Eye in the Sky: Defensive Dominance

The first part of our defensive film review details Notre Dame's first half efforts vs. Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, including a breakdown of how the Irish slowed his assault on the ground, and completely dominated the Wolverines' passing attack over the first 30 minutes.

An Early Adjustment

Michigan's pair opening mis-direction plays -- first a fake reverse-keeper by quarterback Denard Robinson, then an end-around throwback pass to fullback Joe Kerridge accomplished a short-term goal: loosening an Irish defense front seven. But the latter might have been better left for a red zone snap, one the might have resulted in points instead of innocuous early yardage…

After six snaps gained 31 yards (15 from Danny Spond's penalty defending the aforementioned throwback pass), defensive coordinator Bob Diaco dialed up a cornerback blitz with the defense's fastest football player, and Bennett Jackson combined with will 'backer Carlo Calabrese for a backfield stop to force 3rd and 9 at the Irish 44.

The Wolverines' previous 3rd and long (7) was successful when Notre Dame's four-man rush was stifled, and left defensive end Stephon Tuitt was uncharacteristically put on his back late in the play, opening a running lane for Robinson to move the chains. Their second and final 3rd down opportunity ended with an errant incompletion thanks to a middle blitz by Sam 'backer Dan Fox, who tumbled over a backfield cut block to hit Robinson as he threw. Manti Te'o blitzed up the gut as well but was picked up.

The Irish defense bent briefly, but re-established control on The Opening series.

Right Back Out: Less than 12 game seconds later, DIaco's defense was back on the field with its backs to the wall, Michigan set up with 1st and Goal at the Irish 10-yard line following an Everett Golson interception and subsequent penalty.

A 1st Down toss left had no chance against the Irish front seven, with Danny Spond securing the edge against a phalanx of blockers and Zeke Motta, Matthias Farley, and Carlo Calabrese cleaning up the mess. Farley's acceleration through traffic was impressive (this was the time for a mis-direction throwback to the fullback, not the previous series)…A faulty line assignment allowed Tuitt to pressure Robinson on second down with an inside move by Prince Shembo resulting in a sack and loss of three yards…Tuitt struck again on the next play, this time overwhelming right tackle Michael Schofield with a bull rush and one-armed take down of Robinson and crucial loss of 10 yards -- Tuitt is among college football players biggest impact players of the season's opening month.

The Wolverines ended the backwards drive with a missed 42-yard field goal, fully shifting momentum to the Irish. It's relevant that the Irish stayed in a base defense on 3rd and Goal from the 13-yard line rather than switching to their nickel package…

Notre Dame showed five 3-4 fronts; four 4-3 fronts, and two nickel looks in opening pair of defensive stands.

Bending until Baratti: The Wolverines found success on their third drive, marching from the 12-yard line to a 1st and Goal opportunity nearly 80 yards later at the Irish 10. Mis-direction was used again from the outset with slot receiver Jeremy Gallon gaining 8 with either Shembo or Jackson losing inside containment as Te'o cleaned up the play…Robinson overcame a 6-yard loss on a fumbled snap with a 3rd and 8 18-yard strike to Devin Gardner against the Irish nickel defense. The Irish rushed just three and dropped eight defenders, but Gardner's delayed post route worked well in combination with a hook inside by the slot receiver, one that froze nickel back Elijah Shumate (who I believe maintained the proper coverage on a well-designed play.

After a comeback bubble screen to Gallon bounced (and was well-defended by Jackson and Shembo), Robinson hit veteran Roy Roundtree on a right side hitch for 9 but the 5th-year senior was stopped in his tracks by Farley. That's a tackle missed in recent seasons by Irish defensive backs…Robinson converts 3rd and 1 thereafter as Louis Nix and Sheldon Day are stalemated at the point…Penetration by LDT Kapron Lewis-Moore allows Jackson to stop RB Fitzgerald Toussaint in the backfield for a loss on the ensuing snap; the pair saved a long gain as Ishaq Williams and RDT Kona Schwenke were caved in by the Wolverines front (both double-teamed)…

Tuitt contained Robinson on the edge on the ensuing snap but Roundtree broke free over the middle for 11 yards and, despite pressure by Lewis-Moore, the next play gained 12 more to Gallon as cornerback Keivarae Russell goes for the pick (fine choice, just a tick late). Russell played a stop-go-stop route well…Michigan dialed up Russell again, hitting Gardner for a 12-yard comeback to the field side…

An expertly run read-option by Robinson (he held the ball in the 'back's belly for a full second before exploding forward) gains 15 through traffic as LDE Ishaq Williams was completely controlled by the tight end, Te'o over pursued, and Calabrese was late through (weak) traffic. Zeke Motta save the touchdown with a tackle in space at the Irish 10-yard line.

