Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
Michael Floyd returned to practice in pads on Tuesday. To Jimmy Clausen's chagrin, he didn't go through any pass-catching drills.
"He wasn't ready for it," Clausen said. "But he'll be back soon enough."
Actually, having the star wide receiver make a miracle return this week against USC would qualify as soon enough for Notre Dame. But Floyd's broken collarbone won't be healed sufficiently for him to play until November at the earliest.
Floyd was playing as well as any wideout in the country before he got hurt in the second quarter of the Michigan State game, compiling 13 catches for 358 yards and five touchdowns in just over two games. His size and explosiveness would give the Irish one its few clear mismatches to exploit against the powerful Trojans.
Since Floyd's injury, though, the Notre Dame passing game hasn't seen a noticeable dip. That's because the Irish have found other ways and other players to make up for his production.
"We knew there wasn't going to be just one person to step up and fill his role, because I don't know if there are many players in the country who could do that," receiver Robby Parris said. "We knew we just had to do what we did best as individuals, and go out there rally collectively as a team."
Without Floyd, Golden Tate has become the unquestioned go-to receiver. He has had some huge games despite defenses knowing that status, including his nine-catch, 244-yard outburst against Washington. Head coach Charlie Weis has moved Tate all over the field to keep the double teams at bay. He's lined up in the backfield and motioned out, as well as running routes out of the slot.
"We've asked a lot from him since Michael got hurt," Weis said. "Because if you just line him up at 'X' where he normally plays, I think that you'd just be asking for a long day for Golden. Whether they'd roll him into zone or whether they'd double him in man, he'd have a tough day at the office. So we've had to put a lot of him mentally so we could put him in different positions to give him an opportunity to have the ball in his hands and he's handled that very well."
"He is like a running back at receiver," USC coach Pete Carroll said. "We just have to keep track of him and know the tendencies when he moves. There are so many things you can do, it's very difficult."
Tight end Kyle Rudolph has also seen his role grow exponentially since Floyd's injury. In the first two games, Rudolph had 7 catches for 67 yards. In the last three, he has hauled in 14 balls for 200 yards and two touchdowns.
Rudolph was a star basketball player in high school, and he uses that athleticism at 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds to pose nightmares for opposing linebackers and corners. Weis isn't afraid to split Rudolph out wide, especially in the red zone, where he's run many of Floyd's plays.
"I feel pretty comfortable being split out," Rudolph said. "I'm just as comfortable coming out of a two-point stance as I am in a three-point stance."
Others have also had to step up and fill Floyd's role by committee. Parris, a senior who missed most of last year with injuries, had six catches for 77 yards in the last three games after not getting a reception in the first two. True freshman Shaquelle Evans has had his development accelerated and made four catches against Washington. Junior Duval Kamara could be used more as he recovers from preseason knee surgery.
"I think the offense has responded very well, and the receivers have responded well," Parris said. "We know that (Floyd) makes a great difference, but we know have other players who can come and fill in."
The real test of life without Floyd arrives Saturday. According to ESPN's Next Level Statistics, Clausen went 5-of-8 for 204 yards and three touchdowns when throwing the ball 20-plus yards downfield to Floyd. To all other receivers at that distance, he is just 4-of-17 for 150 yards and one touchdown. Tate has all four of those receptions (he has several big plays, but many of those were thrown under 20 yards until Tate turned them into something bigger).
So Notre Dame's true big-play, downfield threat will be on the sidelines instead of stretching USC's defense Saturday. It's up to his replacements to keep making up the difference.
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