THE EIGHT-AND-A-HALF-MINUTE HIATUS
The notion that Notre Dame didn’t play well during the first half against UMass or that the Irish started out slowly isn’t true. Notre Dame controlled 21 1/2 of the first 30 minutes. During the other eight-and-a-half, UMass scored three touchdowns, temporarily making a game of what ultimately was a very one-sided affair.
Notre Dame scored on an eight-play, 95-yard drive on its second series and a 10-play, 80-yard drive on its third series. The Irish had 181 yards total offense by the 4:45 mark of the first quarter. UMass, in its first three series, ran 15 plays for 63 yards.
“It wasn’t a flat team today,” Brian Kelly said. “It was an excited team that played with a lot of energy. But I do agree that we’re still kind of sorting out certain roles for the players on this football team.”
The Irish were ready to play against UMass. To the credit of head coach Mark Whipple and his staff, the Minutemen had a plan that finally began to unfold late in the first quarter, even though it was badly out-manned, particularly in the match-up of Notre Dame’s offensive line against UMass’ defensive front.
“I think at halftime, they had 16 personnel groupings,” Kelly said. “They make it really difficult to match up to.”
UMass came into the game averaging just 96.0 yards rushing and 3.6 yards per rush. Those numbers were accrued against Colorado and Tulane, which have the No. 41 and No. 107 total defenses.
But Whipple had a few tricks up his sleeve. Quarterback Blake Frohnapfel came into the game prepared to throw virtually every down. The Minutemen would have to offer some balance to the attack, which they managed periodically and then rather emphatically on Marquis Young’s 83-yard touchdown burst as time expired in the first quarter.
There were two notions at play during UMass’ flurry, which accounted for 203 yards on 14 plays spanning 8:29 – imbalanced lines with extra blocking to help kick-start the running game and the deception those imbalanced lines caused in the passing game.
The old expression of getting a “hat on a hat” was applicable to Young’s 83-yard run after the Irish had taken a 14-0 lead at the 0:19 mark of the first quarter.
Right defensive end Romeo Okwara took a wide, pass-rushing route against left tackle Tyrell Smith, creating a running lane for the handoff to Young. Fullback Andrew Libby squared up Mike linebacker Joe Schmidt. Jaylon Smith couldn’t get off the upright/lockout block by tight end Brandon Howard
When Young got to the second level, center Matt Sparks engulfed Matthias Farley in the open field. By this point, Smith had gotten off Howard’s block, but Young was in full stride by now.
Safety Elijah Shumate was late to the party from the right outside. (The TV angle does not show why, but presumably, he was blocked and not just way off tracking the play.) At that point, Farley, KeiVarae Russell from the left side, Shumate and Smith were not going to catch Young.
It was a series of successful blocks and the inability to get off those blocks. It’s rare that Smith and Schmidt both get blocked so thoroughly on the same play. When they do, this can happen, particularly since you never quite know where the Irish safeties are going to be.
UMass used six offensive linemen and a tight end on the line of scrimmage. They put a guard, two tackles and a tight end to the right of the center to provide an unbalanced look. They created blocking advantages against a defense that had to be wary of the pass, regardless of the formation or the personnel. But they also were able to take advantage of those looks in the passing game.
On the 56-yard handoff/throwback to quarterback Blake Frohnapfel, he found Shakur Nesmith behind the Irish secondary on a beautifully designed play. The extra blockers on the right side of the UMass line created a very strong run look. Notre Dame overplayed it. The Irish simply were out-schemed.
“Against Virginia, we lost sight of a particular key that would have gotten us into the middle of the field to defend their reverse pass,” Kelly said. “The UMass trick play was a difficult play to defend, and we didn’t have it on film. It’s no excuse. We’ve got to do a better job.”
The Notre Dame offense helped and hurt the cause during the 8:29 UMass rally. DeShone Kizer’s deep-middle ball to Will Fuller was on target, but Fuller allowed cornerback Randall Jette to make a play by trying to cradle the catch instead of reaching up for it with his hands. The ball popped into the air and safety Trey Dudley-Giles snatched it after trailing the action.
That was turned into a 10-play, 50-yard drive as Notre Dame’s sudden-change defense – which has happened frequently during the Brian VanGorder era -- failed. Frohnapfel completed four of his five passes in the ensuing drive for 32 yards, including a 4th-and-5 conversion pass to Tajae Sharpe.
The back-breaking play was a 16-yard run by Young when it appeared that the Minutemen were conceding the touchdown for a field goal on 3rd-and-8. The Irish simply didn’t rally to the football, and UMass was now at the Irish two. Sekai Lindsay plowed in from the one.
