FULLER’S GRAND FINALE
The stat sheet said six catches for 113 yards and a touchdown in Will Fuller’s last game in an Irish uniform, which was about par for the course. The brilliant 81-yard touchdown highlighted Fuller’s performance, which means his other five receptions netted just 32 yards. Credit to the Buckeyes for limiting Fuller about as much as a defense was capable of limiting him over a brilliant 26-game stretch.
During the last two seasons, Fuller caught 138 passes for 2,352 yards (17.0-yard average) and 29 touchdowns. He scored at least one touchdown in 21 of those 26 games. That’s a ton of productivity to be made up in his and Chris Brown’s absence in 2016 following Fuller’s announcement that he will enter the pro ranks.
The 81-yard touchdown was vintage Fuller. He got a five-yard cushion before the snap from cornerback Gareon Conley. Fuller pushed hard off the snap and ran an effective stop route, catching the football at the 32 – 13 yards from the line of scrimmage. The remaining 68 yards were typical Fuller.
When he caught the pass, Conley was two-and-a-half yards away from Fuller. Fuller took the inside route; Conley reacted initially as if Fuller was taking it to the sideline. Conley lunged at Fuller at the 35, but Fuller eluded his grasp, staggered to stay on his feet, and then jettisoned past linebacker Darron Lee with safety Vonn Bell chasing from about 10 yards to Fuller’s left.
Even with a bum left ankle – you could see him favoring it a bit along the way – Fuller was on the way to his eighth 45-yard-plus touchdown of the season. (That bum ankle may have been another reminder of how fragile a football player’s career can be.)
Why did Fuller turn pro? Wouldn’t he have benefitted from another year in college where he could shore up his suspect small hands?
Probably. But when Fuller sat down to assess his decision, he likely concluded the following: I am a breakaway threat who never gets caught from behind. If I have the slightest opening, as I’ve proven over two full seasons, I am gone. I was a dominant presence on the college football field for two full seasons. I beat the best here and I can beat the best on the next level.
The iron was hot and Fuller figured he was ready for the next level, suspect hands and all. Add it all up and it’s a difficult decision to vehemently criticize. His hands can’t be that bad when you put up the numbers Fuller did.
WATKINS DOES HIS JOB
It was clear from the outset that Notre Dame’s defense was going to give cushion to Ohio State wide receivers Michael Thomas, Jalin Marshall, Braxton Miller et al and prevent anything deep from occurring behind them. That’s not really Ohio State’s game anyway, so ironically, this proved to be a pretty good opponent for sophomore cornerback Nick Watkins to make his starting debut against.
There certainly were no glaring weaknesses in Watkins’ performance, and in fact, there were a few instances when he really stepped forward and performed like a player with experience and real toughness.
The highlight of Watkins’ performance came on a 2nd-and-12 run by quarterback J.T. Barrett, who kicked it to his right and had Watkins in the open field one-on-one near the Ohio State sideline. Watkins’ response was textbook. Before making a move on Barrett, he squared him up and then attacked Barrett in the lower body, throwing an aggressive body block into the Ohio State quarterback and wiping him out after a short gain.
He also whacked Marshall on a Barrett pass thrown well over his head and came up to support aggressively after a Thomas catch. Watkins certainly showed good tackling fundamentals in the open field.
Predominately, however, he gave plenty of cushion to the Ohio State receivers. The Irish seemed to use him in press coverage more as the game unfolded. He provided blanket coverage on Marshall in the end zone in the first half out of press coverage (that could have been called interference).
Watkins was fortunate Thomas didn’t catch a post-corner route pass in the end zone that would have made it a 42-21 game. Watkins pressed at the line, got a good jab to the chest with his left hand off the snap, and then took the post portion of the route away from Thomas. Thomas peeled off to the corner and gained some separation on Watkins as just about all good receivers will. Barrett’s pass was right on the hands of Thomas, who made a rare drop.
