Eye in the Sky: Defending the Pass

Our first of two defensive film reviews from Saturday night's Irish victory over Purdue examines the Notre Dame pass defense and pass rush.

Purdue's use of, and dedication to misdirection, various alignments, and the short passing game Saturday night was akin to suffering multiple paper cuts: bothersome, frustrating, but in no way deadly.

The Irish defense limited the Boilers to 5.8 yards per pass attempt, a paltry total that mitigates the 27 completed passes from the right arm of Danny Etling. (For the sake of reference, Michigan was 5.9 last week; the 2012 Notre Dame defense finished the season with a 6.0 against average, and that includes Alabama's inflation of it.)

With the exception of a play-action touchdown pass over the head of cornerback Cody Riggs, Etling was unable to dent the Irish over the top -- the latter a recurring theme for Brian VanGorder's unit through three games, albeit against a trio of sub par passers.

First Half on Their Heels

-- Good stick by strong safety Elijah Shumate, playing down-and-distance defense on 3rd-and-11, limiting a seam pass to seven yards. As usual, Shumate had something to say after the play…

-- Sophomore cornerback Cole Luke suffered his first missed tackle of the season, trying to throw a shoulder into the ball carrier on a swing pass the gains 10 yards and a first down. Luke has been quiet to date, largely a result of sticky coverage. He's rarely been tested…

-- Weak side linebacker Jaylon Smith shows his remarkable recovery speed, tracking RB Akeem Hunt on a 6-yard swing pass…

-- First of many quality plays in terms of pocket push by junior nose tackle Jarron Jones. He's benefitting from one-on-one matchups as offenses focus on his interior mate, Sheldon Day

-- Pretty 3rd-and-2 play design by offensive coordinator John Shoop, bringing WR Danny Anthrop, aligned as a tight end, across scrimmage from right to left as Etling fakes a zone-read handoff to the right, then dumps the pass in the flat to the left. A 28-yard gain as Shumate can't make the diving stop and free safety Max Redfield fails to wrap up high. Smith missed (overran Anthrop) as well due to Redfield's mistake…

That's three, arguably four missed tackles before Purdue completes its third offensive drive, the total matching Notre Dame's entire allotment in last week's 31-0 win over Michigan….

-- Riggs finally looks mortal in an Irish uniform, getting the worst of it on a collision with 265-pound Boilermakers fullback Brandon Cottom as Cottom trucks the 5'9" 190-pound corner at the goal line to tie the score at 7. Another creative use of personnel by Shoop who slipped Cottom out behind a pair of receivers, with Cottom losing strong side Irish linebacker James Onwualu in the scrum of bodies. Onwualu was in a trail position from the start and couldn't aid Riggs on the tackle attempt...

-- One drive later, Onwualu blitzes and has a sack opportunity from the field (wide) side but he takes too deep an angle and Etling finds his check down option, Justin Sinz, for 7 yards…

-- The Irish cornerbacks and safeties have defended bubble screens well this season (after failing in that regard last fall). Corners Riggs and Luke play the oft-used horizontal pass with aggression and sound technique. This time it's Luke blowing up the lead block, allowing Shumate to make a quick tackle to limit the gain…

-- Luke closes on a 6-yard hitch making an immediate stick. As former safeties coach Chuck Martin once offered, "No coach has ever said after a game, 'We'd have beaten them if they hadn't hit all those short hitch routes.'"

-- Riggs beaten for the aforementioned 19-yard touchdown pass as Etling uses playaction and a roll right to buy time. Riggs was beaten from the outset but recovered nicely. A well-placed throw and quality catch by six-foot-three target Deangelo Yancey gets the best of the 5th-year senior in the end…

Second Half: Bringing Heat

A consistent double-digit lead and the ability to negate Purdue's feeble rushing attack opened the door for VanGorder and his troops to control the second half. Beginning at the six-minute mark of the third quarter, and immediately following a three-run, three-and-out possession, the Boilermakers ran just twice over a 26-snap span, and the Irish pass rush teed off as a result.

-- A 1st-and-10 coverage sack by the Irish as Jarron Jones wins late in the play and closes quickly on Etling. Jones has shown impressive five- to six-yard speed in space. Sophomore Isaac Rochell gets a piece of the sack officially but this was all coverage and a strong pocket push by Jones who again faced one blocker while Day tussled with two…

-- More heat on second-and-long as Rochell runs an X-stunt (loops inside from his end position) to apply pressure. 3rd-and-17 follows and freshman Kolin Hill brings it from the left side, recording an official QB hurry on Etling who's forced to throw away…

If Notre Dame can implement one more edge rusher in special packages this season, look out…

-- With the game not yet in Notre Dame's complete control (24-14), Shumate misses a chance for either an interception or big hit, hesitating for no apparent reason and thus badly miisjudging a sideline throw by Eting to Anthrop. A gain of 24 yards with Shumate watching the end of the play from the ground. Of note, Jones brought pressure again on a looping stunt (inside-out)…

-- Joe Schmidt just misses a diving pass breakup on a 9-yard gain to tight end Gabe Holmes. We saw a replica of this snap in an August practice with Schmidt vs. teammate Ben Koyack. Only a well-placed pass beats Schmidt (in both instances). Something you live with when a team attempts nearly 40 short passes…

-- Cole Luke goes low for the tackle following another short swing pass, this time taking a knee to the head with a concussion the end result. He's expected back for Syracuse, but for Luke, the upcoming bye was well-timed...

