DIRECTIONAL KICKING TECHNIQUES
That’s what Dan Hicks said Brian Kelly and his staff called the Irish special teams game plan to thwart USC’s big-play capability, led by the dangerous Adoree’ Jackson.
The staff came up with a creative, varied and effective plan to not only thwart the Trojan return game, but also to mix in a few wrinkles of their own to get C.J. Sanders some room to maneuver.
The best of the schemes was the plan to prevent Jackson from hurting the Irish on punt returns. Twice, the Irish faced a fourth down within 10 yards of midfield (but still in Irish territory), which was an ideal location for the plan to unfold.
On 4th-and-3 from the Irish 41, C.J. Prosise lined up in the Pistol with DeShone Kizer taking the shotgun snap. As Prosise shifted to the slot, Kizer took a couple steps back to give himself a few more yards behind the line of scrimmage and then tapped a soft liner to his left that rolled to the USC 16.
It’s a perfect plan. Jackson – because the Irish offense is on the field with the quarterback starting in a shotgun position – has to respect the possibility of a pass. Jackson couldn’t just abandon his coverage and drop back to receive the punt. Notre Dame put him in no man’s land.
Notre Dame did it again in the third quarter on a 4th-and-2 from the Irish 46.
When the Irish had more field to negotiate and needed a bit more leg, they went with Tyler Newsome in a rugby-style approach where he could roll to his right, allow some extra releases up front to get downfield, and present Jackson with a bouncing, rolling, hard-to-handle punt with some velocity.
Total number of punt returns by Jackson on the evening: zero. He came into the game averaging better than 10 yards per punt return, including a 45-yarder.
Jackson did what he could to compensate on kick returns, bringing a kickoff out of the end zone despite catching it seven yards deep and teaming up with JuJu Smith-Schuster on a return in which Smith-Schuster pitched it back to Jackson, who brought it out to the USC 43.
But the Irish mixed it up. Newsome popped up a kickoff to the 12 that bounced in front of Jackson. He also tucked one in around the two, right in front of the pylon, making it a difficult return for Jackson.
The icing on the cake was Newsome’s final punt, a raindrop inside the 10 that bounced toward the end zone, was saved by Devin Butler, and downed at the one with Matthias Farley hovering over the football.
On the flip side, the Irish tried a fake reverse kick return with C.J. Sanders. Sanders had a 33-yard kick return. He also had a nifty 25-yard punt return when he broke a tackle to start the burst.
If there was one matchup in this game that was one-sided on paper, it was USC’s return game against Notre Dame’s coverage teams. Not only did Notre Dame win that battle, they won the special teams decisively with the blocked punt for a score.
A bold game plan by Brian Kelly, a well-organized approach by Scott Booker, and tremendous execution by a bunch of Notre Dame special teamers in containing the potent USC return game.
KIZER’S EVOLUTION CONTINUES
While I would stick with opinions expressed in our Monday podcast that DeShone Kizer’s performance was the least effective of his five starts, I would add that he played winning football and helped lead Notre Dame to victory while dealing with the most challenging group of defensive players that he’s faced up to this point.
Did Kizer hold onto the football too long and take too many sacks? Absolutely, although credit is due to Adoree’ Jackson and Iman Marshall – two incredibly talented athletes at cornerback – who made it difficult at times to get the football to Notre Dame’s wideouts. It should be noted that USC had allowed just four touchdown passes through its first five games. Kizer added two against the Trojans.
Kizer did a ton of positive things, including avoiding an interception for the first time after four starts with one in each of those games.
We’ve already begun to take for granted all the positive things Kizer does for the offense. While virtually all of the focus was on Will Fuller when he blew past Jackson to haul in the 75-yard touchdown pass, it should be noted – as NBC’s Doug Flutie did – that Kizer threw a great ball to Fuller and hit him in stride (with the football arriving at Fuller’s back shoulder).
“It’s very easy to underthrow that ball so (that) it’s just a completion,” said Flutie, speaking from experience. “He hit him in stride.”
