C.J. PROSISE AND THE OFFENSIVE LINE
Watch C.J. Prosise’s 17 carries for 155 yards and one touchdown and you’ll see a brilliant runner working behind a real quality offensive line. After two games, Prosise has validated the strong hunch before the season that he, not a healthy Tarean Folston, would prove to be Notre Dame’s lead back in 2015.
Among Prosise’s 17 carries against Virginia were a 25-yarder, a 24-yarder for a score, a 21-yarder, a 17, two 15s and a 14. Prosise is a stallion, maximizing runs with vision, footwork, power and speed. His every move is calculated to set up the next one.
Prosise surpassed the 100-yard mark midway through the second quarter on just his ninth carry of the game. He would finish with a 9.1-yard average against Virginia to become just the sixth Notre Dame back since 2000 to rush for 155 yards or more, joining Cierre Wood, Ryan Grant, Tony Fisher, Darius Walker twice, and Julius Jones four times.
“This kid is an elite talent,” said play-by-play man Mike Patrick.
On Prosise’s 21-yard run, there was nothing to the right, so he cut it back left and found the hole as Quenton Nelson squared up linebacker Micah Kiser. On one of his 15-yarders, there was a double-tight end left (Tyler Luatua and Durham Smythe) with both throwing key blocks. On his other 15-yarder, Prosise showed exceptional burst off the read-option.
On his 24-yard touchdown run, Corey Robinson was in the slot and with Fuller split wide on the same side. They ran streaks to the end zone, clearing a path as the DBs reacted accordingly. Smythe base-blocked his man and got enough of safety Quin Blanding to allow Prosise to get to the edge. He wasn’t touched until he was crashing across the goal line.
Hand-in-hand, the offensive line and C.J. Prosise sliced up the Virginia defensive front. It truly was a collaborative effort. Yet with Prosise, the Irish are virtually assured that he’ll squeeze out every last inch that’s available on that particular play.
He’s a rare talent with no real notable limitations, despite playing just his second game at running back.
Notre Dame’s overall success running the football made the failed conversions in short-yardage situations all the more frustrating.
• On 3rd-and-1 at the Virginia 15 with the Irish leading, 6-0, late in the first quarter, Josh Adams failed to gain.
• On 3rd-and-2 at the Virginia 25 with the Irish leading, 12-7, midway through the second quarter, Virginia defensive end Trent Corney brushed off Mike McGlinchey off the right edge, which forced Malik Zaire to take an inside route. Luatua had the angle on linebacker Micah Kiser, but allowed further penetration, which gave Blanding time to fill and stop Zaire short.
• On 4th-and-1, it’s the offensive line/tight end vs. seven in the box. Right guard Steve Elmer gave ground and Smythe lost the edge to defensive end Kwontie Moore.
• On 3rd-and-1 at the Virginia 49 early in the fourth quarter with the Irish clinging to a 26-21 lead, Prosise was stopped short as DeShone Kizer made what looked like a pre-determined read to hand off to Prosise as the entire Virginia front crashed down and gave little thought to Kizer keeping it.
The Irish were 0-for-4 on 3rd-and-short and 4th-and-short runs…until Kizer’s 4th-and-2 conversion in the game-winning drive. Not surprising that Kelly and his staff chose to throw it (incomplete) on 3rd-and-2.
In other words, Notre Dame’s short-yardage failures were part poor blocking, part poor decision-making, part play-calling, part young runners carrying the ball, and part credit to the Virginia front, which manned up when it had to in key short-yardage situations.
SPECIAL TEAMS CHANGE MOMENTUM
Lost in the angst over the Zaire injury, the offense sputtering in the red zone and the defense’s sudden inability to stop a mediocre offense was an overall special teams performance that was rare during the Brian Kelly era, particularly as it pertained to the punt return game.
Tyler Newsome’s spectacular 62-yard punt midway through the third period was absolutely crucial to Notre Dame’s second offensive surge. The Cavaliers had just missed a field goal, but the Irish still trailed, 14-12.