-- In his stead steps classmate Devin Butler who is initiated into the contest with an immediate hitch route and missed tackle. Butler would extract a measure of revenge later…

-- Good recovery speed by Onwualu who was beaten off the line by Holmes on a red zone flag route. A better pass would have resulted in a 20-yard gain. Then again, Notre Dame won't face a passer capable of such a throw until an Oct. 18 Saturday in Tallahassee…

-- 3rd and 5: Etling misses a wide open receiver crossing -- that was a first down at minimum, potentially a touchdown. Good protection up front and Schmidt was caught up in the play's natural pick. Riggs follows on 4th-and-5 with a pass defended on a throw Gabe Holmes should have secured…

-- Two drives later, nice coverage by Butler on a completed slant route. Other than interference, there wasn't much he could have done to stop it. One play later, Butler undercuts a skinny post/bad slant and records the first interception of his Irish career -- aggressive press coverage made it possible, destroying the route's concept from the outset. Diving to secure the pick, the pigskin first pelted him in the face mask...

Butler's not ready to start, but he's quite a security blanket as a fourth cornerback (Riggs, Luke, and the missing Keivarae Russell). He was later beaten on a final drive 28-yard fade route -- notable only in that Russell discussed with us Butler's tendency (along with that of freshman Nick Watkins as well) to open up and allow an outside lane to the receiver in press coverage. As Russell noted at the time: "If you're going to open up, just play off-man, not press."

-- More pressure applied during Purdue's final long drive, with Smith (edge blitz) and Day (up the gut), plus a pair of passes defended at the line (Rochell and Day).

The drive's penultimate snap features a shockingly fast blitz and subsequent sack by Smith off the left edge (both he and right OLB James Onwualu converted on Etling), and one snap later with a remarkable diving interception by Schmidt, who dropped more than 20 yards downfield to undercut a throw near the Irish goal line. Shumate applied a knockout hit -- cross body block, no helmet contact -- as well. And yes, he barked at the fallen receiver. (More on this topic in our final film review covering the rush defense.)

-- Three snaps later, Hill and Okwara converge on Etling to end the game with a sack. Hill separates from blocks well. He covers a lot of ground, effortlessly, from the moment he disengages through the end of his pursuit.

In Case you missed It

-- Tom Hammond back in the booth with an inauspicious debut, notably identifying Purdue offensive coordinator John Shoop in the coaching booth as Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder -- who's of course on the Notre Dame sidelines. In other words, it would be impossible to be more wrong…

-- Kicker Kyle Brindza's only kickoff that lands short of the goal (at the 1-yard line) resulted in a 33-yard return -- one that included a blatant block-in-the back by the Boilers on James Onwualu (not called) who was in position to make the stop just after the 20-yard line…

-- You have to feel for junior safety Nicky Baratti. After earning playing time on three of Notre Dame's four "run teams" (punt return, kick return, and kick coverage), Baratti was inserted in place of ejected sophomore safety Max Redfield (targeting). Playing with a harness this season to protect his right shoulder, injured during the Blue Gold Game in April, Baratti's first defensive snap of the contest was also his last, as seemingly innocuous football contact caused his shoulder to come out of place. He's lost for the season. That's four total shoulder injuries (two apiece) and three surgeries.

It will be a long road back for a player that showed great promise as a true freshman key contributor to the 2012 team's run to the BCS Championship Game.

-- Not often seen: an apparent mental mistake by Joe Schmidt. On a crossing route that gained 15 yards, Jaylon Smith rightly took the boundary side tight end in coverage. Strong side (field) linebacker James Onwualu waited for a cross into his zone and followed the receiver thereafter. Meanwhile, Schmidt allowed the third receiver to run freely toward Smith's boundary side as well. Not many mental busts through three for Notre Dame' starting middle 'backer, but that appeared to be one…

Speaking of Schmidt, it was clear how much his defensive teammates like and respect him following the aforementioned diving interception. The camaraderie between Smith and Schmidt is readily apparent -- Smith seemed the happiest player on the field for Schmidt's first career pick…

-- Seems a portion the Irish punt return "rangers" (blockers) have lost a little of their opening-game mojo and desire to dominant. Not a good day for Butler or C.J. Prosise in this regard and the punt return numbers suffered as a result. (James Onwualu remained strong in this regard.)

-- Quiet game for nickel Matthias Farley, but he recorded a nice diving tackle in space after to limit a swing pass to three yards. Farley had previously missed a tackle on the late-game drive going for a kill shot…

-- Tom Hammond at it again. Notes Schmidt might be Notre Dame's "most accomplished walk-on of them all." Come on, man. Cornerback Shane Walton was a first-team All-American this decade. It was in all the papers...

-- "Keep playing like that," said Irish head coach Brian Kelly to counterpart Darrell Hazell post-game. I don't think they can…

Up next: Part II of our defensive film review and an examination of the stout Irish rush defense.


IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories