SLOW OUT OF THE GATE
Notre Dame has lost six of its last seven true road games with the 24-22 loss at Clemson Saturday night. The Irish also have gotten out of the gate slowly in three of the last four road trips.
• Notre Dame fell behind 34-3 during the first 22 minutes of last year’s game at Arizona State, allowing 34 unanswered points in a span of 20:10.
• Notre Dame trailed 21-0 after the first quarter at USC in the final regular-season game of 2014 and allowed the first 35 points to be scored by the Trojans.
• Notre Dame trailed Clemson 14-0 less than seven minutes into Saturday’s game.
The slow start against the Tigers was a result of a couple of touchdown drives (64 and 40 yards) wrapped around a Notre Dame three-and-out. It happened that quickly and it began with a poor tackling effort by the Irish defense.
On Deshaun Watson’s 38-yard run on the first play from scrimmage, Will linebacker Jaylon Smith popped out wide to assist Cole Luke with Clemson’s double stack of wide receivers. Mike linebacker Joe Schmidt aligned to the left of the formation, and Watson’s running lane had been created.
As Watson took off on a quarterback draw, Smith and Luke were blocked up top and eliminated from making the play. Schmidt blitzed from the left edge. Nose tackle Daniel Cage couldn’t get off a double team. Tackle Sheldon Day couldn’t get off a block. Luke and Max Redfield took bad tackling angles and Watson was off and running down the sideline.
Moments later, Luke dived at the knees of tight end Jordan Leggett, who easily skipped past Luke for the six-yard touchdown reception.
On Clemson’s second touchdown drive, following Tyler Newsome’s 15-yard punt, Watson hooked up with freshman Hunter Renfrow for a 23-yard gain in front of cornerback KeiVarae Russell. On the fourth play, Luke and Elijah Shumate collided trying to corral Artavis Scott and Scott bounced off for a 13-yard score.
To win on the road, a team has to weather the storm – of the opponent and Mother Nature, in this instance. Coming out of the chute slowly in a hostile environment, and in this case, poor weather conditions, is imperative to win away from home. Sound tackling is at the top of the list of priorities.
The emotions of the moment have to be controlled. It was assumed Notre Dame would do that with its veteran team and previous experience at Florida State with most of the participants in that game returning.
For some reason – against USC, the Irish were out-manned from the start due to injuries – the Irish are not matching or exceeding the speed/intensity of the game at the opening bell, at least not when playing quality opponents like Arizona State, USC and now Clemson.
Furious comebacks are great, and in two of those three games, Brian Kelly and his staff deserve credit for their team’s desire and motivation to get back into it. But ultimately, it’s like the basketball team that falls behind by 20, makes a furious comeback, and then runs out of juice to get over the hump and claim the victory.
The unsettling notion that comes out of Memorial Stadium Saturday night is the belief that on most given game days, Notre Dame is a better football team than Clemson in 2015. It was a tough environment and an extremely difficult place to win, but this was a game well within Notre Dame’s grasp.
THE FIRST TWO-POINT CONVERSION
No need to go over Irish Illustrated’s reasoning behind why we believe the decision to go for two while trailing by 11 points with 14:13 remaining was the wrong decision. This has been covered thoroughly in our post-game Instant Analysis, the Point After and Monday’s podcast.
But until watching the TV version of the game, I was unaware of just how flawed the procedure of the two-point attempt really was. Any decision-making with regard to a) the play and b) the personnel easily should have been covered during the review of C.J. Prosise’s 56-yard touchdown reception.
And yet coming out of the review, the Irish were completely confused as to who should be on the field for the play and what exactly they were going to do. Kicker Justin Yoon went onto the field and then was motioned off. Defensive end Doug Randolph came into the game and Yoon came off. Mike McGlinchey came running onto the field to replace Chase Hounshell on the left edge of the formation.
Josh Adams also can be seen coming onto the field, stopping, and then being replaced by C.J. Prosise. Long-snapper Scott Daly came running off as Torii Hunter ran onto the field.
Once the Irish lined up, DeShone Kizer still was looking back to the sideline for further instructions. Tight end Nic Weishar, to the left of the formation in the slot, had his hands in the air, indicating he did not know what to run. Kizer finally called a timeout and the camera immediately panned to the sideline where Brian Kelly chastised Corey Robinson for not being on the field.
Robinson wasn’t the only one who was confused, which means the instructions provided by the coaching staff were unclear to all. When the play finally was run, Robinson was in the slot. It was a well-designed play based upon Clemson’s reaction.
Robinson ran a crossing route at the back of the end zone, popping wide open as the Tiger cornerback lined up across from Robinson figured Robinson was going to run the fade to the corner of the end zone. So he bailed. That left Robinson wide open as Kizer’s high-but-catchable pass zipped through his hands, barely making contact with Robinson’s left hand.