But when you add it all up, by no means did this look like a first major contribution/start by Watkins. Clearly, there is a ton to build on, particularly with Watkins’ 6-foot-0 ¼, 200-pound frame.
TRUMBETTI GIVES IRISH A BOOST
It was by no means a strong follow up sophomore season to a promising rookie campaign for Andrew Trumbetti.
The 6-foot-3 ½, 260-pound Trumbetti – who plays much lighter than those numbers indicate – was asked to make a difficult transition this season as the backup to “big end” Isaac Rochell. The more ideal spot for Trumbetti was the rush end position manned by Romeo Okwara.
But when Okwara came on like gangbusters the second half of the ’15 season, there wasn’t much playing time left for Trumbetti, who came into the game with some very modest numbers – 12 tackles, half a tackle for loss, zero sacks – after a rookie season in which Trumbetti totaled 21 tackles, 5 ½ tackles for loss and a sack.
One could say Trumbetti was trending up as the regular season came to a close with his important 28-yard interception return for a score against Wake Forest, and the elevation to the starting lineup for the Fiesta Bowl with Sheldon Day’s foot injury necessitating the move of Rochell inside frequently against the Buckeyes.
Trumbetti responded against Ohio State, although he – along with the rest of Notre Dame’s defensive front seven – showed itself vulnerable to the run at times, which has been Trumbetti’s most limiting factor halfway through his collegiate career.
But Trumbetti hung in there against the Buckeyes, finishing with four solo tackles, a sack, two tackles for loss and a pair of quarterback hurries. As the game transpired, Trumbetti began showing up around the football more and more, prompting ESPN play-by-play man Sean McDonough to rave over Trumbetti’s performance.
Among the standout plays by Trumbetti was a beautiful job of slipping between two blockers and stopping J.T. Barrett for a one-yard gain. He discarded running back Ezekiel Elliott to make his first sack of the season. He teamed up with James Onwualu to sack Barrett in the fourth quarter as the Irish forced one of three field goals.
It must be mentioned for accuracy’s sake that some of Trumbetti’s most effective plays came about when he was unblocked. In fact, the sack for which he was credited saw Trumbetti assess the situation as no Buckeye accounted for him before converging on Barrett. He also was unblocked on a stop of Elliott for a two-yard loss from the backside. To his credit, he had great get-off on the play and tracked down Elliott.
With Okwara out the door, Trumbetti becomes the heir apparent at the rush end position, which is his most natural fit. He’ll enter the spring of ’16 as the only notable pass-rushing threat on the roster with a mere two sacks to his name. But it clearly was a step forward for Trumbetti from the Wake Forest game through the Fiesta Bowl.
KICK RETURN/COVERAGE DISASTER
Short of Ohio State turning some of their punt and kick returns into longer gains or scores, Notre Dame’s special teams were about as bad as they could be with a full month of preparation.
It should be noted that one of the all-time great head coaches, Urban Meyer, takes charge of his special teams and it shows. The Buckeyes came into the game No. 3 in kickoff coverage, allowing an impressive 16.7 yards per attempt, which they improved by half a yard to end the season on the strength of limiting C.J. Sanders and the Irish return game to a mere 60 yards on five returns with a long of 17.
Meanwhile, Ohio State’s punt (Jalin Marshall) and kick (Marshall and Curtis Samuel) returners were running around like they were frolicking in an open meadow against Notre Dame’s coverage teams. On the kickoff following Will Fuller’s 81-yard touchdown, Marshall fielded the football at the goal line and was not touched by a Notre Dame defender until Matthias Farley got an arm on him at the 29. The return was 36 yards.
On all five of Sanders’ returns, contact was made by an Ohio State coverage team member no further upfield than the 10. It should be noted that the Buckeyes have a real weapon in kickoff man Jack Willoughby who, when he wasn’t knocking kickoffs out of bounds, which he did twice, was sending high arcing kickoffs to the goal line or just inside the end zone, prompting Sanders to hesitate on a couple of occasions. Willoughby’s hang time gave Ohio State that extra second of coverage.