Notre Dame went three-and-out with Kizer at the controls as the series ended at the Irish 29. Newsome completely shifted the field with his punt bouncing dead at the Virginia 12.
After one of five three-and-outs by the Irish defense, C.J. Sanders had the first of three notable punt returns. This one was only eight yards, but he caught it at the Notre Dame 33, broke a shirttail tackle attempt, picked up some interference from Torii Hunter, Jr., and brought it to the Irish 41. On the next play, Zaire threw a 59-yard strike to Fuller for the touchdown.
Sanders’ second punt return was a bouncer at his own 35, where he made Divante Walker miss without touching him, slipped Wilfred Wahee three yards into the return and took it for 10 yards to the Irish 45 as Te’von Coney, Matthias Farley and Nicco Fertitta had created a wall along the sideline. Justin Yoon would miss a 34-yard field goal, but the field had been shifted.
Sanders’ third return – a 30-yarder to the Virginia 45 – set the stage for Zaire’s 18-yard pass to Chris Brown, Zaire’s injury, and Prosise’s 24-yard run for a 26-14 Irish lead with 56 seconds left in the third quarter.
Sanders caught it at the 25 with one Notre Dame blocker out-numbered by three Virginia players. Sanders beat Mason Thomas to the edge and benefitted from a wall of Notre Dame blockers with Farley escorting him after Coney, Fertitta and others formed the wall.
Sanders’ 30-yard return is the second longest since Michael Floyd’s 41-yarder against Florida State in the 2011 Champs Sports Bowl. The longest since then was Greg Bryant’s 61-yarder against Louisville last season.
For one of the few times in the last six seasons, Notre Dame’s punt return unit contributed significantly to the victory with Newsome getting it all started.
The perception that Brian Kelly teams always struggle in the red zone has been a bit misrepresented, particularly after last season when the Irish ranked 21st in red-zone touchdowns (40-of-62), 27th in red-zone scores (50-of-62, 81.9 percent) and 45th in red-zone touchdown percentage (64.5 percent).
Notre Dame got off to a solid if not spectacular start against Texas by converting 3-of-5 red-zone marches into touchdowns and 4-of-5 scoring. But against Virginia, the red-zone failures haunted the Irish, who marched inside the Cavaliers’ 20-yard line three times, only to come away with one touchdown, and that was on a beautifully-executed fake field goal.
Adding to the woes were the march to the Virginia 28 that resulted in a field goal and a failed 4th-and-1 from the Cavaliers’ 24.
Much like the failed short-yardage runs, the culprits are the offensive line, the decision-making by the players, the play-calling by the troika of offensive minds making those decisions, and the stout performance by the Virginia defense.
Notre Dame’s greatest offensive communication issues seemed to come in the red zone against Virginia. Josh Adams may have missed a better gap to hit when the Irish had to settle for a 32-yard field goal by Justin Yoon to give Notre Dame a 9-0 lead. But there was a fumbled shotgun snap from Nick Martin to Malik Zaire, and miscommunication between Zaire and Fuller late in the third quarter before Yoon missed from 34 yards.
Now the Irish have to move forward without the luxury of simply letting Zaire take off and run to cure what ails the Irish in the red zone, much like Everett Golson gave the Irish in 2014 after replacing the immobile Tommy Rees.
Offensive coordinator Mike Sanford said in the spring that one of the problems red-zone offenses face is the desire by play-callers to go away from the approach that got the offense in the red zone in the first place. By the same token, the dynamics change as the deep vertical options are eliminated. It’s a fine line in the red zone.
Notre Dame currently is tied for 80th in red-zone touchdown percentage (50.0, 4-of-8). Georgia Tech, Notre Dame’s next opponent, ranked 20th in that category last year and is a perfect 12-for-12 scoring touchdowns in the red zone so far this year, albeit against Alcorn State and Tulane.
This is an area of the game the Irish likely will need to win against Georgia Tech this weekend in order to come away with a victory.
THE FAKE FIELD GOAL/FAILED TWO-POINTER
It was interesting to hear Brian Kelly’s post-game comments about the delay of game penalty that Virginia declined before Notre Dame executed the fake field goal to take a 6-0 lead.
