EVALUATING JOE SCHMIDT
From the condemnation offered of Joe Schmidt following his eight-tackle, one-half tackle for loss performance against Navy, I thought I might have to close one eye when Notre Dame was on defense as I began the process of watching the game film.
Schmidt missed tackles. He missed several of them. It was his missed tackle of quarterback Tago Smith on 3rd-and-4 that ignited Navy’s back-to-back second-quarter touchdown drives to tie the game with 23 seconds left in the first half. Two plays after the missed tackle, Quentin Ezell rambled 45 yards for the score.
Schmidt also appeared to take a real shot on that left hand/thumb in the fourth quarter that caused him a great deal of discomfort. Maybe he has another nagging injury that we’re not being told about. He didn’t tackle well at Clemson. His change of direction was slow against the Tigers. Maybe it was the rain, although the footing at soggy Memorial Coliseum held up quite well.
Against Navy, the Midshipmen put Schmidt in a steady flow of double-teams, which most linebackers won’t handle well. It’s even more difficult for Schmidt because he doesn’t have, for example, Jarrett Grace’s frame to physically overcome double teams, or even many one-on-one blocks from an offensive lineman.
Schmidt has not played his best football the past couple weeks. He knows it. It was interesting that he was not one of the players who spoke to the media after the Navy game, which is a first this year. Schmidt usually is racing to the interview room. He’s not camera shy. It will be interesting to hear why he didn’t meet the press after the game, whether by his choice or Notre Dame’s.
But the fact remains that with Schmidt in the lineup, the defense continues to play mostly quality football while ranking among the nation’s top 10 in three-and-outs, 40th on third downs, 41st in scoring defense and 34th in total defense. (The third-down numbers are particularly impressive when you consider two of the first six opponents were triple-option teams.)
In the second half of the Navy game, the Irish allowed three points, 95 total yards and 71 rushing yards. Clemson was limited to 296 yards total offense. And you want to make a change at Mike linebacker with USC coming up?
If your Brian VanGorder, the last thing on your mind – with the issues at safety, the inconsistent pass coverage by the cornerbacks, the depth-depleted line and the inability to generate a consistent pass rush – is replacing Joe Schmidt.
Options to replace Schmidt are Greer Martini, who has played extremely well against triple-option football. He also was overrun by USC last year like a truck trampling a pylon. He’s better prepared physically now and a smart player. He’ll get to where he needs to be if his instincts are sharp because he anticipates incredibly well against triple-option. But starting ahead of Schmidt? No.
Martini has earned a shot to get more playing time against conventional offenses. Maybe Jarrett Grace is healthy and mobile enough to get some spot time against physical teams (USC) and/or versus those that run the football more (Boston College and Stanford). He is that big body with the intelligence to keep things in order within the defense. Nyles Morgan obviously isn’t an option at the present time or he would have seen more action by now. Morgan’s opportunity is in 2016-17.
But for now, particularly with the level of play offered by the defense, a defensive coordinator for a team that is 5-1 and still very much in the playoff race is not going to displace Schmidt from the lineup. Not Brian VanGorder and not any defensive coordinator in the country. It’s just not going to happen with all that Schmidt offers a defense that remains sound if not 60-minute consistent.
To think otherwise is thinking like a fan and not a football coach who is, after all, paid a lot of money to make those decisions.
ALEX BARS’ FIRST START
With Quenton Nelson still nursing a high ankle sprain, red-shirt freshman Alex Bars was tabbed to start at left guard against Navy.
Under most circumstances, Bars would have been the starter for the Irish at the outset of the 2015 season. He is that talented. Bars is part-guard, part-tackle. Tackle likely is in his future when Ronnie Stanley walks out the door. But Bars is a very capable guard. It’s just that Nelson is an exceptional talent and the only thing that was going to get him out of the starting lineup was inconsistent play -- there’s been no sign of that; in fact, the opposite – or an injury.
Bars’ upside is very high if not quite equal to Nelson’s. The combination of his height (a legit 6-foot-6) and width (at 320 pounds) is a coach’s dream. His frame is massive from north-to-south and from east-to-west.
Bars acquitted himself very well in his first career start. He was aggressive throughout his performance. He attacked off the snap as a run blocker straight ahead and showed the agility to play on the run in a pulling role. He also did a tremendous job of making a block and then looking for and engaging in a second block. He did this on a regular basis.
As a guard, he is virtually impenetrable as a pass blocker as he squares off against more tackles than ends. But he’s also a very technically-sound pass blocker, widening out his blocking base to make it even more difficult to get around his width.
Bars can lunge at times, both as a run and pass blocker. But for it being his first start, those miscues were infrequent. He had one false start and it was the slightest of bobbles before the snap.
