Eye in the Sky: Defense

Our first film review of Saturday's contest examines Notre Dame's defensive effort: the good (adjustments), the bad (early screen passes) and the troubling (tackling through three games).

Issues Inside?

If Irish faithful found Purdue's use of the screen pass in the opening drive of Saturday night's too-close-for-comfort contest particularly effective, it's likely because the fan base barely recognized the tactic: Manti Te'o had eradicated from opposing game plans since early 2010.

Te'o's ability to diagnose and destroy all inside screens (standard, tunnel, etc.) proved a great tonic for an Irish linebacker corps not blessed with great speed. The 2013 unit's speed remains a potential weakness, though its difficult to discern if Jarrett Grace and Dan Fox are also a touch late to react.

Purdue hit the Irish for gains of 17 and 15 yards as part of a well-conceived 12-play, 75-yard drive that resulted in a 7-0 lead, and the third time in four games dating back to the national championship loss that Bob Diaco's defense opened a contest by yielding a touchdown.

The aforementioned Fox hesitated on the 17-yard screen to Boilers RB Akeem Hunt. When his fellow inside 'backer Carlo Calabrese blitzed the B gap and outside boundary 'backer Prince Shembo ran down the seam with the tight end in coverage, Fox was doomed first by a false step and then a technically illegal screen (a block while the pass was in the air) from a wide receiver crossing into his path. Hunt finished his 17-yard gem by burying Irish Matthias Farley's "excuse me" tackle attempt on the sidelines, setting an early tone for both teams.

Quarterback Rob Henry delivered one of his better throws on the day six snaps later, converting a 3rd and 7 in front of nickel corner Cole Luke down to the Irish 14-yard line. Luke was close on the coverage, but the Irish blitzed both 'backers to Luke's side (field). That means Luke has to first deter the screen across the vacated middle, not play behind it.

Screen #2 turned a 3rd and 12 from the 15 into an opening score, with boundary cornerback Bennett Jackson inexplicably venturing too far toward the middle of the field as Henry hit Hunt behind a phalanx of blockers for a nearly untouched catch-and-run down the sidelines. Grace was late to diagnose -- and thus a step behind -- and a terrible spinning tackle attempt by Farley failed as Hunt scored easily.

Hello 2009.

Purdue attempted three screens thereafter -- each diagnosed and defended. The Boilers did hit Hunt for another maddening 3rd and long first down gain out of the backfield with the junior releasing and beating a hesitant dime 'backer Ishaq Williams (who otherwise played well) to the sidelines for 14 yards on 3rd and 12.

Making Notre Dame's inside linebackers (that includes Williams and safety Austin Collinsworth in the dime package) run is going to be a tactic employed by opposing offenses for the remainder of the season. Delays out of the backfield, tight ends in space, and of course, mobile quarterbacks intent on getting outside the pocket. Here's hoping the standard screen doesn't make a return appearance.

Tightening to Keep it Close

Notre Dame's offense managed one rushing yard. 29 total yards in the first quarter, and just 58 before a field goal drive cut the host's lead to 10-3 with 5:58 remaining in the first.

During that span, Diaco's defense tightened, allowing 69 yards and a field goal on a whopping 22 snaps.

- Defensive end Stephon Tuitt drew a holding call to negate a 15-yard sweep by Hunt that caught freshman Jaylon Smith in no-man's land. Hunt's run ended with a nice pop by Lo Wood but Wood might have hurt his ankle on the play…

- Amazing blatant hold not called (I saw it live as well) vs. Sheldon Day on a Hunt boot to the boundary. Worse: it was to the play's side, directly in front of the official…Shembo applied pressure to force Henry's first miss -- he had started 6 for 6 with four first downs including two third-down conversions, prior.

- This just in: Calabrese can fill a run gap with the best of them. Look for the 5th-year senior to be a player of note this week vs. Michigan State's power game….Carlo and Jackson combined to destroy a jet sweep to the boundary with Calabrese leveling two lead blockers. Great play by the 5th-year senior who'd really benefit if the field were 30 yards wide rather than 53 1/3…

- Henry stared down a 13-yard dig route but completed it between Grace and Calabrese nonetheless. Grace exacerbated the situation with a face mask tackle…Luke read a boundary run on the next snap but avoided the block rather than taking it on and allowing the defense to fill behind him…Shembo destroyed a boundary option by himself attempt by himself, though Henry didn't remind anyone of Tony Rice on his approach down scrimmage…Luke learned from the last time and defended a slant well on 3rd and 6, forcing a short field goal Boilers kicker Paul Griggs promptly shanked. The Irish dodged a bullet but credit the Irish defense for a stop facing 2nd and 6 at their 10.

Bend but don't Break

Purdue mounted a final first half scoring drive of 31 yards in 10 plays. Diaco's D forced a 3rd and 7 situation thanks to first down Nix stop against a double-team and stunning athletic pressure by Jaylon Smith off the edge. Smith's most athletic collegiate play to date was a seek-and-destroy blitz that forced Henry to ground a screen pass as the freshman bore down…Credit Henry for a 16-yard gain on a third-and-7 scramble to his left, hitting an ill-advised throw back over the middle of the defense between Luke and safety Austin Collinsworth. Luke was off-balance adjusting to the throw-back and thus allowed seven yards after the catch…

- Three more snaps brought two plus plays by the Irish followed by third down disappointment. First Grace, Calabrese, and Nix combined to destroy an inside run. Shembo then played a middle screen well with Nix also recognizing it quickly to set-up 3rd and 12 near the Irish 45-yard line. Shembo brought immediate pressure on a 3-man dime package front but Hunt got a step on Ishaq Williams and out-ran Williams and Grace to the far sideline for 13 yards and an unlikely conversion.