But Willoughby’s hang time and Sanders’ hesitation probably didn’t matter since Ohio State’s coverage unit overran the back end of Notre Dame’s return team.
• Return No. 1: First contact with Sanders at the 10. Notre Dame was out-numbered from the outset. Doug Randolph was a turnstile on this one, and Nic Weishar was a spectator without any physical contact made with an opposing player. The drive started at the 12.
• Return No. 2: Sanders’ lead man, Josh Adams, was so intent on running to his right to set up the wedge that he allowed Denzel Ward to run right by him with contact made at the 10. The drive started at the 13.
• Return No. 3: Sanders caught the kickoff a yard deep in the end zone and hesitated. First contact was made at the nine. Randolph brush-blocked Dante Booker, who got a hand on Sanders. The relentless pursuit caught up quickly and Sanders had his longest of five returns – 17 yards.
• Return No. 4: Sanders caught the ball just barely into the end zone…and hesitated again. Nyles Morgan could not handle Ward, who made first contact with Sanders at the eight. Adams was a non-factor because he was trying to coerce Sanders to stay in the end zone, and thus, was in no position to offer a block.
• Return No. 5: Sanders caught it at the one and began to bring it upfield. Adams was turned sideways when Sanders made his initial ascent upfield. Once again, Ward easily defeated Morgan, and when Booker converged, he was unblocked because Randolph barely got a hand on him back at the 21. The drive started at the 13.
Notre Dame lost field position for four quarters due to shoddy kick return and kick coverage units that allowed three kick returns of 88 yards – just shy of 30 yards per attempt – and four punt returns of 73 yards (18.2-yard average).
Meyer makes sure his special teams units are on top of their game. In the process, they made Notre Dame’s special teams look disorganized and fundamentally poor.
DAY BATTLES THROUGH
In the last Tale of the Tape in which defensive lineman Sheldon Day will be featured, let the record show that this guy was the ultimate warrior for the Irish with a relentless motor, guts and determination, as well as a bright future ahead on the next level.
Day should be known heretofore as one of Notre Dame’s all-time great interior defensive linemen who led by word and deed as he came out of his shell from his early days to become a true leader for the Irish.
Day’s efforts against Ohio State were nothing short of heroic. He suffered what Brian Kelly thought was a broken foot earlier in the week. And yet Day was in the starting lineup for the Irish, played a vast majority of the snaps – Jonathan Bonner spelled him on occasion – and finished with four tackles, a tackle for a loss, a forced fumbled (on the play in which Jaylon Smith was injured) and two passes broken up at the line of scrimmage.
Day’s game improved as he got into the flow. Early on, and certainly at various parts of the game, Day simply was unable to explode and get off blocks, lacking the mobility to do so. Every now and then, he’d rise up and slice through a gap, which was his trademark the last two seasons. But it required real guts for Day to fight through as he did against one of the nation’s most stout offensive lines.
The overall performance against Ohio State was not the way Day should be remembered. But his effort and willingness to put it on the line with a badly damaged right foot is a lasting image worth holding on to. While some players choose to protect their individual interests over obligation to the team, Day always put the team first. What an absolute warrior.
THE SMITH INJURY
It was a tragic ending to a brilliant three-year career at Notre Dame for linebacker Jaylon Smith. The first quarter left knee injury is, by the accounts that have filtered back to Irish Illustrated, a very significant one with an ACL tear just part of the damage done when he jabbed that leg into the ground trying to regain his balance from left tackle Taylor Decker’s block.
Smith had been blocked to the ground and jumped back up to get into the play, perhaps realizing that Day had popped the ball free from Barrett and there was, ever so briefly, a loose football. Decker could see Smith getting ready to bounce back up and was prepared to engage Smith as soon as he got to his feet. Contact was made to the right back of Smith, but that’s not a block in the back per se. It was the only place Decker could make contact with Smith as he got to his feet, which sent Smith sprawling forward trying to make regain his balance.
