DEFENSIVE PLAN DELIVERS
It’s not something that will work every week. The Irish will have to be more aggressive with their defensive backs against certain opposition in the future, and probably play fewer players. They’ll have to start the game much sharper than they did against Syracuse in the eventual 50-33 victory.
But credit Brian Kelly, Greg Hudson, Mike Elston, Keith Gilmore, Todd Lyght, Jeff Burris and Bob Elliott for putting together a game plan against Syracuse that allowed just 165 yards total offense in the second half – 67 rushing and 98 passing.
The performance in the second half – with strong hints after the first quarter – probably didn’t change the perception in many people’s minds during those wild early moments, particularly after Amba Etta-Tawo out-fought freshman cornerback Julian Love on a deep ball and turned it into a 72-yard touchdown.
The Irish needed a winning formula against a real pain of an offense. The Orange came into the game averaging 496.5 yards total offense. They totaled 489 against the Irish. But the way Notre Dame forced Syracuse to distribute its offense and the way the Irish diminished the effectiveness of Dino Babers’ attack as the game wore on was impressive.
The goal was to come up with a game plan that could slow down the “Orange is the new fast” approach.
How did they do it?
• Keep-the-football-in-front coverage: The idea was to limit the big plays, and after the first play of the second quarter, the Orange never had a play of more than 20 yards.
Eric Dungey hit Ervin Philips for 25 yards on Syracuse’s first snap. The deep ball to Etta-Tawo came in its second series. The second-to-last play of the first quarter was a cross to Sean Riley for 23 yards. The first play of the second quarter was a 36-yarder to Steve Ishmael.
It became much more difficult for the Orange after that. Over the final three quarters, there were completions of 15, 14 and 14 yards in the second quarter, 15, 12 and 10 in the third quarter, and 13, 10, and 10 in the fourth quarter.
Those pass plays moved the chains. Syracuse finished with the same number of first downs as the Irish (25). But just 11 of those first downs came in the second half, and with the variety of looks the Irish gave Dungey up front, the plan unfolded well, particularly with help from an Irish offense that produced 654 yards.
Notre Dame’s safeties played two-deep most of the game. The corners didn’t press at the line of scrimmage. There was plenty of nickel coverage. Over the course of the game, the Irish got more creative with their fronts.
Credit for freshman Donte Vaughn on Etta-Tawo was ample after the game. The Irish/Vaughn forced Etta-Tawo to catch everything in front of the Irish secondary, so his other six receptions – besides the 72-yarder – netted just 62 yards.
In fact, with the exception of those four completions totaling 156 yards through the first snap of the second quarter (39.0 yards per reception), the other 27 completions totaled 315 yards, or 11.6 per grab.
• Three-man look: The Irish ran predominately out of a three-man front, especially early in the game, and then branched out with some off-the-edge pressures and a multitude of different looks for Dungey.
Combinations of Isaac Rochell, Jay Hayes, Jerry Tillery and Jonathan Bonner as ends in a three-man look with Jarron Jones and Daniel Cage splitting time at the nose frequently provided a good push up front. There was only one sack and two official quarterback hurries, but that’s deceiving.
There was a concerted effort by that group of ends – particularly Rochell, Hayes and Bonner – to really push up field and get the Syracuse offensive line on its heels.
The performance of Hayes and Bonner made the decision by Brian VanGorder to play them sparingly over the first four games look like a real mistake. They were bulls against tackles Michael Lasker and Jamar McGloster. Rochell leveraged those tackles into a retreat.
As the game progressed, the Irish sprinkled in more four-man looks with Andrew Trumbetti sometimes dropping into coverage, James Onwualu pressuring off the edge, and Nyles Morgan teaming up with Onwualu off the edge. Cornerback Cole Luke provided a rush from the outside in the second half as well.
• Linebacker aggression: We were high on Notre Dame’s linebacker corps coming out of camp, and while there have been moments in which they have lacked clarity, Nyles Morgan, Te’von Coney and Greer Martini have played some aggressive, physical football.
Morgan and Coney formed a physical tandem against Syracuse, and Martini was slamming into Orange ball carriers/pass receivers. (He plays a bit too upright at times, which causes some missed tackles.)
Onwualu assisted in Notre Dame’s eight-man pass coverage early, and then worked his way back up to the edge as the game progressed. He, along with Morgan, continued to be the heartbeat of this defense.
MULTIPLE FRONTS/3-MAN LOOKS
While the back-end coverage was very vanilla, the game plan devised up front was a bit more creative. When you’re playing a passing offense like this, you need help after the first wave. The Irish frequently had eight men in pass coverage.
It took them a while to catch up with the pace of the Syracuse offense, leading to early damage. But the three-man pass rushes were effective enough, which made the back end coverage that much more impactful.