Kelly said they wanted to move back on the opening-drive field goal to give Justin Yoon a better angle from the left hash to boot a 29- instead of a 24-yard field goal. When Virginia declined it, that’s when they decided to go for the fake, and you can see Kelly giving the hurry up sign, as he frequently does when the play clock is dwindling. In this instance, it was to get the mechanics of the fake-field goal in motion.
The play was executed very well, although DeShone Kizer won’t be nominated for his acting skills of a high snap gone awry. From the left edge of the line, Chase Hounshell and the entire left side pinched down with Nick Martin – lined up at right guard next to snapper Scott Daly -- pulling around to easily take out cornerback Demetrious Nicholson, who had outside contain.
Ronnie Stanley, the second man over from Daly on the right side, squeezed through the pile of bodies to put a block on linebacker Micah Kiser. All Kizer had to do was give a manageable flip to Durham Smythe coming from right to left, and Smythe left no doubt by lowering his pads and powering his way into the end zone.
The failed two-point conversion attempt was interesting with the offensive lineman set up wide left with Yoon behind them, and then Kizer behind Daly back near the middle-right side of the field with Hounshell, Smythe and Tyler Luatua.
Kizer faked the throw back to Yoon left. Not sure what the responsibilities of Smythe and Luatua were, but Smythe looked for the pass and didn’t block, and Luatua ran beyond his block as well. Hounshell was the only one who threw a block and it was a pretty good one, but Kizer couldn’t bull his way into the end zone.
If Smythe and Luatua blocked from the outset, Kizer would have scored, although there likely was a run-pass option within the play.
THE BROADCAST TEAM
Mike Patrick just turned 71-years old last week and still does a very solid job as a play-by-play man. Yes, he said Romero Ogwara, which might be cool-enough sounding for Romeo Okwara to consider. But Patrick is an old pro.
Through the years, I’ve found Ed Cunningham to be interesting most of the time and coming from out of left field other times.
Cunningham opened the broadcast by saying: “We saw Notre Dame in 2012, the year they went to play Alabama for the national championship. This team is way better than that team. Brian Kelly knows it. They have more depth, and they have an offensive and defensive line unlike what they had in 2012. They can dominate up front. This is a playoff-caliber team for sure.”
That’s mostly true, but the 2012 defensive line had Louis Nix III, Stephon Tuitt, Kapron-Lewis Moore and Prince Shembo off the edge. With a healthy Jarron Jones, I can agree with Cunningham’s assessment, but not without him.
Added Cunningham: “I don’t know anyone in the country thought that Virginia would be in this game late in the third quarter.” In fact, numerous national media said it.
Here’s a real head-scratcher: “Yoon has now missed three field goals in the first two ball games, one against Texas and now this one.”
Cunningham questioned Virginia’s use of a timeout prior to its two-point conversion after taking a 27-26 lead. That’s kind of a big play, isn’t it? A three-point lead forces Notre Dame to score a touchdown to win. Saving that timeout ultimately would have proven useless when Virginia got the ball back with 12 seconds.
