Just when you thought all the points had been made about the defensive performance/decision-making against Texas, additional angles keep popping up.
• Personnel: The Irish were reportedly in Cover 3 on the 72-yard touchdown pass to speedster John Burt. There should be two options and two options only in the match-up with the NCAA championship 110-meter hurdle qualifier: either veteran Cole Luke or the speediest Irish cornerback, Shaun Crawford. Instead, it was sophomore Nick Coleman, playing in his first real game action in a Notre Dame uniform.
Additionally, if you’ve decided a three-man front is the best approach against Texas, it would make more sense to have 6-foot-3, 286-pound defensive end Jonathan Bonner in the game as opposed to 6-foot-3½, 252-pound Andrew Trumbetti flailing around against offensive tackles who easily gain leverage against him.
Trumbetti played 63 snaps against Texas; Bonner took 14.
• Goal Line: In overtime, after Avery Sebastian was inadvertently kicked in the head by Jerry Tillery, the Irish brought in 5-foot-11½, 195-pound Jalen Elliott – a freshman making his collegiate debut – instead of 6-foot-1, 225-pound Drue Tranquill, who apparently was benched for being in the wrong coverage on a 68-yard pass to Jerrod Heard in the first half.
As it pertains to the big play allowed by Tranquill…If Tranquill – one of the smartest and most dedicated players on the team – is confused by the coverage that was called, then the communication of what defense should be employed is lacking.
• Red Zone Defense: In 2014, Notre Dame’s red-zone defensive touchdown percentage – the only real red-zone stat that matters for a defense – ranked 116th (70.0 percent). In 2015, it was 95th (65.8 percent). In one game this year, the Irish also rank 95th (85.7 percent) after Texas converted seven red-zone appearances into six touchdowns.
• Goals: The job of the defensive coordinator is to find a mesh point with your own offense and do the best job possible of keeping points down. The goal is not to have the largest inventory of defense in the country.
• False Hope?: From Brian Kelly’s press conference Tuesday: “We have to say, ‘Okay, what can these guys do and what can’t they do,’ and let’s maximize what their strengths are instead of saying, ‘Hey, we love this, we want to do this, we want to do that.’ (It has to be) we can’t do those things in certain situations. It’s knowing our personnel moving forward and accentuating the things defensively that we do well.”
The key phrase there is “moving forward,” which means we should see a shift in the defensive approach beginning with the Nevada game. Considering it will be Game 28 of the defensive regime, it’s a tad past due.
And yet Kelly said he would not intervene with the defensive decision-making, which means it’s up to a mostly inflexible defensive coordinator to make decisions that prevent big plays and put an end to the confusion that continues to plague the players on the field.
• Personnel II: If the argument is that Notre Dame does not have enough talent/productivity along the defensive front, it’s difficult to disagree, at least as it pertains to playoff-caliber personnel. And yet if personnel is the issue, it would behoove the defensive coordinator to provide more than a cursory effort on the recruiting trail to improve the talent base.
• Tackling: Obviously, tackling 250-pound running backs and 250-pound quarterbacks is not easy, but it was a poor tackling game by the Irish against the Longhorns. You’ll have that when there’s an over-emphasis on scheme.
The challenge this weekend will be Nevada’s 5-foot-9, 200-pound James Butler, who rushed for 1,342 yards and 10 touchdowns a year ago. He added another 123 yards on 21 carries against Cal Poly last weekend despite the fact that the Mustangs loaded the box and dared quarterback Tyler Stewart to throw, which he did a modest 23 times.
Butler is more shifty than power, which requires solid tackling technique.
By naming DeShone Kizer the starter this week against Nevada – the only decision Kelly could make without prompting a full-scale riot – he actually clarified his comments a day earlier about the role the No. 2 quarterback must play and whom he was speaking of.
“If you can’t accept the role, then you need to move out of the way and let somebody go into that role that can accept it and prepare themselves accordingly, so when they are called upon, they’re ready to play,” Kelly said. “So to me, it’s really all about the attitude.”
He wasn’t talking about Kizer.
It will be interesting now to see how Malik Zaire reacts to the news of Kizer’s starting assignment against Nevada. If he can’t accept the role and, more importantly, isn’t in the right frame of mind when he’s “one play away,” Kelly may have to scrap the plan to preserve a year of eligibility for Brandon Wimbush in ’16.
The reality almost assuredly is that Zaire is just passing time until he earns his undergraduate degree in December and moves on to another school for his fifth year of eligibility.
This has Everett Golson Part II written all over it.
RESPONDING TO THE CHALLENGE
As outstanding as Kizer has been in his 12 career starts and winning relief performance against Virginia last season, the offense has not been consistent when it comes to responding to the challenge of an opponent’s score.
Irish Illustrated’s Scoring Drive Response (SDR) statistic in 2015 was surprising in that the offense matched or exceeded the opposition’s points in the ensuing drive just 20 out of 44 times. Against Texas last week, Notre Dame scored just two out of five times following a Longhorn score.
In fact, it was pretty much feast or famine for the offense against the Longhorns. The feast was the three touchdowns in four drives with the fourth the missed field goal by Justin Yoon.
In Notre Dame’s five touchdown drives in regulation against Texas, the Irish gained 320 yards on 37 plays for a phenomenal 8.6 yards per snap. In the four other drives led by Kizer, the Irish managed a mere 43 yards and three first downs on 18 snaps.
An offense can’t score every time, and it’s certainly not all on Kizer. The offensive line has to do its part and the young receiving corps must run precise, assertive pass routes, which didn’t happen late in regulation against Texas.
Of course, when you know that you could be back on the field in a heartbeat because the opposition has gone 75 yards in two plays, the offense has the pressure to score on an every-series basis.
COACH VS. MEDIA
If you want to see how not to deal with the media/fans following an overtime victory against a FCS school, check out Nevada head coach Brian Polian’s press conference after the Wolfpack’s 30-27 extra-session victory over Cal Poly.
Polian went on the defensive in his opening statement, saying that “you don’t know football if you think” difficult games against triple-option shouldn’t happen. He also peppered his contentious exchange by making statements beginning with, “People want to say…”
The game is difficult enough without concerning yourself with every little thing “people” think, particularly when you have a 19-20 career mark with a program that won 27 games in the three seasons prior to your arrival.
Polian’s a good enough coach to get things turned around in Nevada. He’s built a foundation with a strong rushing attack. Yet the rope an athletic administration has with coaches who light fires at every turn gets shorter and shorter with each passing day.
It will be interesting to hear Polian’s comments after Notre Dame hangs half-a-hundred on the Wolfpack this weekend. The Irish should be good for at least 250 yards rushing against a Nevada defensive front that is ill-prepared for a physical battle in the trenches.
AGAINST ALL ODDS
• Over 59½ UTEP at Texas
• Michigan -35½ vs. Central Florida
• Under 45 South Carolina at Mississippi St.
Season Record: 2-1