You could see on Smith’s face that he knew it was serious, and yet in typical Smith fashion, he saluted the adoring Notre Dame fans as the cart wheeled him off the field and into the locker room for further examination. When Smith returned to the field a bit later, there was Notre Dame Vice President/Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick and injured running back Tarean Folston by his side.
It’s a lousy way for the greatest off-the-edge linebacker in Notre Dame history to end his time with the Irish. As Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson stated, Smith can draw a paycheck rehabbing in the NFL as opposed to rehabbing at Notre Dame his senior year, a season in which he almost undoubtedly would not be physically prepared to play, at least at the outset.
A salute to one of the greatest if not the greatest athlete ever to play defense at Notre Dame.
JONES BATTLES THROUGH TOUGH RETURN
The return to the football field after missing 14 games was a difficult one for senior nose tackle Jarron Jones, who will be back for a fifth year in 2016.
He will be remembered for the penetration he made against right guard Pat Elflein and then running through Ezekiel Elliott to disrupt J.T. Barrett, whose deflected pass was picked off by Joe Schmidt.
The fact of the matter is Jones had a very tough day in the trenches against center Jacoby Boren, left guard Billy Price and right guard Pat Elflein.
It appeared Jones’ first snap would come on the last play of the first quarter. Then the Buckeyes let the first-quarter clock run out and Jones was not on the field to start the second quarter. Jones would be back on the field for the third play of the second quarter and immediately stopped Barrett with Romeo Okwara on a three-yard gain.
Jones was predominately ineffective for the 15 or so snaps he had in the game. He did not show much suddenness – which is not a strength to begin with – and only occasionally got some push in the middle, most notably on the interception. By and large, however, he was stonewalled by the interior of Ohio State’s offensive line.
Here were the notes taken as each of Jones’ snaps were analyzed…Stymied by Boren. Double-teamed by Price and Boren. Stymied by Elflein. Stood up by Boren and can’t move. Doubled by Price and Boren. Taken out at the knees by Elflein. Can’t get off Boren’s block on Elliott’s five-yard run…
Credit to Jones for battling back and getting himself in position to make a contribution, which he did by his mere presence on the field. But it was a tough day for the 6-foot-5 ½, 315-pounder. The stat keepers at the game left him off the stat sheet, which is inaccurate. But his productivity came in limited doses.
KIZER COMPLETES FIRST JOURNEY
By the fourth quarter of the Fiesta Bowl, red-shirt freshman quarterback DeShone Kizer looked as if the battery had run out of juice, as if the gas gauge had hit empty. A pass to Amir Carlisle down the middle skipped five yards in front of the Irish receiver.
Moments later, Kizer found Aliz’e Jones for 17 yards. A forced fumble on a sack by Darron Lee put an end to the day for Kizer, whose 22-of-37 passing for 284 yards was much more difficult than the final numbers indicate.
Kizer was resilient. He skipped a pass to Chris Brown, and then found Corey Robinson on three straight plays of 14, 12 and 15 yards. He overshot Carlisle in the end zone by a long shot before connecting with Brown on a 3rd-and-3 for a red-zone touchdown. He threw a very awkward-looking out pattern to Fuller backed up near the end zone as he took the snap under center, which is a rarity. He overshot Brown on a deep ball, perhaps fearing safety help converging. He succumbed to pressure on sacks by Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard as the Irish once again were backed up near their goal line.
Notre Dame scored touchdowns on all three of their red-zone appearances, which was tremendous improvement for Kizer and the offense, including a one-yard touchdown run after sprinting 14 yards to the one before getting bumped out of bounds.
As ESPN’s Chris Spielman correctly pointed out, Kizer was schemed into his second interception of the day – the only one that counted because of the targeting penalty against Joey Bosa on the first one. (And yet after the interception that wasn’t, he found Brown over the middle for 19 yards.)
