#6 "What happened to the Offensive Line Saturday?"I assume this refers to pass protection issues. Though Brian Kelly wouldn't confirm or deny, it's unlikely anyone but left tackle Zack Martin was responsible for the sack/int/Td that put the Irish in an early 7-0 hole. The 5th-year senior has had three notable mistakes in three first quarters this season, missing a key block on 3rd and short at Michigan and also in the same situation, allowing interior penetration vs. Michigan State. But over the course of the game, he's still been very good. I'd argue not as good as last year though.
He stoned his man on George Atkinson's 80-yard touchdown run, had a crucial block in space on Tarean Folston's 36-yard sprint, and I had him for wins on three stretch runs to the left that gained 6, 7, and 9 yards.
Chris Watt had one technical error -- and its one he pointed out as something he needed to work on in the off-season, allowing too much of a push in pass protection. That materialized in the fourth quarter forcing Rees to throw quickly on third down incomplete. Watt also was beaten initially by an inside spin move before recovering to deposit the pass rusher at Rees' feet, but the penetration caused Rees to step up and throw badly incomplete on the move on 3rd and 20, early.
Watt though executed the key block at the second level to spring Atkinson for his long score and also performed a textbook pull from left to right to give Rees time in the pocket as the senior hit Troy Niklas for an easy 30-yard touchdown. Add to that plus-blocking on stretch runs and the 5th-year senior was one of the team's top 10 for the day.
Nick Martin looked like a rookie starter for the first time this season: an early snap that destroyed 2nd and 1 in the fourth and a snap infraction when the Irish were driving in the second. Still, he seals his man well in the Pistol and picks up blitz stunts nicely from his crucial pivot position.
Sophomore Ronnie Stanley wasn't as present as a plus-blocker as I noted in the win over Michigan State. They'll need him to improve steadily heading into the matchup at Stanford to survive.
(As detailed in Part I, I felt right guard Christian Lombard played his best game to date.)
#7 "It's maddening how little we use Troy Niklas."More of a statement than a question, but it's oft-asked and lamented.
In short, his role is to be a sixth offensive lineman, first, and the team's third receiving option thereafter. And he's been excellent as a blocker this season. I noted Niklas for a dominant, overpowering effort on Folston's 36-yard run and three more wins on stretch runs to his side. He seemed to lose focus late, suffering a false start, stumbling on a catchable back-shoulder fade down the right sidelines on a well-run wheel route, and also suffering from miscommunication with his quarterback on the final series.
I think the offense has to involve him more in the passing game, and likely at the expense of a third receiver's opportunities (T.J. Jones and DaVaris Daniels have to be involved).
#8 "Where has THIS GA3 been all my life?"I think we saw flashes, however brief, of Atkinson running as the staff wants him to run over his minimal opportunities prior to Saturday's game.
But Atkinson's ability to gain yards after contact, run through ankle tackles, make the first man miss, and turn it up field were both encouraging and a bit vexing: why hasn't he come close to such a consistent effort in the past?
I think the junior's efforts on kick return this season have been overlooked (though his only opportunity Saturday, a 27-yard return, could have likely been more had he not stumbled in the crease). Atkinson's had returns of 26, 50, 47, 31, and 27 yards previously this season.
Add to that 7.07 yards per carry (5.1 prior to Saturday), and you have a player that likely needed to touch the ball more. Then again, the same holds true for his position mates.
Notre Dame's use of its four active running backs going forward will likely determine the difference between a 9- and 10-win season or an 8-5 face plant.
#9 "What's your assessment of the Irish ST?"Not as bad as you think, with two notable exceptions.
Atkinson is a plus kick return man. Kyle Brindza is a plus punter but one likely to unleash a stinker every 5-6 punts. Alex Wulfeck is solid in his directional/pooch punting role. Brindza is a frustrating "B" as a kickoff specialist (he's had too many not reach the end zone through five games: 13 of 26), but he's an A+ kicker in clutch situations; a B- field goal man otherwise. He misses too many under 40 for my taste.
The punt return team is no longer a national joke, it's just not any good. The Irish cover punts exceptionally well, as does most of America.
The kickoff coverage unit has struggled for the second straight season. It's inexcusable, and it's also related to the lack of front-line players on the group: Aside from Carlo Calabrese the unit features John Turner, Max Redfield, Eilar Hardy, Devin Butler, Kendall Moore, Connor Cavalaris, Ben Councell, Joe Schmidt, James Onwualu and at times Romeo Okwara or Will Mahone or Greg Bryant, and, though not vs. Oklahoma, Austin Collinsworth.
Instead use Collinsworth, Onwualu, Redfield, Calabrese, Cavalaris, Bennett Jackson (he can afford to rest a few plays defensively, it appears), Jaylon Smith (ditto), Schmidt, Dan Fox, and whomever from the remainder that proves worthy to join Brindza and the unit will improve greatly.
#10 -- ObservationsNo, this isn't a question, but I'm trying to focus on last Saturday rather than the big picture:
Sophomore wide receiver Chris Brown was not targeted until final play…Interesting to see Jones give it back to Kelly and the coach be proven wrong on an animated sideline discussion regarding Jones' alignment. He was right, it was Troy Niklas who was aligned wrong, not Jones…The Jones/Daniels same-side alignment was new for the Oklahoma game. I like the tactic, bunching them on one of the hashmarks, but it resulted in an interception in the second quarter when the pair ran their post routes at the wrong depth…Better to see them aligned together to the wide hash as they had been most of the day…
I still think there are a few ill-fated assignments in Notre Dame's rushing attack, as both Troy Niklas and Daniel Smith have had trouble firing inside to pickup an extra defender that inevitably makes the tackle. It happened to Niklas early to stop Atkinson for a short gain. Niklas was first asked to chip on a double-team, how's he going to fire out to the weak side linebacker, too?
Unrelated, Daniel Smith blocked the wrong man (the deeper safety rather than play-side rover Julian Wilson) on toss to Atkinson which lost 5 yards as a result. Smith had a good day blocking otherwise, including springing Atkinson for the 80-yard score...
Amir Carlisle didn't get many opportunities but hit for quick 10 over left guard on the third series thanks to a nice pull by Christian Lombard. Carlisle looked shot out of cannon on the run...
Corey Robinson didn't' need to push off when he was called for interference, he'd already created space…I thought Andrew Hendrix could have taken his initial snap over the boundary for some yardage, but he gave to Carlisle for a yard instead…Kelly told Mike Mayock that "Hendrix is a wildcat quarterback who can throw." Maybe, but he has trouble seeing the field, including never noticing a wide open, barely covered-at-any-point DaVaris Daniels for an easy 53-yard score. The offense scored later in the drive, mitigating the mistake…
I like Jones crossing and on smash routes, slants, skinny posts, much more than I do deep or (please no more) on fades…There was a great hesitation move by Atkinson in the backfield when Striker had him dead to rights, but he froze the linebacker in his tracks, gaining one yard instead of losing three…
I'll let it go, but the Empty backfield won't work for Notre Dame vs. a decent and/or athletic defense.