The Irish front was a little jumpy as they ramped up the attack off the snap. Thus, there were four offside penalties early. Combined with the back-end philosophy, the Irish were able to limit the Orange to 3-of-15 on third down. That’s a notable accomplishment for a defense that had been reeling prior to taking on Syracuse, which had converted 48 percent on third down.
Syracuse did a ton of damage in the passing game on first and second down. Of the 15 pass plays that gained 10 yards or more, all but one came on first or second down. The defense was outstanding on third down – the money down – and that’s how you slow an attack like this and minimize the damage.
Daelin Hayes saw some time at end in four-man fronts. Khalid Kareem played end in a four-man look in the fourth quarter. As we saw of Hudson’s defense at Purdue, the Irish employed a lot of twists with their defensive ends curling under the tackles in four-man fronts.
ST. BROWN EXPLODES
Most expected X receiver Torii Hunter, Jr., to be Notre Dame’s go-to guy in the passing game this season. Five games into the 2016 season, it’s been Equanimeous St. Brown who has picked up the tag.
Hunter, of course, missed the Nevada game with a concussion. His 19 receptions have averaged 14.3 yards per catch with just one touchdown (vs. Texas). St. Brown, buoyed Saturday by his first two catches that netted 146 yards, has 25 receptions averaging 21.6 yards with six touchdowns, including at least one in all five games.
As the W receiver with length and greater ability to get downfield, St. Brown is in a better position to fill the Fuller role while allowing Hunter to work underneath.
St. Brown was spectacular against Syracuse, not only for the yards and scores he put up, but just his sheer go-for-it approach. On his 79-yarder to open the game, he saw a path to the end zone when he caught the football 63 yards from paydirt. He used his 6-foot-5 strides to shoot through the hole and run by four Syracuse defensive backs. There was no hesitation on his part. He attacked the opening.
St. Brown has developed a (sometimes) subtle use of his hands on defensive backs, which allows him to gain separation and then use his superior length to win the battle. That’s what happened on the 67-yarder as DeShone Kizer delivered a dime.
After his two big plays, St. Brown added two more receptions for 36 more yards. (It seemed like more.) He appeared to be threatening the Notre Dame all-time single-game mark for yardage (276 by Jim Seymour on 13 receptions vs. Purdue in 1966) with his 146 yards in the first half, but couldn’t keep up the pace as Kizer employed nine other pass-catchers.
RUNNING GAME WOES
Notre Dame’s inconsistency in the running game is a direct reflection of the attitude that often develops with a spread offense. You can’t just flip a switch. You can’t be a pass-first offense and then become a grind-it-out rushing attack.
Let the record show that Syracuse’s linebackers, although generally undersized, are a strength for the Orange, much like Notre Dame’s young corps of second-rung defenders has become.
Notre Dame’s 3-of-12 effort on third down has a direct correlation to its inability to convert 3rd-and-short situations. The problem in the red zone against Syracuse – the Irish converted just three red-zone penetrations into one touchdown – was the inability to account for Syracuse’s linebackers and safeties.
With a chance to go up 30-13 late in the first quarter, the Irish were 1st-and-goal at the Orange 10. Kizer ran to his left on first down for no gain. On second down, Kizer found room off the left edge and looked as if he would score. Left guard Quenton Nelson was out front and had a perfect opportunity to use his bulk and athleticism to wipe out cornerback Corey Winfield. Credit to Winfield, too, but Nelson couldn’t sustain his block and Kizer was bumped out of bounds at the two.
On third and fourth down, the Irish simply couldn’t get a hat-on-a-hat. There was not a blocker to account for middle linebacker Zaire Franklin on Josh Adams’ wide run right on third down, and Franklin hog-tied Adams’ ankles.
On fourth down, the Irish ran a jet sweep with Dexter Williams. Again, the Irish were short a hat, and strong safety Kielan Whitner sliced through the hole cleanly to stop Williams.
To be fair, the Irish played with backup right guard Hunter Bivin after the fourth offensive snap when Colin McGovern injured his ankle, or according to Kelly, aggravated a high ankle sprain. (Kelly said after the game that center Sam Mustipher also has been battling a high ankle sprain.)
But it happened again early in the fourth quarter, only to be bailed out by a well-blocked Kizer touchdown run. On the previous play, left tackle Mike McGlinchey brushed off the edge defender, allowing cornerback Corey Winfield and weakside linebacker Parris Bennett to hold Kizer to a one-yard gain.
The Irish did an extremely poor job accounting for Syracuse bodies inside the 10-yard line. Adding to the short-yardage woes is a tight end tandem that just does not block or play physically with any kind of consistency. The coaching staff apparently has made the decision that Tyler Luatua – a short-yardage blocker as a freshman and sophomore – does not provide more than what Durham Smythe and Nic Weishar can offer.
The punt coverage against Syracuse was dreadful in two instances, particularly with the Irish leading 33-20 late in the first half. After all the fireworks in the opening period, Notre Dame still had a chance to go into the locker room at the break with a 13-point lead. Then the Irish punted with under a minute remaining.