It’s also taken for granted just how difficult it is to hit Fuller in stride. If it’s hard to stay up with Fuller as a cornerback, it’s hard for a quarterback to hit Fuller in stride because estimating where Fuller will end up, and when and where the ball should arrive, is tricky with Fuller’s blazing speed.
Kizer made a great play rolling to his right to find Chris Brown for 19 yards in Notre Dame’s second scoring drive on a 1st-and-20. His 3rd-and-8 touchdown pass to Corey Robinson gave the Irish a fourth-quarter lead they would not relinquish. His 45-yard pass across the field to Fuller helped set up Justin Yoon’s 32-yard field goal, which gave the Irish a two-score lead late. His dump-off pass to Prosise on 3rd-and-12 gained nine and allowed for Yoon’s lead-padding field goal from a more manageable distance.
Kizer made some mistakes. His long throw across the field to Aliz’e Jones was behind him. He missed a wide-open Amir Carlisle on second series of second half on 3rd-and-2. He misread at least one read-option play from the USC five.
Kizer’s biggest mistakes came in the sack department, but again, give the USC secondary some credit. It is formidable.
The first and second sacks came on back-to-back plays. The first was with a three-man rush, which likely gave Kizer the courage to hold onto it longer, but there’s still a time limit. He ran into a second sack on the next play.
The third sack -- at start of third quarter – caught Kizer waiting way, way too long, although things were beginning to break down for the Irish at that point as center Nick Martin whiffed on linebacker Lamar Dawson, who flushed Kizer out of the pocket.
The fourth sack was a critical error with 3:46 remaining and the Irish leading by 10. By taking the sack, it went from a 42-yard field goal to a 51-yard field goal, which, under the circumstances, dictated a punt.
Still, Kizer grew in his read-option decision-making and decisiveness. Seeing freshman defensive end Porter Gustin closing down off the edge, Kizer pulled it out of Prosise’s belly and decisively burst upfield for a 16-yard gain, forcing 5-foot-11, 190-pound free safety Chris Hawkins to make a beautiful open-field tackle, otherwise Kizer gets more.
Later, he read outside linebacker Su’a Cravens for a five-yard gain, which showed great patience and a well-reasoned thought process. Kizer made a huge 23-yard run on 3rd-and-5, taking the football down to the Notre Dame 15 and allowing the Irish to score the first of 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter. He made rush end Scott Felix miss to start the run, although Kizer needs to stop leaving his feet at the end of a long run.
Kizer did make a bad read-option decision inside the five when he kept for a two-yard loss. Had he pressed it into Josh Adams’s belly, Adams likely would have scored. But he also used incredible patience by putting it in Prosise’s bread-basket and riding it out before relinquishing it to the Irish running back as the fourth-quarter pounding commenced.
It wasn’t Kizer’s best game. He was making just his fifth start against the most individually-talented defense he’s faced on this level. But it’s another lesson learned, which is significant for a player who continues to show he knows how to learn from his mistakes.
A CRITICAL EYE ON SCHMIDT
When Joe Schmidt’s game is analyzed on a football Saturday, a missed tackle is worth two, and a second one – particularly if it comes within the same series – has him up to five.
Reality often is skewed when it comes to Joe Schmidt.
Joe Schmidt is far from a perfect player. He’s too small to win a majority of his physical confrontations. He’s quick but he’s not fast. Offensive guards overwhelm him, just as they do most other inside linebackers. He can be negated from plays, generally by players with better size that can leverage him.
He’s missed several tackles in recent weeks, not nearly as many as some claim, but missed tackles nonetheless, several of which have come with the ball carrier in his grasp.
And yet his role and value to the defense usually goes unnoticed. Against USC, Schmidt was a traffic cop, or maybe more accurate, a choreographer. Without the threat of a running quarterback in Cody Kessler (although he did rush for a touchdown), Schmidt’s job was to run all over the field to help in pass coverage, to make sure the Irish defense was equally distributed and balanced in their coverage, and to get to spots on the field himself where he perceived an opening or a weakness.