On the interception that counted, he was schemed into thinking it was man coverage, which it was for everybody but safety Tyvis Powell. The Buckeyes were man-up on Fuller and Carlisle to the right, but Kizer didn’t account for a roaming Powell, who had pealed off attention to Robinson on the opposite side of the field as Powell realized Kizer would be throwing to his right.
The most inexplicable move by the Irish offensive brain trust was occasionally rolling Kizer to his right. This was a noted shortcoming in Kizer’s game by Brian Kelly in the days leading up to the Fiesta Bowl. Why the Irish would roll their protection with Kizer after Bosa was no longer in the game is a bit inexplicable.
Yes, Lewis came into the game with seven sacks and added another one. But Lewis’ effectiveness, by and large, was created by Bosa’s presence on the field the last 11 games of the regular season. Kizer sitting in the pocket and taking the chance with Ohio State’s pass rush would have been the most prudent course of action.
As for the upcoming battle between Kizer and Malik Zaire, that’s an in-depth analysis for another time. ESPN’s Sean McDonough indicated that Kelly said he’d like to get both on the field in 2016. But as Spielman noted, two-quarterback systems have failed an overwhelming majority of the time. We’ll see which direction the quarterback position takes as we head into the spring.
ELLIOTT’S BIG RUN
Notre Dame had just shaved Ohio State’s lead to 28-21 midway through the third quarter when the Irish defense needed to stem the tide against the Buckeyes. But Ezekiel Elliott’s 47-yard touchdown run signaled once and for all that Notre Dame would not have enough offense or defense to overcome.
It was a beautifully-designed play, but yet another one that exemplified the struggle the Irish had at safety as well as linebacker.
Braxton Miller motioned from right to left as if he were getting a jet sweep handoff/pass with tight end Nick Vannett lined up in the left slot just off the tackle. Vannett led the way on Jarrett Grace with Isaiah Prince sealing the right side while center Jacoby Boren and right guard Pat Elflein walled off the left to create the seam.
Chase Farris, a 310-pounder, eliminated Joe Schmidt from the play. Matthias Farley came up and engaged wide receiver Michael Thomas – 15 yards away from the point of attack. Elijah Shumate ran himself out of the play by chasing Barrett’s movement left as well as Miller’s jet sweep motion. In other words, the Irish safeties were so far off the point of attack that they had no chance to make the tackle on Elliott, let alone redirect him.
It was play that encapsulated Notre Dame’s safety play under Brian VanGorder over the last two seasons.
Additionally, Notre Dame’s defense couldn’t respond to its offensive prosperity. After the first Irish score, Ohio State scored a touchdown on an 11-play, 62-yard drive that lasted just 2:30. After the third Irish score, Ohio State marched six plays for 75 yards and a touchdown on a drive that lasted just 2:21. Notre Dame’s fourth touchdown was greeted by Ohio State’s 13-play, 42-yard field goal drive spanning 5:10.
THE BOSA IMPACT
We’ll never know what kind of impact Joey Bosa would have had in the Fiesta Bowl had he not been correctly ruled for a targeting penalty (by the letter of a rule, which obviously needs to be adjusted). But we do know what Bosa did in 12 snaps, and that was make four tackles and force Notre Dame to account for him whether he lined up inside or outside.
On the targeting penalty, Bosa had been blocked to the ground by right tackle Mike McGlinchey. But Bosa got up, McGlinchey didn’t stay vigilant with the block, and Bosa shot by McGlinchey to get a clean shot to Kizer’s chest.
For football observers, Bosa is a joy to watch. He has hands of stone with that tremendous forward lean. Offensive linemen struggle to get Bosa off of them, and he’s quick and strong enough to react to a punch, which proves mostly ineffective against him.
There’s no telling how Bosa’s presence would have impacted Notre Dames offensive output. But it would be a fair to speculate that the Irish wouldn’t have totaled 405 yards of offense and scored four touchdowns if the 6-foot-6, 275-pounder had been on the field for four quarters.
Now, he’s the NFL’s problem, and an almost certain top five pick, if not the No. 1 pick overall.