As Robinson came to the sideline, Kelly heatedly said to Robinson: “Are you going to play or not!” To Robinson’s credit, he stood nose-to-facemask with Kelly and took the instruction while looking Kelly directly in the eyes.
Robinson wasn’t the only player confused by the mad scramble to get the proper personnel and play on the field. The Irish needed to use the time spent as the officials reviewed whether Prosise had stepped out of bounds on his 56-yard touchdown reception to clarify their motives to the team.
While there is gray area as to whether the Irish should have run the two-point conversion at all – the chart /odds say go for two when down by 12 points – there was no gray area with Notre Dame’s preparation to run the play. The Irish needed to be much better organized to follow through with the two-point attempt and they were far from it.
THE SECOND TWO-POINTER
To say, “That was a terrible play call” after the game-deciding two-point conversion attempt with seven seconds remaining without knowing the particulars of the decision is simply making a statement based upon a) the outcome and b) your frustration with the desired outcome.
Why was it a “terrible call?” Because it didn’t work? Because it was too easy to stop? Because it lacked options if the first alternative was stymied?
No one second-guessed the 4th-and-2 run in Notre Dame’s own territory against Virginia that ultimately converted the short-yardage situation that led to DeShone Kizer’s game-winning touchdown pass (although Virginia’s run defense wasn’t nearly as stout as Clemson’s).
Likewise, no one would have questioned the two-point conversion call had Notre Dame blocked it successfully and Kizer had scored to knot the game at 24. After all, the Irish had scored on a three-yard Kizer run with 9:03 remaining from a similar look.
There were a couple of differences between the two plays. On the touchdown run by Kizer, it was a 2nd-and-1 from the three with not nearly as much was at stake. If that didn’t work, there were two more downs to score from inside the five. On the touchdown, the ball was on the left hash; on the two-point conversion, it was more centrally located, slightly right of the middle of the field.
There was a not-so-subtle difference in Clemson’s defensive alignment, namely, the positioning of defensive tackle Carlos Watkins. On the Kizer touchdown, with the ball on the left hash, Watkins was to the short side of the field -- the third defensive linemen over from the left side of the defense -- which is where the play was run.
On the two-point conversion, Watkins was to the shorter side of the field again, the second defensive lineman from the left edge. More importantly, the play was run to Watkins’ side of the field – not away from him as Kizer’s touchdown run was – and as the Irish found out time and again throughout the night, Watkins was a disruptive force.
Watkins was the key man in stopping Kizer on the two-point conversion. Off the snap, Watkins made a jab step to his right, and then moved left into the double-team of center Nick Martin and right guard Steve Elmer. Elmer put a hat on a hat with Watkins, but never could quite seal him, and that was the key in blowing up the play, in addition to the job done by weakside linebacker Ben Boulware.
Running back C.J. Prosise shifted to the right of Kizer in the shotgun. Tight end Nic Weishar, as he did on the Kizer touchdown run, got the angle on defensive end Kevin Dodd (which was contrary to Kirk Herbstreit’s live-eye judgment on the two-point conversion). Weishar did his job.
Right tackle Mike McGlinchey got to the second level on the touchdown run. On the two-point conversion play, he wasn’t upfield to get to Mike linebacker B.J. Goodson quite like he was on the touchdown run.
Prosise’s job on the touchdown run was to follow McGlinchey through the hole created by Weishar’s outside seal block, but he lost the one-on-one battle with Boulware, who scraped effectively to the hole and convincingly won the one-on-one battle with Prosise.
A hole had been created. It looks like the play is going to be successful in the initial moments after the snap. But Elmer’s inability to seal off the edge to Watkins and Watkins’ ability to string out the play (bringing Elmer along with him as an “additional defender”) pushed the pile back into Kizer’s lap.
Additionally, once Prosise hooked up with Boulware (and was pushed into the point of attack) and McGlinchey moved to block linebacker B.J. Goodson, Sam linebacker Travis Blanks came crashing down from the outside. That was one too many hats for the Irish, although the play was lost when Watkins and Boulware won their individual battles.
Once Elmer believed he and Martin had effectively blocked Watkins, he tried to go to the next level. But Watkins wouldn’t let him, and when the Elmer-Blanks contact was a stalemate, Kizer had no running lane to the goal line.
Should Notre Dame have run different play? Should Kizer have had a pass option? Kizer did have a pass option – probably Torii Hunter, Jr. – although Kizer said after the game that there was only one receiver in the pass option, and it was determined pre-snap by Kizer that he would not target Hunter on the play.
