Eye in the Sky: 43-minutes of Defense

Part I of our defensive film review examines Notre Dame's first 43 game minutes – a rock-solid effort vs. the nation's most dangerous quarterback.

Through nearly 43 game minutes and up to the 2:05 mark of the third quarter, Notre Dame forged a 24-7 lead vs. Michigan thanks, in part, to superior concentration and physicality on the defensive side of scrimmage.

No Wolverines drive extended more than four plays. 4!

None of those drives – 10 total – produced more than 45 yards. Denard Robinson's 14 throws landed securely just five times – two of the five caught by Irish defenders.

How, exactly, before all hell broke loose on the Irish defensive side of scrimmage, did Notre Dame contain Robinson and the Wolverines?

Lane Discipline – Front Seven

The Irish maintained a secured edge for all but three of the Wolverines first 15 rushes with senior defensive ends Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore playing an integral role.

Twice Johnson shut down a Robinson run to field side, once staying home on a read-option to the (defense's) left and contending in space with the lightning quick quarterback. Johnson turned Robinson inside and received help from a hustling Lewis-Moore (sprinting across two sets of hash marks) along with freshman outside ‘backer Ishaq Williams and senior nose guard Hafis Williams for a stop after a short gain – a prime example of disciplined team defense vs. a top tier rushing quarterback.

Lewis-Moore played a fantastic first three quarters, getting his paw up to knock down an early backfield swing pass and shortly thereafter, turning his blocker inside, shedding, and making the tackle just past scrimmage on what appeared to be a draw play with downfield potential.

Lewis-Moore added a second half tackle for loss on Robinson, knifing through scrimmage and later receiving help from Williams and linebacker Carlo Calabrese.

Calabrese and Fox split time fairly equally including manning one linebacker spot in Notre Dame's long-yardage (nickel) defense.

Joining the team's five defensive backs (Harrison Smith, Zeke Motta, Jamoris Slaughter, Robert Blanton and Gary Gray) in the nickel package were the following personnel:

A four-man defensive front: Outside linebackers Darius Fleming (left) and Steve Filer (right) in down positions (defensive ends). Outside linebacker Prince Shembo (inside left) and Lewis-Moore (inside right) as pass-rushing defensive tackles.

Standard inside ‘backers: Manti Te'o teamed with either Fox or Calabrese as inside ‘backers. Safety Austin Collinsworth saw time vs. USF in the "dime" package (six defensive backs) but I never saw that Saturday in Ann Arbor.

Calabrese showed great effort on a late 2nd Quarter 3rd and 10; after he initially missed Robinson in the backfield, the junior ‘backer sprinted back into the play to drill a cut-back attempt by Robinson who had shook Prince Shembo with a subtle move in space.

The grouping above held Michigan without a first down in each of the five 3rd and long situations presented in the first half. The Wolverines six first half drives were stymied in large part because the linebacker trio was able to ably fill gaps, completing nullifying Michigan's power game:

  • Fox took on a pulling guard in the hole (low man wins) to defeat the block while making the tackle for a two-yard gain…
  • Calabrese bulled into a lead blocker in the hole to allow a free path for Te'o to make a stop at scrimmage…
  • Fox and Te'o combined to stop inside handoffs throughout the contest with none gaining more than eight yards (Robinson following a lead block by his running back in the third quarter.

Three mistakes yielded Robinson runs of 17, 39, and 4 yards – the latter a huge save by the Irish defensive captain.

