Eye in the Sky: Irish pass defense

A look at Notre Dame's pass defense in Saturday's 23-20 loss to USF.

Rushing Offense: first half

Rushing Offense: second half

Passing Attack: Crist

Passing Attack: Rees

Players reviewed below include: Defensive linemen Kapron Lewis-Moore, Ethan Johnson, Sean Cwynar and Louis Nix; linebackers Manti Te'o, Carlo Calabrese, Dan Fox, Darius Fleming, Steve Filer, and Prince Shembo; defensive backs Robert Blanton, Gary Gray, Zeke Motta, Harrison Smith, Jamoris Slaughter and Austin Collinsworth.

First Quarter Pass Defense – Good Fortune

Daniels first pass occurred on his fourth snap, more than eight minutes into the contest and already staked to a 7-0 advantage. The Bulls redshirt-junior connected for 13 yards on a quick look to the field side – the gain would have been limited to about six yards had Dog linebacker not taken two false steps toward the quarterback prior to the throw…

Gray was beaten to the post on the ensuing play-action pass but Daniels' throw was three yards too far in the back of the end zone – a bullet dodged by the Irish already trailing 7-0…Gray fought off a perimeter block to limit a bubble screen to six yards – two plays later, the Bulls were forced to settle for a field goal, extending their lead to 10-0 with 4:45 remaining.

The defense returned following a three-and-out but did not face a pass on the Bulls ensuing 5-play, 39-yard drive culminating in a 17-yard field goal. (The Irish goal line stand will be reviewed in our Rush Defense segment later this evening.)

USF concluded the first quarter just 2 for 3 through the air but with a 10-0 advantage.

Second Quarter – Rising to the occasion

Another bubble screen – the second in four throws by Daniels – yielded 11 more yards and a Bulls first down: Gray was taken out by a perimeter block though he bounced up and gave chase as Smith knocked Sterli Griffin out of bounds at the marker…

Notre Dame's first pass rush situation didn't occur until the 8:15 mark of the second quarter. With the Bulls facing 3rd and 9 at the ND 34, the Irish brought five at Daniels with delayed Mike linebacker Manti Te'o finishing Daniels for a one-yard sack. Pressure was applied over the right guard by Prince Shembo (who lined up at defensive tackle in a 4-3 set) and off the right edge by fellow DT Kapron Lewis-Moore. Darius Fleming and Steve Filer served as the defensive ends in the alignment – it appeared backup safety Austin Collinsworth lined up as a Dime package linebacker with Zeke Motta and Harrison Smith manning the safety spots deep. Jamoris Slaughter was the nickel (slot) cornerback…

Slaughter was in a trailing position on a deep out to Evan Landi but the slotted target's diving attempt was unsuccessful – not bad coverage considering Slaughter had no help behind him…Gray stopped Griffin just short of the marker on a slant after a 12-yard gain, but after he yielded nearly three yards after the catch. Griffin had a good first half…

Theo Riddick muffed the ensuing Bulls punt to give USF new life and the football at the Irish 20-yard line.

The Irish defense rose to the occasion on three straight snaps:

  • Motta converged on a low post throw, forcing the ball into the air but no Irish player was in the area for the potential turnover…
  • Fleming played a boundary flair pass well, forcing Daniels to bring the ball down and roll wide right where Te'o gave chased and forced a short completion, barking at the quarterback following the play; LDE Ethan Johnson also gave good chase on the play and then contributed to the tackle with a clean0up hit from behind…
  • A late pre-snap switch to inside-out man coverage in the slot (Smith and Motta aligned inside-out) allowed Smith to break up a slot screen on 3rd and 9 to force another Bulls field goal. A win for the Irish defense in short-field, short-change situation following the fumbled punt.

USF 16 ND 0

Strong coverage by Robert Blanton on the outside and pressure up front by Johnson forced an incompletion and ensuing punt on the Bulls next possession – a 3-and-out.

USF had one more chance, starting at their own 44-yard line with 35 seconds remaining but Gray executed two tackles in-bounds to help run valuable clock and nose guard Louis Nix showed great lateral speed on the last play of the half, chasing Daniels to the sidelines after his pocket collapsed the clock as the team's entered intermission, unaware the break would last more than two hours due to lightning moving into the area.