The offense responded following its interception with a 10-play, 74-yard drive to take a 21-13 lead. But the defense followed up by surrendering the long pass play on the trickery. Cole Luke and Romeo Okwara were called for pass interferences in the end zone, and Jamal Wilson shockingly made it a 21-20 game.
It was all over for the Minutemen after that. Notre Dame shifted field position, forced a punt from the back of their end zone, and C.J. Sanders made it a 28-20 game. Kizer then led a beautifully-executed 10-play, 74-yard drive that started with 1:27 left in the first half and ended with six seconds.
The Irish had taken UMass’ best shot – staggered for eight-and-a-half minutes – and then pulled it together. During a 29:13 span from midway through the second quarter to midway through the fourth, Notre Dame scored seven touchdowns/48 points en route to the 35-point victory.
It was disconcerting that the Irish would allow a MAC team to make such headway after a great start, but the offense carried the Irish until the defense pulled it together against some creative looks.
After the UMass scoring flurry, they managed just 51 yards on 16 snaps in the third quarter. The three straight UMass touchdowns were followed by seven series with the longest netting just 34 yards. Five of those series netted seven yards or less.
SANDERS TAKES IT BACK
For the first time since Golden Tate in 2009 at Pittsburgh and the first time in Notre Dame Stadium since Tom Zbikowski versus North Carolina in 2006, Notre Dame scored a touchdown on a punt return.
C.J. Sanders’ 50-yarder certainly came at an opportune time. UMass had pulled to within 21-20 with 6:44 left in the first half when the teams exchanged punts. Notre Dame’s punt was downed at the one by Devin Butler while Sanders used a beautiful scheme, some nifty moves in traffic, and a devastating wave of blockers to score when UMass punted from the back of its end zone.
“We had backed (the punter) up there pretty good, so we doubled outside,” Kelly explained. “In those situations, you’re gambling a little bit when you double outside. (But) we felt like to fake punt there, you’d really have to be gambling. We borrowed a couple guys from the inside to double outside and it gave (Sanders) some room.”
“Some room” is an understatement. UMass’ punt coverage team couldn’t get off the line of scrimmage. Sanders had at least 20 yards of green turf between himself when he hauled in the punt at midfield and the first UMass special teams member.
Nick Baratti and Nyles Morgan threw the first two key blocks upfield. They created a small crease, and Sanders went into full return mode, bursting through a fairly tight opening.
Sanders had to sidestep Trey Seals at the 11-yard line, which he accomplished with ease. At this point, Sanders had KeiVarae Russell, Equanimeous St. Brown, Nick Coleman and a rampaging Greer Martini in front. Sanders would have scored at that point without the wall of blockers, but Martini launched Jackson Porter for good measure at the goal line and Sanders pranced into the end zone.
“He’s a very shifty runner,” said Kelly of Sanders. “He’s got great vision. It was a big play in the game. It gave us some momentum, certainly, and kind of turned the tide a little bit for us.”
NOTRE DAME PASS RUSH
The Irish have big dreams with their pass rush – the defensive line has a goal of four per game. Notre Dame has eight through four games, and that’s probably about what can be expected the rest of the season, unless the Irish can build some early leads and the defense can scheme its way to additional sacks in “pin your ears back” situations.
The fact of the matter is that the two best pass rushers on the Irish defensive line are Sheldon Day, who lines up predominately at the three-technique, and Isaac Rochell, who also plays inside in certain situations and is just now starting to develop a pass rush. Romeo Okwara and Andrew Trumbetti are not consistent pass rushers. In his last 15 games at defensive end, Okwara has two sacks. Trumbetti, who’s having difficulty getting on the field consistently, has one sack 17 games into his career at defensive end.
Nose tackle Daniel Cage is not a pass rusher. Jerry Tillery probably will be, but for now, he’s just trying to hold the point of attack and get off blocks. It remains to be seen what Jonathan Bonner will have to offer over the long haul.
Notre Dame did a decent job against Blake Frohnapfel considering a) so much of the UMass passing attack was the quick-game and b) the Irish forced Frohnapfel into some hurried throws that resulted in a below-average 50 percent completion rate. (Note: The final UMass passing numbers – 28-of-48 for 302 yards – were slanted by back-up Ross Comis’ 8-of-8 against Notre Dame’s reserves.)
“UMass will not be able to stand in the pocket and protect, hang on to the ball and go down field, so they’ve got to be crafty in how they do it,” said NBC’s Doug Flutie. “The theory is we may not be able to block what’s up front, so let’s do things that offset that.”
Notre Dame’s pass rush was better against UMass. Notre Dame had just two sacks, but that’s a bit deceiving because there were nine quarterback hurries, led by Day’s three and Rochell’s two. James Onwualu’s sack came less than five minutes into the game. Day’s 13-yard sack came at an opportune time – on third down and right in the midst of stemming the tide after UMass’ 20-point flurry.