He helped defend the intermediate range passes -- and sometimes beyond -- most of the night. He and the defense had a lot of the field to defend against USC’s vertical passing game that also widened the field with swing passes to those speedy, talented running backs.
When the Trojans are clicking – a lack of chemistry and productivity from the offensive line is holding them back right now – there is a ton to defense and a ton of great skill-position athletes to execute it.
To equate a dozen missed tackles over a three-game span to Schmidt compromising the effectiveness of the defense is a false indicator. There are more talented athletes to put on the field, but athleticism in the wrong place on the field leads to bigger problems than a dozen missed tackles at or near the line of scrimmage over a 12-quarter span.
There’s a tendency to act like this is an epidemic that has hit only Joe Schmidt. There are so many missed tackles in today’s game that it’s natural to conclude that defensive coaches don’t teach tackling fundamentals like they used to. That’s simply not true, although schemes are king now, which does chip away at the fundamentals.
More than anything, however, the huge increase in missed tackles has more to do with trying to tackle superhuman athletes who are running at you in full stride, particularly if you’re a 5-foot-10, 190-pound cornerback trying to take on the block of a 6-foot-3, 215-pound receiver or the run of a 6-foot-1, 230-pound running back.
One of Schmidt’s most visible mistakes was his missed tackle on 6-foot-1, 215-pound wide receiver Darreus Rogers, a four-star prospect out of California, on an underneath crossing route for 15 yards on 3rd-and-2. Rogers should make Schmidt miss, the same way C.J. Prosise is expected to make USC linebacker Anthony Sarao miss in the open field.
It’s often a matter of perspective, or rather, the hopes and expectations of a particular cheering section. There’s also a tendency to count the miscues and lose track – or not even recognize – key plays made.
Schmidt maintained spacing and took away the outside running lane, which forced USC running back Justin Davis back into a Jaylon Smith tackle. He pressed the edge, won the edge and forced Cody Kessler to throw the ball out of bounds. He took on 355-pound guard Damien Mama, went to the ground, bounced back up and got a hand on Justin Davis before help arrived. On 3rd-and-7, Schmidt stayed home and made the open-field tackle on Davis. He drilled Tre Madden for no gain on a four-and-out series.
Schmidt is not a great college football player. He’s a bright, dedicated, motivated college football player who generally makes those around him better. He gives Brian VanGorder’s gambling defense a sense of order. He keeps Notre Dame’s defense thinking and fighting and scratching and clawing.
Considering how many big plays Notre Dame coughs up defensively, they don’t need more athletic players on the field; they need guys who will play better team defense, and Joe Schmidt on the field makes that much more possible.
Wouldn’t argue against a series or two for Jarrett Grace and/or Greer Martini in Schmidt’s place. Not sure USC was the game for that, but Temple, Pittsburgh, Wake Forest and Boston College are those kinds of games, particularly if the Irish can build a bit of a lead. Making an effort to pace Schmidt a bit at this stage of the season, if the situation allows for it, wouldn’t hurt.
It’s sink or swim with Schmidt, and Notre Dame’s 13-2 record with him in the lineup means they’re swimming more than they’re sinking. You can see it if you’re willing to evaluate every play.
BROWN COMES OF AGE
He’s being a leader through his play and his confidence on the football field, particularly on third down. Chris Brown has gone to the forefront of Notre Dame’s senior class.
Will Fuller and C.J. Prosise get the headlines. DeShone Kizer is the center of attention because of his position and role within the offense. The offensive line was dubbed the backbone of the team as far back as last spring.
Another constant has emerged in Brown.
Although he obviously doesn’t produce the big-play numbers that Fuller does, it might surprise some to hear that Brown is just five receptions behind Fuller. Fuller has gained 702 yards and scored eight touchdowns on 32 receptions, which is significantly more productivity than Brown’s 27 catches for 355 yards and two scores.
What Brown does is help keep the chains moving, which gives Fuller and the Irish offense more opportunities to score later in the drive.
