In the trenches: Irish Defensive Front SevenThe D-Line featured a heavy rotation, especially early with redshirt-freshman Louis Nix and true frosh RDE Stephon Tuitt seeing ample time. Both early enrollees, OLB Ishaq Williams and LDE Aaron Lynch appeared in multiple first half series.
Nix showed unexpected quickness tackle-to-tackle and even in chases toward the sideline. His stop on 3rd and 4 forced an early field goal.
The third-down, short-yardage defense performed well most of the afternoon (and evening), forging stops on 3rd and 2 twice, on 3rd and 3, and on three occasions inside its five yard-line – again forcing a field goal with the latter combined effort.
The unit suffered a key failure on a fist-half 4th and 1 when Darius Fleming missed a golden opportunity for a momentum-changing tackle. Fleming had a rough first half-plus but finished with eight tackles, a half-sack, and an athletic backfield deflection of a South Florida screen.
First-time starter Dan Fox failed to distinguish himself and, unrelated, was the recipient of the biggest block of the game, a crack-back that resulted in a seven-yard gain on 2nd and 6. He later showed strong coverage on a third-down pass to the flat that fell incomplete.
Manti Te'o was solid though unspectacular; his key 3rd down sack forced the Bulls last field goal of the first half. Fellow inside ‘backer Carlo Calabrese was targeted and beaten on skinny post by tight end Evan Landi – a former wide receiver – for USF's final touchdown and a 23-7 edge. Calabrese had earlier combined with Fleming to stop a screen play that had potential for damage down field.
If not for a boneheaded personal foul penalty in the final period, senior defensive end Ethan Johnson would have been the no-brainer defensive MVP. Johnson played extremely well on the edge and in chase. His bookend Kapron Lewis-Moore led the defensive line with eight tackles and the team with 1.5 tackles-for-loss. Three of Lewis-Moore's stops were short of the first down marker on 2nd and 3rd down; he added a third-down QB hurry to force an incompletion as well.
KLM's shared sack with Fleming was a result of Johnson's pressure from the left side. Johnson made stops at one-yard, a pair for just two yards, and another for loss.
The defensive front was instrumental in holding a run-focused offense to 3.0 yards per carry, though its lone fourth-quarter failure – a five-play series in which painfully average running back Demetris Murray powered for 28 yards – resulted in the game's decisive touchdown.
Final Verdict: Solid performance, but not spectacular and the latter was necessary to overcome an appalling 5-0 turnover margin.
Secondary Thoughts: Irish Defensive BacksAn early pair of personal fouls by team captain Harrison Smith – back-to-back, no less – set the tone. Another by oft-targeted 5th-year senior cornerback Gary Gray and his subsequent end zone interference penalty exacerbated the unit's mental mistakes.
Gray endured just his second tough individual outing in 14 games started under this coaching staff – not a bad rate of exchange but the Bulls definitely took advantage of his cushion in coverage and targeted him on both third down and near the goal line. Smith contributed to two of the three key stops in Notre Dame's first quarter goal line stand and had a nice one-on-one stop of a Bulls slip-screen on third down, but the rest of his action was non-descript; occurring after first down gains by the visitors.
The safety tandem opposite Smith struggled early with Zeke Motta whiffing badly in space to allow a 17-yard gain while Jamoris Slaughter was a shade late in the 4th quarter, allowing a third down conversion on a simple swing pass out of the backfield that contributed to the Bulls clinching score. Slaughter made the tackle 12 yards downfield on a 3rd and 10 that had no business moving the chains.
Senior cornerback Robert Blanton played well, allowing one first down catch according to my notes while showing excellent coverage on another deep pass (double move and he never bit) and expertly reading a slot screen pass in the third quarter for lost yardage.
Final Verdict: The group didn't allow a third down conversion until midway through the third quarter, but four costly penalties and a maddening 3rd and 10 coverage slip by Slaughter on the game's decisive drive overshadows sticky coverage that yielded a mere 130 passing yards on the day.
Perimeter Points – Wide Receivers and Tight EndsSix drops, one that should have been a touchdown, another that resulted in interception; a holding penalty to negate a touchdown; only three difficult receptions secured in a contest that demand much more…Aside from Michael Floyd's requisite record-setting day and a sampling of hard-charging runs after the catch, Notre Dame's wide receiver performance could only be categorized as "awful" – at least over the game's first 50 minutes.
Sophomore T.J. Jones failed to locate his quarterback on a goal line crossing route; the ball glancing off his shoulder pad and its resulting interception drawing Jones a verbal evisceration from head coach Brian Kelly upon his return to the sidelines. Intermixed, Jones made a spectacular grab in the fourth quarter and also ran through arm tackles on two short throws. However, his body language might be worse than his head coach's or former starting quarterback's…
Junior Theo Riddick suffered through the worst game of his career, dropping four passes and losing a fumble (muff) on his first career punt return. Backup Robby Toma inexplicably entered for first time at 10:15 mark of the fourth quarter; performance-based benchings should not be reserved for struggling quarterbacks…
Floyd was fantastic, his 12 receptions setting a personal single-game record en route to breaking the program record for career receptions held by Jeff Samardzija. (Floyd's four season-opening contests as an Irish receiver have yielded an astounding six touchdowns and nearly 450 receiving yards.) The senior wasn't perfect: his blatant holding penalty negated the team's only touchdown of the first half.
