A closer look at the Irish defenders in Saturday's loss to Michigan:
- Toryan Smith – Lost a goal line collision with Brandon Minor on the game's first touchdown, making solid, low contact but somehow failed to wrap and drive Minor backwards…too often allowed the uncovered center to engage him (Smith stands and waits) as was the case on Minor's 32-yard carry up the gut…excellent pursuit to help take down Minor on a toss right on 3rd and goal…was consistently blocked cleanly by Michigan center David Molk…
- Brian Smith – Missed on the game's opening 3rd down blitz as Forcier easily eluded his full-speed pass rush…whiffed again on ensuing 1st and 10 (same fake by Forcier, whose ability in space and in the pocket was too much for Smith Saturday)…fought off a 1st Quarter block to make a nice stop on a screen pass…crushed and buried at the point of attack by Wolverine's tight end on a 5-yard goal line run by Robinson…zero recognition of the football on Forcier's 31-yard touchdown run though it was so pronounced its plausible Smith's responsibility was to simply fill a particular gap (he continued to flow away from Forcier though)…consecutive solid backfield plays (vs. Forcier and Minor) midway through the fourth quarter…badly faked out (as the spy) by Forcier for a gain of 14 up the middle of the Irish defense (second-to-last UM drive)…overran Forcier outside the pocket but was saved by John Ryan staying home and making a play on the elusive QB…
- Manti Te'o – Offered a glimpse of his promising future on the game's second play: reading an off-tackle run, fighting through a block and wrapping up the ball-carrier…used as a pass-rusher off the edges on the game's final series (was held once by the backside offensive tackle on a Forcier completion)…was assigned as Forcier's spy but the quarterback remained in the pocket – Te'o then blitzed late and the Wolverines gained a first down…lost Forcier in traffic (appeared to be the assigned spy) for a 2nd and 4 scramble that ended in a 17-yard gain to Savoy to the Irish 5-yard line…came too far outside on the game's second-to-last defensive play (dropped pass) – Te'o's presence in his vacated lane might have trapped Forcier (who scrambled left) in the pocket…blitzed and put a little pressure on Forcier on the game-winning touchdown pass.
Observations: UM's spread-option offense proved a tough matchup for Smith who's true litmus test will be this Saturday vs. the Spartans. It is, however, disconcerting that he hasn't consistently shed the block of opposing centers through two games.
Observations: Its time for Smith, a junior and three-year contributor who was one of the team's best defenders vs. Nevada, to evolve into a more consistent, reliable defender rather than just a guy with the knack for big plays. He possesses the necessary skills to matchup with Forcier but looked overmatched in one-on-one situations vs. the freshman signal-caller. Look for a huge game from Smith as a true weakside LB vs. MSU.
Observations: Still finding his way and a role in the '09 defense. I wonder if Te'o could hold up with the demands (mental and physical) of the middle linebacker role (allowing Brian Smith to remain on the weak side, permanently). We won't find out this week as the MSU matchup is tailor-made for Toryan Smith's skill set as a middle linebacker.
Defensive Tackles, Defensive Ends, Nickel Rush End
- Darius Fleming – Nice pursuit on the game's opening 3rd down stop, chasing Forcier (from a "spy" position – Fleming dropped into coverage after starting the play at LDE) across the field to tackle him well short of the marker...walled off too easily at the point of attack for most of the afternoon including early (a 22-yard run off right tackle)…made an excellent play in pursuit of Forcier late in the second quarter for the sack…caught too far up-field too often, which generally allowed Forcier to step-up in the pocket, escape, and make plays downfield…later stayed home and forced a throw-away…faked off his feet by. Forcier in space on the second play of the second half…bounced back on 3rd and goal, forcing Minor too far outside, allowing Toryan and Harrison Smith and to make the tackle…held (not called) on the edge, dove back into the action to make a tackle on Minor…caved in as the team's LDE on power running plays inside…completely undressed by Forcier on the quarterback's 31-yard touchdown run on fourth down…had a chance to sack Forcier with under 20 seconds remaining at the ND 7-yard line which would have necessitated a field goal attempt by the Wolverines, but Forcier again sidestepped a falling Fleming (this would have been a tough play defensively).
- Ethan Johnson – Penetrated for a tackle-for-loss on a late 2nd quarter reverse (the play was made possible by John Ryan's backside responsibility and EJ finished the deal with a strong hit)…nice pursuit down the line to limit Forcier to a 4-yard gain on a keeper (could have been much more)…still solo-blocked too often on north-south running plays but Johnson remains active down the line when the play goes to either side…good penetration on first down (following Jonas Gray's fumble in Irish territory) but Ian Williams was moved out of his gap, creating a running lane…incredible penetration on key 3rd and 2 (first play of 4th Quarter) as Minor was stopped for one-yard loss (by Harrison Smith).