The inconsistent play of the Irish safeties lessens the opportunities to send linebackers and cornerbacks on blitzes. That won’t stop Brian VanGorder from picking his spots. But having Jaylon Smith back in coverage is a safety net for the Irish defense, one the Irish need while compromising Smith’s ability to get after the quarterback. When VanGorder has Smith twist with a defensive end, he’s usually pretty effective, but he has to pick his spots.
The best thing the Irish defensive line does in the pass rush is get a good push. Day is outstanding up front. If he’s not beating his man – whether it be center, guard or tackle – he’s getting push. So is Rochell. Jerry Tillery has his moments, and so does Daniel Cage. Okwara gets pretty good push from the edge, but often is out of position to make a play.
In other words, there’s no easy solution to the Irish pass rush. The personnel they put on the field, even in passing situations, has limitations in this area of the game. If/when Notre Dame’s pass coverage improves, VanGorder will be able to take more risks.
GREER MARTINI FINDS A NICHE
It’s no wonder that with Mike/Will linebackers Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Nyles Morgan, Jarrett Grace and Te’von Coney on the 2015 Irish roster that sophomore Greer Martini was given a look at Sam linebacker.
How could the 6-foot-2 ½, 245-pounder with limited lateral movement work his way past that pack of talent? After getting the starting nod against Georgia Tech’s triple-option spread attack – and playing a significant role in throttling the Yellow Jackets – Martini looks to be a specialist whose number Brian VanGorder intends to call moving forward, although the match-up will have to be favorable.
Martini was an integral part of Notre Dame’s dime defense against UMass, essentially replacing James Onwualu in the lineup. Martini’s ability to play the game from the middle of the field – particularly now that he’s 245 pounds – gives the Irish two heady players (Joe Schmidt is the other) centrally located on the second level. What they lack in athleticism, they double up on schematic knowledge and knowing just where they need to be for the defense to be effective.
The added benefit is that it gives VanGorder a chance to be creative with Jaylon Smith when Martini’s on the field, which is much-needed, particularly in the pass rush. Smith is a weapon that has to be fired as frequently as possible (while maintaining the integrity of your defense). Solid play from Martini will allow for that to happen more.
Because of where he sits on the Irish depth chart, Martini was in the UMass game to the very end. He finished with a team-high eight tackles. More importantly, he was consistently around the football, often times the first of a group of potential tacklers to react. He played and carried himself like a veteran, reacting to the football as if he knew where it was going.
His fundamentally-sound approach was epitomized by his play with Grace on the fake punt. Grace clearly was being observant of the fake and reacted as if he were anticipating it. Martini was on the second level, and he reacted quickly and decisively on punter Logan Laurent to hold him to a three-yard gain on 4th-and-8.
So how does a guy like Martini get on the field ahead of other stud athletes? Because he’s better than all but Smith and Schmidt among the Irish inside linebackers. Not more talented; a better football player.
Where he’ll run into trouble is against more athletic teams such as Clemson. Martini essentially replaced Drue Tranquill in the lineup, and Martini does not have that kind of athleticism. It will be interesting to see the personnel the Irish use against Clemson in passing situations because Martini may be a bad matchup against the Tigers, just as he was last year at USC.
AMIR CARLISLE SHINES
The least known of Notre Dame’s skill position players is fifth-year senior slot receiver/kick returner Amir Carlisle. Carlisle has met with the media one less time than C.J. Sanders and Brandon Wimbush (Showtime on the field after the game) this season.
His performance against UMass was one of the best of his Notre Dame career, which started out with a season-ending off-the-field injury, a promising start to his first year, banishment from the running back rotation, a move to the slot, a periodic impact last year and injuries.
Carlisle caught five passes for 52 yards against UMass, and several of them were key. His most important grab was the big 16-yard catch in the 10-play, 74-yard drive right before halftime, which set up Chris Brown’s scoring grab. He also broke a tackle on a 2nd-and-6 pass, using the yards after the catch to notch the first down.
He’s a solid underneath receiver and showed last year he can hurt a defense down the seam. He’s not as effective on jet sweeps as C.J. Prosise was last year working from the slot, but he has some burst coming out of the lateral motion. He threw a great block on the seven-yard shovel pass to Josh Adams.
It’s still hard to see what the coaches are seeing in Carlisle as a kick returner. Even if the Irish haven’t come up with the right combination to block for him, Carlisle can’t create much on his own as a kick returner (although more so as a receiver and on jet sweeps). Maybe the decision to keep him as the return man is that he’s a reliable fifth-year senior with some big-play ability who protects the football and stays ready to contribute in small doses in the offense by returning kicks. He’s a safe choice.
Let’s see if Carlisle can build on a strong performance against weak opposition. The Irish will need his contribution at Clemson this weekend.