It wasn't technically a screen pass but the tactic of isolating a running back vs. Notre Dame's inside 'backers in space worked again.

- The Irish held thereafter thanks to Collinsworth blitzing and diagnosing a halfback pass to the right -- the senior chased the play down from behind and made a hit on the throw (the Irish secondary wasn't fooled). Jackson, Fox and Grace then combined for a boundary side stop of one yard and the dime defense again forced Henry to ground a screen attempt with Day (at nose guard), Tuitt, Grace, Williams, and Collinsworth all over it.

Purdue's Griggs banged home a 47-yarder and the 10-3 Boilermakers lead stood up entering the break.

Notre Dame recorded its first three-and-out defensive series to end the half, again forcing third-and-long thanks to Nix (pushing the pocket and forcing a swing pass incomplete) and Tuitt (boundary pressure on a Henry bootleg, incomplete).

Second Half -- Two Slips

Nix began the second stanza where he concluded the first, controlling his gap as Purdue hit for three yards off right tackle (Day was a touch late getting off his block to make the stop). Day impacted the ensuing throw with pressure to force incomplete but the Irish yielded on 3rd and 7 again, this time a crossing route targeting Luke in man coverage for eight yards and a Boilers first down…

- An unblocked Day slipped through for a tackle-for-loss…Inside 'backers drop eight yards on a six-yard hitch to set up a manageable 3rd and 4 for the hosts…Nice pass by Henry to convert on a scramble pass to tight end Justin Sinz between Calabrese and Grace…Williams lined up at field side defensive end and the Boilers hit his edge for seven yards on first and 10…

Terrible Touchdown: A quick look to the slot thanks to an edge blitz, a matador swing by an off-balance (and late) Farley, and a flailing reach by Keivarae Russell. Add it all together and you get the third ugly, fundamentally poor touchdown allowed by the Irish secondary in two weeks.

- Notre Dame has benefitted from top notch safety play -- by at least one of its safeties if not both -- during the Kelly era. From Harrison Smith in 2010 to Smith and later Jamoris Slaughter in 2011, to Zeke Motta last fall. They're not getting it this season from Matthias Farley (and the best plays by Collinsworth and Elijah Shumate have been in the box as pass-rushers).

- Farley has as much to clean up in his game as any regular contributor on the Irish roster -- Russell and Jackson aren't too far behind.


From 17-10 down to 31-17 in favor of the visitors -- it wasn't only the Irish offense that clicked from the mid-point of the third to the middle of the fourth quarter Saturday night.

While the Irish offense mounted a comeback with two touchdown drives to take a 24-17 lead, Diaco's defense went into lock down mode:

  • A three-and-out keyed by second-down blitz pressure from Calabrese and followed with a 3rd and 7 screen pass that was sniffed out and stopped in its tracks by Luke, Russell, and dime linebacker Collinsworth.
  • A five-and-out in which the Irish allowed 19 yards and forced a punt despite Purdue's best third-down and short distance situation of the evening, with Sheldon Day blowing through the line and Ishaq Williams aiding his effort to force Henry incomplete on 3rd and 2 from the Purdue 44.
  • Another three-and-out with Grace stopping a swing pass for two yards on 2nd and 5 followed by the defensive play of the game:

    - Faced with 3rd and 3 at his own 32-yard line, Henry saw heavy blitz pressure and man coverage. With a wheel route materializing to his left, Henry instead looked right at a short cross for first down yardage, but his late throw was read expertly by Bennett Jackson who cut in front of the offering for a textbook interception and 34-yard score.

Jackson's first career score came after the senior captain navigated traffic underneath and broke just as Henry released a touch late over the middle. (Hard to tell on the TV tape but it seemed a wheel route by Dawkins beat Collinsworth on the backside.)

Secondary Concerns Remain

Three snaps after Jackson's best play of the young season, Notre Dame's struggling secondary struck again, first on a 3rd and 4 pass-interference by KeiVarae Russell (too early, and riding the back of his receiver), then on a 48-yard lob pass completed over the trailing pair of Jackson and Farley. Purdue receiver Paul Mikesky beat Jackson off the snap and neither Jackson nor Farley turned to locate the badly under thrown completion by Henry. The Irish had every underneath route covered and applied quality pressure on the play, but poor fundamentals by two doomed the efforts of the remaining nine…

Goal Line Failures Continue: As has been the norm this season, Notre Dame's opponent converted inside the Irish 10-yard line. After a five-yard hitch on first, second down favored the Irish, with Calabrese shooting the gap to aid Smith in his first career tackle-for-loss. Nix then stuffed an ill-conceived 3rd and 8 run inside and the Boilers were faced with 4th-and-goal from the ND 7-yard line.

Diaco stuck with a base 4-3 front on the crucial snap but Purdue's bunch formation left confused the Irish back seven with Russell caught in no man's land, Collinsworth and Fox double-teaming the inside receiver, and tight end Justin Sinz sitting down at the goal line for an easy score, Russell far too late coming back to help after taking false steps outside to aid outside coverage he couldn't have possibly influenced.

Finishing Strong

The Irish D rose to the occasion late, negating a fumble by teammate Amir Carlisle in Irish territory with a three-and-out keyed by consecutive pressures, Williams on second down (despite being held) and Shembo on third coupled with a Grace defending a pass diving near the sidelines.

Purdue was forced to punt and Notre Dame ran out the final 8:16 thanks to running back Cam McDaniel and the offensive line.

Note: Part II of our film review will include observations of the defensive regulars, preferred defensive sets, and the successes (late) and failures (early) of the Dime package.

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