Brown had three receptions for 38 yards against USC, which doesn’t sound like much. But consider that his first catch was a 19-yarder on a 1st-and-20. Prosise picked up the first down on 2nd-and-1 and then scored on a 25-yard run.
Brown’s two other grabs were a seven-yarder on 3rd-and-3 (Torii Hunter fumbled later in the drive) and a 12-yard grab on 3rd-and-9 in which he ran the talented Iman Marshall off the football and came back nicely to the throw, extending his hands high along the Irish sideline for the first down. The Irish kicked a field goal in that drive to make it a 24-10 Notre Dame lead.
When it comes to pure hands catching the football, Brown is the most consistent of Notre Dame’s receivers.
In addition to making plays, Brown is playing with the swagger of a senior who knows he’s good and expects to make plays. He’s playing a more aggressive brand of football than he did in his previous three years. He expects to make big-time plays and wants the football.
While Fuller has become Notre Dame’s dominant receiver, Brown has become Notre Dame’s reliable receiver, which throws another pebble on the pile of offensive assets stacking up for the Irish.
BACKING UP THE TALK
No one talks a better game than Irish cornerback KeiVarae Russell. No one backed it up better last week than Russell, who welcomed the challenge of facing JuJu Smith-Schuster and Adoree’ Jackson, picked up a couple battle scars along the way, but ultimately made the plays that helped Notre Dame dominate the last 25 minutes of the game.
He was beaten early on a deep ball to Smith-Schuster, and like all cornerbacks, sometimes he doesn’t present enough of a physical barrier to stop those big, fast, hard-charging running backs coming around the corner or those wide receivers galloping around the secondary.
It’s harder than ever to be a cornerback. The passing game is second nature compared to what it was a generation ago when power running games were still the offensive style of choice.
The proliferation of 7-on-7 football throughout the country has become a factor, and while defensive backs get more off-season work against the pass than they used to, it’s hard staying up with 6-foot-4, 225-pound gazelles when quickness – and thus, less size – is accentuated at the cornerback position.
Russell has made a move the last couple weeks, seemingly shaking off the rust of a missed season, supporting very well in the run game and now, against the Trojans, coming up with a pair of game-changing pass-defense plays that propelled Notre Dame to victory.
Truth be told, Russell’s interception with 8:18 left and the Irish leading, 38-31, could have turned out much worse had Cody Kessler taken advantage of Smith-Schuster’s inside position on Russell. But the ball drifted more towards Smith-Schuster’s back (left) shoulder, which allowed Russell – working the outside coverage technique – to drift across Smith-Schuster’s back shoulder and make an athletic snag for his first interception since the Pinstripe Bowl against Rutgers in 2013.
It should be noted that Russell’s pick against the Trojans was just the fourth of his career, so it’s not like one could expect Russell to lead the team in interceptions this year with half-dozen. He had just three in two seasons combined.
What made Russell’s tipped pass over the middle that popped into the air and into the hands of Max Redfield so impressive was the ground Russell made up. When Kessler released that pass, Russell was several strides away from the passing lane. By the time it reached the receiver, Russell got a hand on it.
Russell decisively won two plays in a three-snap sequence, which not only allowed Notre Dame to win, it prevented USC from making the plays it needed to snatch a win. That’s big-time, difference-making football, which is how you stay alive for a playoff spot seven games into the season.
