loss of its leader.

Mike Golic Jr. did an admirable job as a fill-in against Maryland and Boston College, but in the one game Notre Dame played without Cave against a team with a Top 30 pass rush, the Irish line was shredded by Stanford for five sacks.

With the immobile Tommy Rees getting the start at quarterback, the Irish will have to adjust their schemes to prioritize pass protection. Rees was hopelessly ineffective against Stanford’s pressure, and was pulled in favor of the more mobile Andrew Hendrix.

While many Notre Dame fans might be rooting for that outcome anyway, the Irish won’t have any chance to win (regardless of who's playing quarterback) unless they can keep the Seminole defenders on their own side of the line of scrimmage.

Though Brian Kelly’s offense depends on spreading the defense out, in this game, he’ll have no choice but to pack it in, leaving tight ends and backs in to help chip on FSU’s dangerous rushers.

This change in approach makes Theo Riddick essential in two ways.

First, he’ll have to re-learn pass protection from the running back position.

Riddick spent most of the last two seasons at wide receiver, but a season-ending injury to Jonas Gray left a gaping hole behind Cierre Wood, forcing Riddick back to his original position, running back.

Cierre Wood is an outstanding pass protector, but even coming off of weeks of rest, he’ll have to come out of the game sometimes. When he does, Riddick will be called on to pick up a few blitzes.

He’s shown some solid blocking skills as a wide receiver, and he’ll have weeks of bowl practice to rebuild his understanding of Notre Dame’s pass protection schemes, but it’s hard to say how everything will play out on game day.

Even if Riddick enters the game as Wood's primary backup, I still expect that Kelly will use him as a wide receiver. When he’s lined up on the outside, Riddick has another important role to play in diffusing the Seminoles pass rush.

Unlike most teams that Notre Dame has faced this season, Florida State actually has a cornerback capable of hanging with Michael Floyd.

Junior Greg Reid doesn’t have the size and strength to out-muscle Floyd on deep balls, but he does have the speed to run with him on short routes. In passing situations, Reid will be able to take away quick passes to Floyd.

That’s where Riddick comes in. Lateral agility is one of his best assets, and he’ll be asked to use that quickness to get himself open in passing situations. Rees is very accurate on short-intermediate passes, and using fast-developing routes will will help to get him in a rhythm. A healthy dose of slants, outs and bubble screens should loosen up the FSU defense and keep the Irish offense moving.

Ever since Theo Riddick came to Notre Dame, he’s been lauded for his versatility. He’ll need to show off every bit of it if Notre Dame is going to get a win on December 29th.