If blocked perfectly – meaning Elmer seals the edge on Watkins and Prosise effectively blocks Boulware – it probably works. But it went awry, so the play was, in the grand scheme of things, the wrong one. A run-pass option after the snap would have given Kizer an alternative.
With the game on the line, the play call and the execution of the play both went in Clemson’s favor.
FORCING THE RUNNING GAME
For years, Notre Dame play-calling aficionados have decried Brian Kelly’s failure to commit to the run.
Kelly and his offensive brain-trust – Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford – made sure the Irish explored every avenue in the running game against Clemson until the deficit was so large as the clock dwindled that they had no choice but to turn things over to DeShone Kizer through the air.
Kizer threw seven passes in the first quarter, 12 in the second, three in the third and another dozen in the fourth. Notre Dame ran the football 10 times in the first quarter, seven times in the second, 10 times in the third and six times in the fourth, although four second-half sacks were added to the run sheet.
The Irish ran seven times on its first nine first-down snaps. Unofficially, Notre Dame passed or attempted to pass (including sacks, not including spikes) 15 out of 29 first-down snaps, 13 of which came over the final 20 first-down snaps.
Don’t see a real problem with that. Yes, the running game was bogged down, particularly early in the game. Ultimately, C.J. Prosise’s best runs came later in the game as things began to loosen up a little bit.
Notre Dame came into the game with an established strength – its offensive line. Kelly and his staff stuck with it. You don’t abandon a strength for the final three-and-a-half quarters off the game because you get off to a slow start rushing the football. Brian Kelly showed great patience, and ultimately, over the course of 60 minutes, it paid off. The Irish created enough offense to send the game into overtime.
Notre Dame’s offensive line faced the age-old dilemma that units face whenever a defense overplays the run. Clemson was going to give extra attention to Will Fuller, make the other receivers beat them, and give additional attention to stopping Prosise.
The Tigers’ plan worked until Notre Dame exploded for three touchdowns in the final quarter. Prosise finished with 50 yards rushing on 15 carries (3.3-yard average) with 28 yards on three of those carries. That translates to 22 yards on his other 12 carries. Seventeen of Notre Dame’s 33 carries gained two yards or less.
Boston College boasts a stout defensive line, but the Eagles haven’t played the Irish yet, and they’re going to have to be very impressive to be more effective than Clemson’s front was against Notre Dame.
Shaq Lawson is as good as advertised. He had difficulty getting on the field last year behind Vic Beasley. But he was productive in a part-time role and he’s even more effective as a full-time player. He had 3 ½ tackles for lost yardage in the first quarter against the Irish and finished with seven stops. His bookend, Kevin Dodd, matched his tackles behind the line of scrimmage – two of which were sacks -- and finished with six stops.
Carlos Watkins, the 6-foot-3, 300-pound senior defensive tackle, is a load. He had a sack and four stops, the most important of which was the tackle of DeShone Kizer on the game-deciding two-point conversion.
Linebackers Ben Boulware (team-high 10 tackles) and B.J Goodson (5 tackles, an interception and a fumble recovered) also were as good as advertised.
Cornerback Mackensie Alexander is a talkative young man, and he can back it up. He made life more difficult than it usually is for Fuller, who’s used to traipsing around the secondary at his own free will. Safety Jayron Kearse made six tackles, a fumble recovered and a fumble forced. Because Alexander creates a no-throw zone, Cordrea Tankersley gets plenty of action and has the size (6-foot-1, 195) to play physical pass defense.
The stadium noise, mixed with the difficult weather, created false starts and missed blocking assignments. Left tackle Ronnie Stanley struggled mightily with Lawson early. Left guard Quenton Nelson was involved in an ugly rollover and was fortunate just to sustain a sprained ankle. Credit to Nelson for trying to battle through the injury with a heavily taped left ankle.
Alex Bars came into the game late in the third quarter to replace Nelson and, by and large, held up pretty well as the Irish transitioned into more of a passing attack as time and the deficit dictated more throws.
Notre Dame finished with 116 yards rushing, which is more than the Irish would have totaled in recent years when the ground game bogged down and the play-calling steered heavily away from the rushing attack. In recent years, the Irish would have finished with 55 yards rushing and fewer than its 34 rushing attempts.
Kizer was not expected to be such a running threat. But his vision, his feel for running lanes, and his poise in the pocket to find those running lanes give the Irish a much greater rushing threat from the quarterback position than was originally expected when Malik Zaire was felled by a broken ankle.
It’s imperative for an offense that is relying on a veteran line to be the backbone of the attack to remain patient with the ground game. Notre Dame did that against Clemson and the Irish still had time to tie the game, due largely to a defense that made it possible to remain patient offensively.
If you’re going to be an offense that relies heavily on the line and the rushing attack, you can’t bail on it, particularly in the first half.