Tight end Tyler Eifert played well, providing a third quarter spark with a 37-yard catch-and-run from Tommy Rees. Eifert was unable to come up with a poorly-thrown but catch-able third-down ball behind him from the arm of Dayne Crist. It was a catch a potential All-American has to make, especially with his quarterback struggling.
Final Verdict: Floyd raised a full-fledged failing performance to merely maddening. But if Notre Dame's wide receivers play at a similar level for the duration of September the Irish will open 0-4.
On the front lines: Irish offensive lineIt was ugly early: a false start, poor backside protection for Crist, two sacks allowed, at least two key hurries, and a pair of missed blocks leading to tackles-for-loss. Position coach Ed Warinner's group was sub par early, and to be blunt, for three quarters, but it eventually rallied around backup QB Tommy Rees.
Ultimately, a 2 for 12 conversion effort on third down entering the fourth quarter falls on failures up front. The Irish offensive line didn't get a consistent push on third-and-short and failed to protect (while also committing two penalties) in obvious passing situations.
The front line bounced back in the fourth quarter, offering excellent protection on two third down conversions and a hole over the left side for a Cierre Wood touchdown.
Right tackle Taylor Dever had a poor game; surprising as the 5th-year senior was consistent (at worst) when healthy last season. Braxston Cave started poorly as well though I don't have notes on the center post-half. (Film review to follow.)
Final Verdict: The offensive line didn't play winning football Saturday.
Focal Points: Irish offensive backfieldJunior running back Cierre Wood excelled in the first half, totaling gains of 31, 14, 18, 11, and 10 yards rushing and receiving. Backup Jonas Gray offered debilitating error No. 1 of the 2011 season, an inexcusable goal line fumble that resulted in a 96-yard South Florida touchdown return.
Quarterback Dayne Crist struggled with pressure in his face though he did offer one impressive spin and escape to set up a 1st and Goal early in the second quarter. That effort was negated by his perplexing soft toss interception in the end zone that robbed the Irish of a sure field goal.
Crist received little help, scratch that: Crist received NO HELP from his receivers, but missed crucial throws on third down as well, finishing 1-6 on third down with no conversions and an interception. Kelly's assertion that Crist can buy time in the pocket is patently false.
Tommy Rees brings rhythm to the Irish offense; he'll need balance to be a major part of the equation in the coming weeks because his arm does not match his guts, wits, or knack for clutch third-down throws.
Rees' touchdown toss to Floyd was the sophomore at his best: a perfectly lofted fade that became his calling card last November. Rees also threaded the needled on at least three seam/post routes for large gains.
His worst decision timed poorly with his worst pass: a late-over-the-middle offering to Floyd following the game's second weather delay. The resulting interception at the Notre Dame 30 robbed the Irish of precious time under the 4:21 mark of the final quarter.
Notre Dame's passing offense becomes decidedly "boundary-centric" with Rees; the sophomore struggles with his accuracy on throws to the wide side – an easily scout-able trend for upcoming foes.
Final Verdict: Gray's fumble, Crist's inconsistent play, Rees' damaging late pick, and the reality that Notre Dame's chosen starting quarterback will need serious mental rehab prior to his next appearance completely offsets Cierre Wood's best career outing. Rees showed great leadership in the face of adversity and deserves to start in Ann Arbor next week.
Special Teams – Anything but…A missed chip shot field goal from one of the nation's best kickers...consistently poor punts from a consistently poor punter...a muffed punt resulting in a lost fumble by the too-easily-anointed breakout star...another dropped punt (recovered by the offender)...the team's now requisite negative punt return yards for the contest...nothing to speak of on kickoff returns...a 31-yard kick return allowed late,. and the team's best player was beaten to the (50/50 at worst) football dangling in the air on a perfect onsides kick to conclude the contest.
Aside from two inspired wedge-busting efforts from walk-on Chris Salvi in early kick coverage, Notre Dame's special teams received a definitive "F" grade for its opening efforts.
College football games are routinely lost on special teams: this is the third such damaging outing over the staff's first 14 games in South Bend.
On the sidelines – Irish coaching staffAside from the unit's star, the receiving corps greatly damaged the teams chances to win…nine months of quarterback evaluation was trashed 30 minutes into the first contest…the chosen senior power back suffered his fifth career fumble without yet scoring a touchdown…three defenders entered in the offense's jumbo package at the goal line: the result? "Look-at-me" football, but negative 96 yards and 7 points on the wrong side of the scoreboard; what happened to depth at tight end? Are Alex Welch and Ben Koyack not more threatening near the goal line than a defensive end and two linebackers?
The game witnessed the worst special teams effort since the team's last loss, the 28-27 head-shaker vs. Tulsa last October…a wasted timeout prior to a crucial two-point conversion attempt…five turnovers, three from upperclassmen, the other pair courtesy two returning starters…the offensive line won some battles but lost the war…the secondary committed three personal foul penalties…
Bob Diaco's defense deserves plaudits for keeping the Irish afloat, but restraint training after five costly penalties, two post-whistle. Aside from what I perceived as early abandonment of the running game, I had no problem with the offensive play-calling – execution was the issue.
Regarding the sure-to-be discussed sideline explosions by head coach Brian Kelly: no one would care if they were 12-2 during his tenure rather than 8-6...well, the players might, but you wouldn't.
Final Verdict: Like the Tulsa defeat last October, the staff, from top to bottom, needs a mulligan entering its next contest. The first of must-win of 2011.