(Editor’s note: In an effort to make the weekly Tale of the Tape a less laborious read, we will attempt to tighten up the content and allow some of that commentary to spill over into Thursday’s Thoughts.)
WR CORPS COMES INTO FOCUS
The concussion suffered by Torii Hunter, Jr. in the second half of Notre Dame’s 50-47 double-overtime loss to Texas (see below) was a blow that will have personnel repercussions at least this week against Nevada and perhaps beyond. But the first-game performance of Notre Dame’s starting wideout trio was extremely encouraging.
The star of the unit was sophomore Equanimeous St. Brown, who caught the first two touchdown passes of the season from DeShone Kizer and finished with five catches for 75 yards. He was brilliant in his starting debut, except for a drop on a low throw late in the second quarter.
Hunter caught a modest four passes for 37 yards, but one went for a score amidst Notre Dame’s 21-0 run that erased a 17-point deficit. He also attracts attention when he’s not targeted.
Slot (Z) receiver C.J. Sanders, who was a difference-maker on special teams with a 40-yard punt return and a constant threat as a kick returner, caught three passes for 55 yards, including a 25-yard score on Notre Dame’s first snap in overtime. Another reception went for 24 yards. He has weave-through-traffic ability, which is why he’s a Z.
All 12 completions to Notre Dame’s starting wideout corps came from Kizer. (Malik Zaire’s two completions were to tight end Durham Smythe and running back Josh Adams.) That shows some early-season chemistry with Kizer, although freshman Kevin Stepherson (two targets, zero receptions), Miles Boykin (one target) and Corey Holmes (one target) will have to help pick up the slack in the absence of Hunter.
The blow to the head dished out by Texas safety DeShon Elliott to Hunter late in the third quarter was inexplicably not reviewed by the Big 12 replay official after the ACC refs on the field failed to make the call.
On Monday, Notre Dame inquired with the ACC supervisor of officials, Dennis Hennigan, whose office admitted that a targeting penalty should have been called.
It should be noted that it doesn’t have to be helmet-to-helmet contact for a blow to the head to be flagged for targeting. In addition to a helmet, a “forearm, hand, fist, elbow or shoulder” is enough to warrant a penalty. In this case, it appeared to be predominately helmet and at least some shoulder that caused Hunter’s head injury.
I mentioned this on Twitter and I’ll follow up. I was told during the off-season about the addendum to the rule this season that would allow the replay official to call a targeting penalty even if it not called on the field.
I also was told by a Power 5 conference official that there would be reluctance by the replay official to overrule the non-call on the field. In fact, he said the rule would have no effect because they would avoid overruling the on-field decision.
I don’t know what the reason for that is. They overturn other calls on the field. Not sure why this one would be different. But that’s what I was told, and it came to fruition sooner rather than later. (Note: Look for an upcoming response from a college football rules expert on The Four Horseman Lounge.)
It was a bit surprising to hear both Brian Kelly and Kizer openly question the decision after the game.
“Obviously, we’re very disappointed we lost Torii Hunter to a blow to the head,” Kelly said. “It wasn’t even reviewed, which doesn’t make sense to me…He certainly was hit in the head on that play in the end zone. It’s just unfortunate that it wasn’t officiated or reviewed in the manner I thought it should have been.”
Said Kizer: “I don’t know much about the rule and how that comes into play, but if there’s targeting on a defenseless receiver, that’s a replay you’re going to want to play over and over again.”
The Irish had plenty of opportunities to overcome the non-call, beginning with Justin Yoon’s 36-yard field goal attempt that was pawed by Texas’ Naashon Hughes.
The Irish took the lead with 10:57 left in the game, and the defense forced a four-and-out after that. The offense failed to reach Longhorn territory on its next drive, and then the defense – which held Texas scoreless for a 22-minute stretch after allowing four long touchdown drives – eventually succumbed on a 68-yard scoring drive, which ultimately led to overtime.
This play will force some adjustments to the mindset of the referee supervisors and replay officials across the country.
NOT WORTH A PLUGGED NICKEL
Notre Dame’s decision to go with three down linemen and nickel personnel against Texas was a surprise because it was common knowledge that the Longhorns liked to use their 6-foot-4, 249-pound quarterback (Tyrone Swoopes) and their 249- (D’Onta Foreman) and 252-pound (Chris Warren III) running backs extensively in the ground game.