• Around the gridiron: Unusual to see Nick Martin missing on a couple shotgun snaps…Have never seen a more explosive runner make less out of more than Virginia’s Taquan Mizzell, and his performance against Notre Dame (18 carries, 66 yards) was one of the more productive ones of his young collegiate career…Interesting to see Romeo Okwara in a standup position on the right side with Day, Cage and Rochell in a three-point stance. Tapping into Okwara’s Cat linebacker background…Does Kelly lecturing Mike Denbrock on failed a 3rd-and-1 run by Josh Adams mean Denbrock called the play? The plot thickens…Justin Yoon’s 32- and 45-yard field goals were absolutely perfect…Just the threat of Sheldon Day pass rushing from right defensive end caused Virginia left tackle Michael Mooney to jump early. Day also drew a hold from left guard Jack McDonald. Can a player play harder every single snap than Day?…Opponents have caught on to the stacked-receiver, screen-pass-behind-it look. Cornerbacks are jumping the route and not getting blocked. An offshoot to make teams pay for what Texas and Virginia have done should be in the works…Safety Elijah Shumate has become an all or nothing player. He is the most vulnerable player on the defense. What makes him good – his tremendous aggressiveness -- also is what makes him vulnerable…For Ian Frye to miss a field goal from 43 yards is a great break. He entered the game having made 25-of-30…If Max Redfield is reluctant to use his hand, which is supported by a cast for a broken thumb, he’s going to get hurt leading with his head and shoulders. Mike Patrick pointed it out during the broadcast. Redfield isn’t even trying to wrap up, instead using his shoulder as a battering ram. Note: playing with a broken thumb is very difficult…
In person, Zaire’s 59-yard touchdown pass to Will Fuller for a touchdown looked overthrown. Analyst Ed Cunningham saw the same optical illusion and said it during the broadcast. Of course, Fuller is remarkable at creating illusions for the opposition, too…Credit to Matthias Farley for drawing a block in the back on the kickoff following Fuller’s 59-yard score…Is Notre Dame trying to red-shirt Jay Hayes and Grant Blankenship? Will be broaching that topic with Kelly...It was James Onwualu who was sealed off on Smoke Mizzell’s 25-yard run. To Onwualu’s credit, he got back in the play and made the tackle…The next blitz Joe Schmidt gets home on will be his first…Canaan Severin, All-American? Notre Dame couldn’t prevent him from catching the football 11 times for 153 yards. Eight of his grabs went for first downs. Heck, Notre Dame barely could make Virginia quarterback Matt Johns throw to another wide receiver...When right guard Ross Burbank is 10 yards ahead of the intended receiver, Albert Reid, there’s no choice for the officials but to call ineligible receiver downfield. Did Kelly consider declining that penalty for 4th-and-6 at the 25? Instead, it was 3rd-and-15 and it became moot when Johns completed a 34-yard pass. A one-shot deal might have been the wiser course of action…When Virginia AD Craig Littlepage fires Mike London – which he will if Virginia finishes under .500 -- he’s going to find that it’s difficult to replace him in Charlottesville with a coach as good as London. That being said, London has lost 21 of his last 28 games. At some point – this is his sixth year as head coach – almost isn’t good enough anymore…
Notre Dame wins a game after going 0-for-10 on third down. Preposterous…After the Kizer-to-Fuller touchdown to give Notre Dame a 32-27 lead, Kelly holds up one finger to signal an extra point. When the camera flashes back to him, he’s holding up two fingers. Going for two is the right call…Ed Cunningham correctly pointed out the block by tight end Charlie Hopkins on Jaylon Smith when Virginia scored on a two-yard throw from Johns to tight end Evan Butts. It sure looked like something that could be called offensive pass interference, but of course, refs never call that. All joking aside, Hopkins tried to run a route and Smith jammed him pretty good…Third quarter: Virginia runs tempo to start the half and gets a break on no pass interference on Devin Butler, but Andrew Trumbetti is called for unsportsmanlike conduct on 3rd-and-9. We never did see what prompted the flag live or on replay…There really is something to say negative about C.J. Prosise, albeit minor. He needs to switch the ball to his right hand as he heads to the sideline to his right. He had plenty of opportunity to do it because he was running free…A nod to Malik Zaire the warrior who actually tried to stand up after suffering a fractured right ankle…
Concluding with a pet peeve: second-guessers who second-guess only when things go wrong. Where are all the second-guessers on the 4th-and-2 run by Kizer for the first down to keep the game-winning drive alive? The game would have been over if that run had failed. Brian Kelly would have been lambasted. Thought it was the right call at the time, but man, would that have been criticized. Yet it worked, so nothing but crickets.
Raise your hand if you said Malik Zaire was running too much after the 39-yard run late in the third quarter led to a two-score advantage? He was injured the next time he ran the ball.
Tale of the Tape rule: You have to second-guess when things work out well to validate a second-guess when things don’t work out well, otherwise you’re just working off the results, which are influenced by many things.