Another 1st and Goal offers a gift from "the team up north" as the Wolverines, blessed with the best passing running back in the nation (Robinson) instead dial-up a halfback pass from Vincent Smith, one diagnosed by Te'o who bears down on the diminutive ball carrier and forces an errant throw to the end zone. Freshman safety Nicky Baratti, playing his first series of the game and first meaningful set of scrimmage snaps in his collegiate career, is not fooled by the run-action and instead stays home to make the end zone interception, giving his offense the ball on a touchback to the 20-yard line…

A huge "win" for the Irish on the 12-play, 78-yard drive's decisive snap.

The first three series of the game included playing time by the following Irish defensive reserves: Baratti, Williams, Day, Schwenke, Shumate, Tony Springmann, and Ben Councell. Cornerback Josh Atkinson checked in for the first series of the second.

(The Quarter included eleven 3-4 fronts; nine 4-3 fronts, and three nickel sets. Of note, the Wolverines converted 2 of 3 vs. the Irish nickel.)

2nd Quarter Control

After a 23-play opening quarter, Michigan managed just 11 snaps in the second, due largely to a comedy of errors in the passing game. Baratti kicked off the carnage with his end zone pick near the end of the first, and against all odds, the Wolverines, and specifically Robinson, were picked off on their next four pass attempts ending each series of the quarter with a turnover and five straight series, and five straight passes, to conclude the half.

Intermixed were eight rushing attempts with the Irish controlling six of them, the outlier a 20-yard gain by Robinson vs. a prevent defense late (it was his longest rush of the day). The 2nd Quarter runs were handled as follows:

  • Fox and Tuitt combined to bottle up Toussaint for two yards on first down as Nix held the point…
  • Robinson was held to a yard by Te'o and a pursuing Nix on the ensuing snap, a designed middle draw…
  • Robinson is held to three as Nix blows up the middle of the Wolverines blocking scheme and Calabrese makes the ankle top near scrimmage…
  • Another expert keeper on a read option and incredible feet by Robinson gains 8 yards and a first down. That was an athlete making a play though Calabrese might have been sucked too far to his right prior to Robinson's cutback
  • Calabrese makes up for it on the next play, tracking Robinson's planned run after two yards…
  • Now trailing 10-0 with 1:15 remaining in the half, Robinson is stopped by a one-armed tackle from Nix, who was A.) held, and B.) drilled in the helmet by teammate Ishaq Williams on the play. Nix left the game but returned in the second half.

  • Robinson's only escape of the half results in a 20-yard gain as he outruns Te'o's inside angle in a prevent defense.

The Quarter's Four Consecutive Interceptions Break Down as Follows:

  • With Shembo applying late front-side pressure, Te'o accepted a Robinson gift, stepping in front of an ill-advised pass and returning it 28 yards to the Michigan 17-yard line (Notre Dame settled for a field goal and 3-0 lead as a result)…

  • On the Wolverines next snap, Robinson throws deep of an open Gardner down the post and Jackson is in (zone) position for an easy interception. A middle blitz by Te'o forced the errant throw (the Irish fail to score as Golson throws an end zone interception, his last pass of the day)…

  • After three carries by Robinson gain 14 yards, pressure by Tuitt (LDE) and Nix (LDT) force Robinson to fire over the middle as Motta breaks on the ball, nearly corrals it with one hand, and Te'o benefits, collecting a diving interception, his second of the game and third of the season…and of his career. The midfield pick sets up Notre Dame's only touchdown of the game as the Irish take a 10-0 lead on a Tommy Rees rushing score…

  • On the half's final play, Robinson's hail mary down the right side is intercepted by the freshman Russell, the first of his career.

Robinson finished the half with four interceptions, five completions, and 51 net rushing yards thanks to 19 lost against the front seven. Michigan's 33 snaps yielded just 120 yards and no points. Notre Dame's defense caught as many Michigan passes (5) as did Wolverines receivers.

Notre Dame's defense aligned in a 3-4 on 19 occasions; in a 4-3 on another 11, showed a nickel package three times, and also used a final-snap prevent.


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