It was no surprise when they combined for 51 carries. The 230 yards and four touchdowns, of course, were way more than acceptable.
The defensive personnel used was a surprise because one would think Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder would lean more heavily on a base defense against the Longhorns, particularly since Swoopes is quite scatter-armed in the passing game (he was 0-for-1 passing) and Shane Buechele was making his collegiate debut.
Kelly said after the game that the Irish went with their best personnel if not their best matchup. How ironic that last year, Notre Dame “couldn’t” use nickel without injured cornerback Shaun Crawford, and now, without Sheldon Day, Romeo Okwara and Jaylon Smith (and Jay Hayes), there was not a comfort zone to use base defense in the season-opener.
You’re in a world of trouble if you’re not confident in base defense against a power rushing attack.
Of course, the presence of a third cornerback, Nick Coleman, certainly wasn’t much help from the opening series when he missed a tackle along the sideline, and then was torched twice by John Burt, who handed one back to the Irish in addition to his 72-yard score.
What does the future hold against power rushing teams like Michigan State, Stanford and USC? Week 4 opponent Duke has a noteworthy offensive line. Virginia Tech and Miami do too.
What about Nevada?
This is what Irish Illustrated wrote this summer in our First-Rate series regarding the Wolf Pack’s offensive front.
“You better come ready to play against (the Nevada) offensive line. It’s a veteran group (four starters returning), albeit one a bit vulnerable to quality pass rushes. Last year’s group helped develop two 1,000-yard rushers. The depth is aided by the emergence of sophomore LG Sean Krepsz, who pressed incumbent Ziad Damanhoury in the spring.”
The Irish defensive line is not consistently stout. Isaac Rochell (nine tackles, three tackles for loss vs. Texas) certainly is. He’s a warrior and absolutely, positively, a player the Irish cannot do without.
But Jerry Tillery, Jarron Jones and Andrew Trumbetti don’t compete at a high enough level on a consistent basis, a la Rochell and Day. You have to be relentless play after play after play. Once they lose leverage, they have a tendency to cash it in.
That’s why it’s important the Irish get Jay Hayes back in the mix at right end. He’s a Rochell/Day-like competitor and one that offers more bulk than Trumbetti at right end, who can be overwhelmed by the size/leverage of offensive tackles.
AROUND THE GRIDIRON
• As is often the case with television broadcasts, the announcer will spot a negative play and talk about how that player was ineffective. It leaves a lasting impression that said player is not performing well.
It happened with Irish center Sam Mustipher, who had a snap infraction against Texas and, according to field reporter Holly Rowe, was warned a few more times.
The reality is that Mustipher had a helluva starting debut against Texas. He was physical, had the right forward lean/base, and had steady push on Texas interior defensive linemen Paul Boyette, Jr. and Poona Ford pretty much the whole game. He consistently won at the point of attack. There certainly was no “paralysis by analysis” for Mustipher in his first start.
Right guard Colin McGovern threw a key block on C.J. Sanders’ overtime touchdown. But he lacks some pop and physicality. The loss of Steve Elmer was felt against Texas and will be moving forward. Right tackle Alex Bars, making his third career start, was involved in several key blocks. He just needs to keep his weight under him, particularly as a pass blocker, where he has a tendency to lunge after initial contact. It needs to be “pop, gather, pop, gather” in pass blocking.
• Notre Dame needs Tarean Folston’s ball protection and power rushing style between the tackles. Do not give up on him – Notre Dame won’t -- even though he averaged just two yards per his 17 carries following his 54-yard run.
But some of those Folston carries need to go to sophomore Dexter Williams, who is developing some of Folston’s between-the-tackle characteristics, but also can bounce it outside, or better yet, break a tackle and get to the second level on a straight power run.
Josh Adams is the star of this unit. He played better than his 11-carry, 43-yard rushing effort indicates. He also caught three passes for 47 yards, including a touchdown. He’s a downfield threat, a threat on shovel passes and a nice safety valve option for Kizer. He also made a great play on a kickoff return that was stopped inside the 10-yard line.