AROUND THE GRIDIRON
With the exception of Jarron Jones’ pressure that led to a Joe Schmidt interception, Notre Dame’s returning injured players were by and large non-factors. Tight end Durham Smythe was targeted twice, catching one pass for five yards, although that pass likely was intended for Chris Brown. C.J. Prosise played one snap and made a half-hearted attempt at a swing pass. One day shy of six weeks since suffering a severe high ankle sprain, it appeared Prosise’s motivation was already on the NFL level. Kelly’s dismissive response to a post-game Prosise question said volumes…Te’von Coney suffered a dislocated left shoulder stepping up to make a tackle on 225-pound J.T. Barrett. Our sources say he’ll miss the spring due to the injury…Love the shot of the Notre Dame band playing early in the second quarter with one band member, seemingly unconcerned with his fellow band members performing, eating lunch from a Styrofoam container…Nice job by Chris Spielman declaring the myth of the defensive back needing to look back at the ball for fear of an interference penalty. Face-guarding is not a penalty…If Justin Brent remains at Notre Dame, wouldn’t it make sense to move him back to wide receiver? The depth chart looks awfully skimpy without Fuller and Brown…Wasn’t that helmet-to-helmet contact by Vonn Bell against Kizer on the 14-yard run to the one?...
Great block by Josh Adams against Darron Lee on Kizer’s second-quarter touchdown…John Turner made a tackle on a late second-half kickoff…Daniel Cage picked up a tackle for loss, but Elliott was coming out of the trees and ran right into Cage…Chris Brown, blocking his butt off, on cornerback Eli Apple. An absolute warrior as a blocking wideout…At the very least, Gareon Conley held Will Fuller on the incomplete slant in the third quarter…Ohio State kicker Sean Nuernberger sure loves that inside left upright…A final tip of the cap to another Notre Dame warrior, Joe Schmidt, who gave everything he had to the cause. He finished his career with 13 tackles against Ohio State. Yes, he was overmatched many times in the running game. But his contributions to the program should be commended…Also a salute to a true Notre Dame man, Jarrett Grace, who overcame huge odds with countless hours of rehab from a truly horrific injury in 2013. He had an effective blitz on 3rd-and-7 with Andrew Trumbetti dropping back into zone coverage. He chased Braxton Miller on a 3rd-and-2 stop. He ran across the field to dump Ezekiel Elliott for a seven-yard loss. It took every ounce of energy Grace had to stay up with the pace of the game. We saw him exposed on a one-on-one isolation in the passing game against Curtis Samuel. It wasn’t pretty. In fact, it was downright ugly. But all the respect in the world for a true Notre Dame man who finished with nine tackles, including eight solo
Someone said to me that the handshake between Kelly to Meyer after the game wasn’t very cordial on Kelly’s part. Kelly hugged him, said something in Meyer’s ear, and patted him on the shoulder a couple of times. Short of planting a wet one on him, not sure what he was supposed to do…Many Notre Dame fans despise Urban Meyer because he spurned the Irish for Florida after Florida got the jump by firing its head coach midway through the season. Meyer comes across as aloof and presents an image that is easy for Notre Dame fans and many others to despise. Does he have leeway with athletes, first at Florida and now at Ohio State, that Notre Dame does not? No doubt about it. Would Notre Dame have prevented Elliott from playing in the Fiesta Bowl for his traffic accident with a suspended license? Doubtful for such a minor transgression. Meyer suspended key players along the way in ’15, including Barrett, Bosa and, of course, Adolphus Washington. Meyer is now 154-27 in his career. His winning percentage is just a tick below .851, which trails only Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy. Meyer isn’t a great coach because he gets all the breaks that coaches at Notre Dame do not. He’s a great coach because he is one of the most relentless coaches in the game with great attention to detail, much like Nick Saban. He’s earned the hate from those who have a rooting interest against him. He’s also an absolutely brilliant head coach, one of the best in the history of the game.