  • Te'o took a poor angle inside, not choosing the wrong gap, simply being sucked a bit too deep into traffic. At the same time, Lewis-Moore was pushed back into Te'o while outside ‘backer Prince Shembo was sealed on the edge allowing Robinson's longest first half run: a 17-yarder to the field (left) side…
  • Shembo was sealed outside again as Robinson burst for 39 yards on the same read-option keeper (to the same/field side). Game announcer Kirk Herbstreit indicated Te'o was to blame for following the ‘back inside, but my question: Had he not, who would have? The gap needed to be filled. It appeared the 39-yard gain that took the pigskin from the UM 10-yard line to mid-field was again the fault of Lewis-Moore and Shembo – blocked expertly with a lane created between them and no safety approaching with aggressive support at the second level…
  • Te'o was caught peeking inside at another keeper (this time definitely not his gap to cover) and was late to bounce outside in chase but Harrison Smith bailed him out, showing great speed to Chase Robinson after four lateral yards…
  • The Irish gave up a 3rd and 7 conversion late in the quarter as Ethan Johnson's (effective) pass rush opened the middle, allowing a rare passing lane and passing strike from Robinson, who froze Te'o when he sprinted forward in the pocket and braked to through behind the hesitant junior…one of the few instances the Irish linebackers were caught

Four mistakes (including I-Williams' above) over three quarters – a commendable effort vs. the best running quarterback in the game.

Fox and Calabrese served as alternate spies on Robinson in passing situations while both gave up their bodies vs. lead blocks in run support throughout the contest.

Rotation: Neither freshmen defensive end – Aaron Lynch or Stephon Tuitt – appeared from scrimmage, indicating lane integrity rather than pressure was the chief goal of every pass rush. Freshman Cat linebacker Ishaq Williams and sophomore Dog ‘backer Danny Spond entered the game on the second defensive series. Williams lost containment on 2nd and 11 and Robinson took advantage, sprinting for a 13-yard gain and a first down during which Spond injured his hamstring giving chase.

Freshman Troy Niklas entered at drop linebacker at the 4:50 mark of 2nd Quarter


43 minutes with one mistake: the defensive backfield's production for the better part of three quarters illustrated why Irisheyes.com and most team observers felt the Notre Dame secondary would be a rock-solid, disciplined unit in 2011.

Gary Gray showed nice coverage in an early stop-and-go route outside, though he was still beaten by a half-step with room for a pass to be dropped in on the sideline (Tom Brady completes such a throw: Denard Robinson did not)…

Safety Jamoris Slaughter lost his feet on a 3rd down tackle attempt (poor form vs. a simple curl and little momentum afforded to the receiver), but Te'o was there for the stop short of the marker…

Gray stayed home in a short zone for a diving interception, the result of good screen recognition by outside linebacker Darius Fleming and leaping pressure in Robinson's face by Louis Nix

Robert Blanton showed great discipline and coverage on a backside post. Blanton never bit on Robinson's sprint to the right as the quarterback stopped short and fired a pass 30 yards downfield (incomplete)…

Gray was faked to the ground at the line of scrimmage but Robinson's pass bounced off Roy Roundtree's fingers on a corner route (could have used that drop about three hours later). More than any other mistake, this play indicates Gray's a bit more banged up than we've been led to believe…

Gray was beaten early off the line (failing to recognize Junior Hemingway was his responsibility after the receiver sprinted in motion pre-snap), then after recovering in coverage, lost sight of the football on a weak lob pass down the left sideline: a jump ball touchdown in which he botched the coverage and the tackle attempt.

The Irish front five that was sucked into running lanes by Robinson's play-action after the snap, giving zero pressure on a route that took far too long to execute…

Occasional confusion: In perhaps a portent of late-game struggles, Notre Dame was fortunate on a pair of downfield pass attempts: Motta and Blanton collided in coverage but the pass fell incomplete…Either Blanton or Slaughter needed to cover a corner route in which Robinson simply missed his open target (their zone was flooded; it appears Blanton should have been deeper in his drop)…

Robinson's terrible play-action pass picked off by Motta midway through the third quarter. At that point a scattershot passer, Robinson fell to 3 for 14 with one TD and two interceptions.

The Irish led 24-7 and returned for a defensive series with 2:05 remaining. Michigan had compiled just 141 yards of total offense on 26 snaps.

Then the wheels fell off the wagon…

Note: Part II of our defensive review – the game's final 17 minutes – is forthcoming.

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