When he slid to help Stanley on a pass block, C.J. Prosise failed to pick up blitzing linebacker Micah Thomas. On a Josh Adams eight-yard run, he helped Stanley with a double team and then scraped to the next level, where he ran 240-pound Sam linebacker Daniel Gonzales off the play.
He pulled on five-yard run by Kizer late in the second quarter, blocked Raider D.J. Palmore to open the hole, and then re-engaged with Palmore to block him again. On Prosise’s 22-yard touchdown run, Bars squared up Gonzales as Stanley ran his man outside. He dominated Gonzales again after turning up through the hole right to left on Prosise’s 13-yard fourth-quarter run.
He even scraped expertly on a pass block from one to the next on Corey Robinson’s cradling dive of an 18-yarder in the third quarter when the Irish put back-to-back touchdowns on the board.
If Nelson is fit enough to go against USC, he’ll start. The Irish need his experience and great strength. It was a quality first step for Bars, but it was against Navy, not the Trojans.
And yet based upon his first start and the overall way he attacked it, the Irish have a sixth offensive lineman who appears capable of playing winning football over the final six games of the season if called upon.
You can’t keep a good offense down, and through six games of the 2015 season, Notre Dame’s offense has been very good with the knack for putting points on the board in the second half. Notre Dame has scored more points in the second half of games four times out of six.
After tallying 17 points in the first half against Texas, the Irish tacked on 21 more in the second half. Notre Dame scored three touchdowns in the second half against Virginia after scoring two in the first half. It was 13 points in the first half against Georgia Tech and 17 more in the second half.
The Irish were productive in both halves (35 points in the first half, 27 points in the second half) against UMass. After managing just three points in the first half against Clemson, Notre Dame scored three touchdowns in the fourth period.
The second half of the Navy game was more about ball possession and long scoring drives than it was explosives. The Irish scored 24 points in the first half and then scored on back-to-back drives in the third quarter while dominating the clock in the fourth.
After C.J. Prosise scored from 22 yards out following a fumble recovery on the opening kickoff of the third quarter, DeShone Kizer completed all four of his passes in a 10-play, 73-yard drive that pretty much sealed Navy’s fate midway through the third quarter.
While Notre Dame’s defense was making sure there would be no second-half surge by the Midshipmen this time around, the offense continued to do its part, adding to a trend of strong second-half performances through the first half of the 2015 season.
THE 18-SECOND DRIVE
This is now five straight games that DeShone Kizer has led the Irish on a late first- or second-half scoring drive, four of which have been touchdowns.
• Kizer became a household name in Week Two against Virginia when he directed the game-winning, eight-play, 80-yard drive against the Cavaliers with a 39-yard scoring strike to Will Fuller with 12 seconds remaining.
• With 1:40 left in the first half against Georgia Tech, Kizer directed a 10-play, 82-yard drive capped by a 17-yard C.J. Prosise run.
• Only six seconds remained in the first half against UMass when Kizer found Chris Brown for a seven-yard score to complete a 10-play, 74-yard drive for Notre Dame’s fifth touchdown of the first 30 minutes.
• The Irish benefited from a punt deep in Clemson territory that Will Fuller returned to the Tiger 32-yard line. Kizer directed a six-play, 32-yard touchdown drive with Torii Hunter, Jr. scoring on a one-yard pass from Kizer to pull the Irish to within two points with seven seconds remaining.
The fifth of Kizer’s late-half scoring drives began with modest expectations. Brian Kelly admitted that the Irish called a draw play with 18 seconds remaining from the Notre Dame 25 just to see if trying to throw a pass to get into field-goal range was worthwhile. Prosise and the offensive line answered in the affirmative with a 12-yard run to the Irish 37, where they used their second timeout with 12 seconds remaining.
Kizer had plenty of time to scan the field on the ensuing pass as Navy rushed three and dropped eight. Hunter eventually worked his way across the field to the Notre Dame sideline, where he hauled in Kizer’s pass for 28 yards to the Navy 35. With one second left on the play clock when the ball was snapped, Justin Yoon drilled the 52-yard field goal and just like that – with just 18 seconds to work with – Kizer and Co. had done it again.
MAKE MY (SHELDON) DAY
Six games into his final season with Notre Dame, you just hope that good health can continue to smile upon senior defensive tackle/end Sheldon Day, who is setting himself up for a high draft pick and a handsome pay day from the NFL.
Day added to his burgeoning profile against Navy with a co-team-leading nine tackles, including two tackles for loss. That gives day 21 tackles, eight tackles for lost yardage, two sacks and nine quarterback hurries through the first half of the season.
The tackle total doesn’t provide an accurate measure of Day’s impact up front. He alters every single snap by his quickness off the ball and the inevitable compensation that every offensive line/offense has to make with him on the field. His quickness and penetration skills are some of the most impressive among interior defensive line prospects in the country.