Third Quarter – Momentum Swings

The Bulls managed just two first downs in their first three 3rd Quarter possessions. The Irish were all over an early flair to the boundary with Dan Fox, Darius Fleming in contain and Sean Cwynar cleaning up the mess…Motta was caught in traffic for a wide-side out that gained 10 yards and a first down…The defense locked down from there, stringing out a run and showing quality coverage on a deep stop-and-go route (Blanton never bit), and then receiving a break when a pass was dropped in front of Blanton who was a bit too far off in the 3rd and 7 situation…

After trimming the lead to 16-7, the Irish defense stymied another boundary screen, this time by Calabrese destroying a block and Fleming cleaning up for the sideline tackle after a one-yard gain…Gray yielded the only conversion on a short out on 3rd and 6 – Notre Dame's corner cushion on 3rd down is frustrating vs. limited passing attacks such as South Florida's.

Blanton delivered the team's defensive play of the day, diagnosing a bubble screen and dropping the receiver in the backfield after a three-yard loss. Blanton blew by his receiver's attempted block to make the play…Fox showed solid coverage in the flat on 3rd Down to force a high throw and subsequent punt; Lewis-Moore applied pressure on the play…

Bulls lone touchdown drive – mistakes tell the tale

After a 54-yard drive by Notre Dame's offense, the Irish D responded to a rare David Ruffer shanked field goal with an immediate sack of Daniels as Lewis-Moore and Fleming benefited from initial backside pressure by Johnson over the right side…Daniels responded to end the 3rd Quarter with an 18-yard strike on a curl route by Griffin who had too much room to operate vs. the Blanton/Motta combo…

USF began the final quarter with a 10-yard strike vs. Gary Gray who exacerbated the situation with needless late hit out of bounds, tacking on 15 more yards to bring the ball to the Irish 42-yard line…Slaughter played a seam/sideline deep combo route well, undercutting the outside receiver on a high throw…Fleming showed great athleticism with a pass breakup of another boundary screen pass – planting at full speed and extending his arm to tip the pass…Slaughter was two steps late on what should have been a stop for about 7-8 yards instead of an 11-yard arrow route out of the backfield. Its conceivable the outside cornerback Blanton should have remained outside (inside-out coverage), but the senior certainly seemed to be locked into man coverage…

After seven consecutive runs took the Bulls to a 3rd and G situation at the Irish 6-yard line, Gray committed his second major penalty of the drive, interfering in the end zone to give the Bulls a fresh set of downs. Gray was beaten to the corner on a boundary side fade, never turning to locate the under-thrown ball as he ran into the receiver. I disagree with a colleague who noted Gray played the play correctly: you have to locate the football in one-on-one situations in the end zone.

USF capitalized on the ensuing snap: a clever play-action post pass to detached tight end Evan Landi – a former split end – to beat Calabrese who, like Gray, on the previous play, did not locate the football.

Though more than 11 minutes remained, the touchdown toss was the Bulls 30th and final passing play of the contest.

Observations:

  • The defense yielded just 128 passing yards on 18 completions but two costly penalties by Gray and key completions against Gray, Slaughter, and Calabrese on the final drive turned an A-level performance into a "just miss" effort.

  • The Irish pass rush was successful late and its two sacks were in keeping with the rebirth of the defense as Diaco's group totaled just three sacks in the team's four-game winning streak to end the season.

  • The jury is still out on the team's nickel defense, though Slaughter has promise in that role. USF's passing attack can be categorized as limited at best.

  • The linebackers fared well in their first outing, repeatedly sniffing out boundary screens. A play-action pass at the 1-yard line on first down is difficult to defend for an inside ‘backer like Calabrese.

  • Zeke Motta looked bad in space on a first quarter drive but showed no ill effects throughout the contest. Gray had an uncharacteristically tough day. Harrison Smith's two major errors will be detailed in our rush defense film review. Good to see Austin Collinsworth involved in the dime package defense.

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