AROUND THE GRIDIRON
What a long, long week for Pat Haden…Great call on pass interference penalty on wide receiver DeQuan Hampton against Cole Luke. The right – and fortuitous – call, otherwise USC scores for the third time in first four possessions…Sheldon Day suffered a left ankle tweak when he was basically tackled from behind and had his toe pointing into the ground when someone landed on it. There were two holds on the play, one by each offensive tackle. They called it on left tackle Chad Wheeler, but Zach Banner held Isaac Rochell, too…Love the swing passes to C.J. Prosise. Torii Hunter, Jr.’s open-field blocking has become a weapon for Notre Dame. It doesn’t take much to spring Prosise…It’s all about technique on Torii Hunter, Jr.’s second-quarter fumble. Holding the football loose in his left arm, he wasn’t even close to protecting the football. He probably was thinking about reaching for the end zone with both hands wrapped around the football. But before he could get a firm grasp with two hands, he held it loosely with his left arm, and Adoree’ Jackson made a great play... Excellent sudden-change defense after Hunter, Jr. fumble. Three-and-out, which leads to a field goal…C.J. Sanders gets pin-balled around out there. But he’s another asset. His 25-yard punt return began with a broken tackle. His 50-yard punt return for a score against UMass certainly won’t be his last…Alex Bars didn’t believe it was a false start. He even talked to the center judge, John Love, because he didn’t think he moved early. It was interesting to see Kizer come over and put a hand on his shoulder and pat him on the back, and then Ronnie Stanley counseled him…Speaking of bad breaks, Bars suffered a fractured right ankle because Stanley blocked the hell out of Delvon Simmons and Simmons went sprawling backwards, right onto Bars’ left ankle…
Sometimes Prosise’s patience hurts him, which explains the high number of “stuffs” in his game. His patience is a virtue when he gets an additional sliver to maneuver; a detriment when he waits and there’s simply no room to run…Great job by Josh Adams of continuing to bring his legs after banging up the middle. He bounced off the left shoulder of defensive tackle Delvon Simmons, who was being blocked by Stanley, and then Adams churned his legs out of the rubble for a 26-yard run to the USC three…Terrible blocking by Tyler Luatua on Su’a Cravens at the five-yard line. Not only did he fail to win the block, he was called for holding…How many times can safety Marvell Tell grab Aliz’e Jones on his corner route before a hold or interference is called? Three times apparently isn’t enough...Te’von Coney getting a little chippy on kick coverage. Fine work by the Irish freshman on a couple of occasions…Aliz’e Jones shows some tenacity on a short reception…Good no late-hit call on Sanders’ kickoff return along the USC sideline. Contact was made while in the field of play. Right personal foul call on Sheldon Day, who initiated contact along the USC sideline well after the runner was out of bounds.…That wasn’t a hands to the face penalty on center Toa Lobendahn; it was a horse collar tackle of Jerry Tillery…Agree with Irish Illustrated’s Tim O’Malley. Call two timeouts and save the third with 20 seconds left in the first half in case you block it or Alex Wood misses it. Of course, it worked, so you have to say it was a successful decision…Wow, Brian Kelly didn’t mince words at halftime with Kathryn Tappen, did he? He was pretty clear in saying his players screwed it up...
Look at Daniel Cage making a play on Ronald Jones in the backfield after beating right guard Viane Talamaivao. He later strung a play out, kept outside leverage and his outside arm free, and stopped the speedy Ronald Jones for a one-yard gain. A flash of how good Cage can be…Jarrett Grace draws a facemask penalty. More productivity from the fifth-year senior who also played a role in the blocked punt…Andrew Trumbetti drew Zach Banner into a false start…Romeo Okwara lined up in outside linebacker coverage on wide receiver Deontay Burnett, and then chased him all the way across the field. Not a good matchup…Fascinating to see the anxiety on the face of Montgomery VanGorder as he signaled in the double pass from Kizer to Hunter to Jones…Nice job by Kizer on Justin Yoon’s second field goal. Daly gave him a high, hard fastball which he handled well enough to place it down in rhythm for Yoon’s game-clinching boot…Brian Kelly, not happy with Tyler Luatua when Notre Dame has to call timeout on 3rd-and-4 with 3:56 remaining…Redfield’s hit on Deontay Burnett in the final series was mammoth…We need to ask about Elijah Shumate next chance we get, which is not for another week with the bye week. Shumate took a nasty blow to his right shoulder/neck/head on a pass breakup on tight end Tyler Petite in the final series and came off the field…Flashback: Brian Kelly in L.A. Coliseum locker room after Notre Dame’s 49-14 loss to USC last year. “We’ve got a plane ride home for you to think about where you want to be next year,” said Kelly to his team, “because we’re not going to be this team.” He was right and he made it happen.