Greer Martini, Mark Harrell, Scott Daly and Nick Coleman all had shots at the elusive Brisly Estime, who is a quality punt returner. Harrell, an offensive lineman, had the most difficult challenge in space. But Martini missed the first crack. Daly – who has a ton of experience covering punts – missed the second. Coleman, trying to tackle high, was easily shed by Estime, and then was launched off the field by a Syracuse blocker.
Ever-present Chase Claypool emerged to make the tackle at the Irish 14, but the Orange were in the end zone two plays later and within six points at halftime.
There was the terrible effort by Smythe, Weishar and Jacob Matuska on C.J. Sanders’ opening-game tip-toe return. (Asmar Bilal lost contain to begin the gummed-up process.) There was also the 38-yard punt return by Brisly later in the game when Claypool missed an open-field tackle. Not one other coverage man was in position to help out a rare miss by Claypool.
To the tight ends credit, all three were stout on Sanders’ 93-yard kick return for a touchdown. (It was Nicco Fertitta who truly sprung Sanders to the outside.) But this was a very poor effort by the Irish, including another feel-for-the-football performance by punter Tyler Newsome (a la the Texas game) and a significant yank by Justin Yoon on a fourth-quarter field-goal attempt that prevented him from a three-for-three day.
Kudos to the ESPN broadcast team of Bob Wischusen and Brock Huard, who didn’t pull any punches when it came to Notre Dame’s overall inconsistency and the horrid defensive play by both teams.
Regarding defense in general, Huard offered this gem.
“Get used to it. I’m seeing defenses that are simply playing the defenses that are just drawn up on a card and they have no idea why they’re playing it, the responsibilities within it, or what the opponent is trying to do to attack it…
“Where have the good defenses gone? Many of the players want to play offense and many of them have no idea of the concept of team defense and what it should look like.”
After another early score, Huard simply said in disgust, “Goodness, gracious.” Wischusen compared it to his past experiences covering the Arena Football League.
AROUND THE GRIDIRON
• Little known fact: Through five games, Morgan is tied for 13th nationally with 29 solo tackles. Only five linebackers in the country have more.
• Notre Dame-Syracuse crossover: The Orange have Zaire Franklin, Devin Butler and Kendall Moore on their roster, all familiar names to Notre Dame.
• Julian Love was torched by Amba Etta-Tawo. But credit to Love for his outstanding job running interference for Cole Luke on Jarron Jones’ blocked extra point.
• There were so many big plays, we tend to forget the one Torii Hunter, Jr. caught and turned in to what appeared to be a 70-yard score. He was undercut by beleaguered Syracuse safety Cordell Hudson, but popped up and went the distance before the replay showed his shoulder/helmet touching the ground. Had the play counted, the Irish would have had 30 points within the first 6:08 of the game.
• Speaking of Cordell Hudson, not sure I can remember a defensive back getting abused as often as Hudson did…unless it was his game against Louisville game when the Cardinals scored 62 points.
• It was an active game for rarely-used linebacker Asmar Bilal, who ran by a Dontae Strickland 18-yard rush, but then filled the hole and dumped Strickland for a two-yard loss on the next play.
• A great individual play by Te’von Coney, who diagnosed a screen, fought through the block and made the tackle on Syracuse’s Devin Butler.
• It’s astonishing how many times the Irish defensive line is held without a call. They finally picked up their second holding call by the opposition this season. But Isaac Rochell was blatantly held on a three-man rush and didn’t get the call.
• This was a first: The sideways snap by the Syracuse long-snapper to rugby-style punter Sterling Hofrichter, which helps accommodate the style of punting that is, for better or worse, here to stay.
• As Brock Huard explained, by letter of the law, it was legitimately targeting on Devin Studstill.
• Why would Durham Smythe, Notre Dame’s starting tight end, receive a kickoff at the 28 with no defender within 10 yards of him and call for a fair catch? You can understand if it’s converted defensive lineman Jacob Matuska. But Smythe? Smythe has got to be more assertive as a pass receiver – he allowed himself to bumped out of bounds without much resistance – a blocker, and even on the kick return team when the ball comes his way.
• Kizer outweighs Syracuse’s two outside linebackers by 22 and 21 pounds respectively.
• A caused fumble by Notre Dame. It was the opening drive of the third quarter when Onwualu came off the right edge in a four-man rush following a Rochell-Tillery twist. First of the season.
• What a brilliant individual play by Dexter Williams on his 59-yard touchdown run. He was six yards behind the line of scrimmage when he saw the tunnel and went for it. Other than C.J. Sanders (and maybe Chase Claypool), no one on the Irish roster has that kind of burst.
• The last five times Notre Dame scored a touchdown, the defense forced a punt.
• After allowing three touchdowns in the first 16:38, it was just one touchdown over the next 26:30, and that was a two-play, 14-yard drive.