• Nyles Morgan (13 tackles) is going to be a physical difference for the Irish at Mike linebacker. If he can get a path to the football, he will be a force. The key is the performance of the tackles in front of him. His ability to get off blocks, not surprising, is superior to Joe Schmidt’s. He is Notre Dame’s most violent hitter.
Also like the intelligence and scrappy nature of Sam linebacker James Onwualu (eight tackles). He is all-in to the cause. Green Martini has to be more effective at the point of attack. He “caught” more of his eight tackles than he initiated.
• Said it in the post-game Snap Judgments and won’t belabor the point. But Kizer sees the field better than Malik Zaire, has a better understanding of the offense and where his weapons are/will be. He has touch on his passes, precision, and a power running mode that gives the Irish all their running-game needs at quarterback.
Said ABC’s Todd Blackledge: “His ability to see and recognize and process quickly is what makes him special in this Notre Dame offense.”
• It was uncharacteristic for Tyler Newsome to “feel” for the football instead of banging his punts. That won’t continue. He’ll beat himself up all week and come back strong against Nevada. Three of his seven punts were returned for 30 yards, which indicates a lack of his usually outstanding hang time.
A bit surprised that Yoon beat him out for kickoff duties, although Yoon certainly showed more than enough leg, driving four of his six kickoffs into the end zone. Just don’t want him to become leg weary over the course of the season.
• Freshman safety Devin Studstill replaced Drue Tranquill in the second half. Yes, he played the role of trampled pylon on a Foreman run, just like many of his teammates. But Studstill stuck his nose in there, redirected Texas Jake Oliver on a pass route in the end zone, and was an active, around-the-ball presence. Don’t give up on Tranquill, especially if Avery Sebastian misses time with a head injury. But the Irish need Studstill’s ball skills and aggressiveness on the field.
• Obviously a tough night for Nick Coleman. Difficult for him or anyone to stay up with John Burt, who was an NCAA Championship qualifier in the 110-meter hurdles. But hate those pass interference calls against DBs when a receiver comes back to an underthrown ball and runs into the defender. That’s an interpretation of the rule that needs adjustment. What exactly is a defensive back supposed to do in those situations?
Interesting to see freshman Julian Love getting extensive playing time in the second half.
• While it’s great to have three tight ends leading the way on kick returns, blocking someone, anyone, would be helpful. Jacob Matuska, Durham Smythe and Nic Weishar didn’t leave a dent on either of Notre Dame’s first two kickoff returns vs. the Longhorns, which was a carryover of the special teams effort offered against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. They were tentative, lacked cohesion and seem confused as to their blocking assignments. It’s ridiculous that on this level, this doesn’t come together.
• They used to call it the Wildcat when a non-quarterback would be inserted into the lineup to take the direct snap. Now quarterbacks like Swoopes and Kizer take the snap and it’s 10 blockers on 11 defenders instead of nine blockers with the quarterback handing to the running back. That’s a big reason why it’s so effective. Being 249 (Swoopes) or even 230 pounds (Kizer) helps too.
• Nothing else to say other than Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson is a great football player in a multitude of ways against the run, against the pass and as a pass rusher. Props to Buechele as well for what a gamer he is as a true freshman. He hurt the Irish, too, by becoming a running threat late in the fourth quarter/overtime. The Buechele-Swoopes tandem works much better for Texas than the Kizer/Zaire duo does for Notre Dame. It’s just a better fit for what they want to do.
• We charted Notre Dame’s “scoring drive response” during the ’15 season and was surprised to see that the defense was much better in responding to a Notre Dame score than the offense was in responding to a defensive touchdown allowed.
Against Texas, the Irish offense had two wins and three losses in SDR. The defense had three wins and two losses. (Note: A win is an equal or better scoring/hold response to the previous drive.)
• Notre Dame has to find a way to include the tight ends in the passing game, although the balance of productivity among the three starting wideouts made it difficult against Texas.
• Todd Blackledge called Mike McGlinchey Notre Dame’s best offensive lineman. It’s Quenton Nelson. There were some growing pains – a hold in particular – in McGlinchey’s first start on the left edge. He’ll be fine as long as he moves his feet.
• Jarron Jones now has five blocked kicks in his career.