When the Irish need a big play, Day turns it up a notch. Case in point against Navy: Right after DeShone Kizer threw an interception with 2:44 left in the first half, Day burst through on first down and dumped quarterback Tago Smith for a three-yard loss.
Rarely has Notre Dame had a defensive lineman with the motor of Day, reminiscent of great interior line play of standouts such as Chris Zorich and Trevor Laws. His thirst for competition is indomitable. His desire to excel is off the chart. Brian Kelly has talked about his improved conditioning. There is never a time within a game that Day really looks gassed. You wind him up, press start, and he goes all day and night for as long as it’s necessary.
By using him on the outside at times – Day lined up in a nine-technique from a two-point position against Navy, which led to a Romeo Okwara sack – Brian VanGorder has diversified Day’s portfolio, which only makes him that much more attractive to his future employers.
Notre Dame doesn’t rush the passer very well and the defensive line’s depth is on thin ice with a half a regular season to go. But as long as Day and Isaac Rochell are healthy and on the field for the final six regular-season games and a bowl game, the Irish have a chance to win them all, even with the hiccups that continue to plague the defense.
AROUND THE GRIDIRON
It was Sheldon Day who drew the holding call against freshman right tackle Joey Gaston on Keenan Reynolds’ 2nd-and-3 conversion that threw a wrench into Navy’s second drive…One of the reasons Navy turns the football over so infrequently is that Reynolds doesn’t get the ball to players who are threatened by unblocked defenders. The dropped pitch to fullback Chris Swain was an anomaly, although pitching to the fullback on the edge obviously is a more risky play for a triple-option team than the typical straight dives…Fine job by KeiVarae Russell as an open-field tackler in the first quarter and throughout the game. He finished with an important team-leading seven solo tackles…Getting Reynolds to call two timeouts within a three-play stretch of the first quarter is no small feat…The incessant replays during the Navy game made one yearn for the good ol’ days…When you consider how adept/productive he is as a receiver, and also throw in the fact that he’s not an overly strong football player, it’s really rather astonishing how well Will Fuller blocks…NBCeeit is great technology when focusing on Fuller’s sideline bobble. But note to producers: it’s meaningless when they’re reviewing to see if Fuller’s foot in bounds meshes with the catch…Torii Hunter, Jr.’s future as a receiver is solid. They won’t be moving him to quarterback. His pass to Chris Brown off a pitch from Amir Carlisle was a line drive (ala off the bat of Torii Hunter, Sr.) that needed some loft…
Good to see Tarean Folston on the sideline encouraging Josh Adams…Once again, Tyler Newsome impacts the game in a big way with his punt to the three after a dreadful series with back-to-back penalties and a four-yard loss. Three plays later, Jaylon Smith recovered a fumble and the momentum shift was on. Newsome is an impact player every single game…An interesting “joint possession” situation on Swain’s fumble recovered by Smith. The key was that Smith was directly on top of the football while Swain – despite having two hands on it – was reaching for the football…Credit to Chase Hounshell for his great block of linebacker Micah Thomas on C.J. Prosise’s seven-yard touchdown run with Tyler Luatua doing yeoman’s work upfield…Good to see Andrew Trumbetti pressure Keenan Reynolds on an incomplete pass. He also had an aggressive tackle. With six games remaining, the Irish really need Trumbetti to play more and make more of an impact…Although you can’t see exactly what is happening with Aliz’e Jones’ hands on the holding call against him, both are clearly within the width of the defender’s shoulders. The Irish ended up scoring on that series anyway, but that was a pretty good block for a guy who is still learning the ropes in that area. Tough (bad) call. That should have been a 32-yard Prosise touchdown run, which could have meant a four-touchdown day for Prosise…
Why did Tom Hammond alternate the pronunciation of Tago (TAH-go) Smith? And why do both of NBC’s play-by-play guys, Hammond and Dan Hicks, insist that it’s pronounced Romeo Ogwara? Hammond also said Matthias Farley is the team’s trash-talking champion. KeiVarae Russell? Max Redfield? Perhaps, but Farley?…Credit to Nyles Morgan and Elijah Shumate for forcing the fumble by Dishan Romine; credit to Romine for bouncing back with a 58-yard kickoff return… Very questionable late hit on Bernard Sarra against DeShone Kizer…Nic Weishar continues to be a blocking weapon for the Irish offense…As they wrapped his left lower leg in ice, indicating he was done for the day, it was interesting to see Keenan Reynolds speaking with such authority to Tago Smith. The kid is an exceptional leader…The genesis of Greer Martini’s hip injury appeared to be Joe Schmidt’s knee…Te’von Coney gets a nice tackle for loss on Tago Smith…Surprised to see Prosise in the final series of the game starting at 6:14 with a 17-point lead.