- Ian Williams – Drew an early holding call...fought off a block and slid down the line of scrimmage to stop Minor for a gain of one…shoved out of the way (solo block) on Minor's 16-yard gain and one play later was dominated by UM right guard as Minor burst up the middle for a 32-yard gain…neutralized on consecutive solo blocks that allowed Minor carries through his gap for gains of 6 and 13 yards…Williams was completely controlled by right guard David Moosman for most of the afternoon…stuck with the play despite being blocked to hold Carlos Brown to a six-yard gain on 2nd and 8 (would have been significantly more)…made an excellent play in space vs. a Wolverine's WR-screen pass…like Johnson, good penetration on 3rd and 2 stop to begin fourth quarter…
Observations: Has had a very rough time against mostly solo blocking schemes through two games. Williams played well (while those around him decidedly did not) at East Lansing last season. The junior faces a veteran interior line again this week in South Bend vs. MSU.
- John Ryan – Missed Denard Robinson (slid down the runner) for what would have been a tackle-for-loss in pursuit. Robinson gained 12 and helped the Wolverines to a field goal to end the half…two plays later, stayed home on a reverse to destroy the play (Ethan Johnson finished off with a tackle-for-loss)…ushered five yards out of his gap responsibility on a stretch run by Minor for a gain of 16 yards…stayed home to drop Forcier for what should have been a crucial 5-yard loss on the final drive…
- Kerry Neal – Consistently over-pursued the play when in the ball game…failed to seal the edge and the Irish defense played better with John Ryan in the contest…Neal had no chance vs. Forcier in space in limited opportunities.
- Kapron Lewis-Moore – Excellent penetration play on first down at the goal line to stop Minor for a loss…hustled in limited action but did fail to set the edge when necessary…
Observations: Had a publicly rough day in space (and drew the toughest assignment) vs. a quarterback with make-you-miss ability. And Fleming unfortunately missed at crucial times. He's the team's best pass-rusher and it should show up more vs. Michigan State, though quick quarterbacks await Fleming and the Irish front seven over the next three contests.
Observations: Ultimately needs to play at a level beyond his experience at a position of need. Johnson might be better suited for DE, but he's stuck at DT due to personnel issues (youth) on the Irish roster. Assignment football greatly inhibited his ability to make plays over the first two contests (a point made by Weis at his weekly press conference).
Observations: Ryan played well vs. Michigan, staying home on the backside and not allowing Tate to escape (to his side). But increased playing time could expose a few weaknesses that are (more) avoidable with his current work load. Ryan is one of the few defenders who played well enough to win on Saturday in Ann Arbor.
Observations: Conspicuous in his absence through two weeks and the lack of notes above is in no way a compliment for a starting defensive end.
Observations: We'll get a longer look at KLM vs. the Spartans more traditional offense this Saturday. MSU's physical approach will present a test for the redshirt freshman DE.
- Kyle McCarthy – Hasn't quit on a play yet…made two (maybe three) coverage mistakes Saturday (that I noticed), first allowing a sideline completion of 23 yards (if this wasn't McCarthy's mistake it was a badly flawed coverage scheme) that led to a Michigan field goal to end the half, and later, bit one step too far forward on a Forcier roll-out (that was handled by RDE John Ryan) which gave UM tight end Kevin Koger a step on the Irish leader and Koger hauled in a 3rd down touchdown reception… diagnosed a Minor run for minimal gain then came up with a huge interception to give the Irish the ball at the UM 36-yard line with 7:42 remaining on what would be the go-ahead drive.... K-Mac bit too hard on Matthews' outside move allowing the receiver a slant-route gain of nine yards to begin the Wolverines' final drive (its possible he was allowing Matthews to run to Brian Smith in the middle, but if so, again…bad design). Both goal line plays went away from McCarthy on Michigan's final possession.
- Harrison Smith – The Irish still haven't been tested/beaten deep and Smith deserves credit as the last man back…shed two blocks to tackle Brandon Minor on a 3rd and G run at the 5-yard line…was in no way at fault on the game-winning slant-out by Matthews though he was in the vicinity (I can say, with near certainty, that Smith and McCarthy were spies on Forcier and the UM running back on the game-winning TD pass).
- Darrin Walls – A tough afternoon for Walls, falling on a what looked to be perfect coverage on a 1st quarter deep ball for a gain of 40 yards…made a near interception on a forced throw by Forcier…great play with five minutes remaining to stop a wide receiver screen…the senior struggled for the bulk of the fourth quarter, committing a pass interference penalty and busting a coverage (sideline incomplete)…had no chance on a quick slant to Savoy with less than 40 seconds remaining as the Irish were in a soft man, which begs the question: why not soft quarters (zone) coverage to take away such an easy pass route?
I thought he made a huge mental error on the game's decisive touchdown from Forcier to Matthews, but it appears he was simply beaten (which happens to everyone) on a slant-out route by the senior receiver. Walls will need to bounce back vs. a trio of talented Spartans receivers on Saturday…
- Raeshon McNeil – Made a very nice open-field form-tackle of Forcier late in the 2nd quarter… failed to turn around on an early deep pass (poorly thrown out of bounds), but that was poor recognition for a senior…McNeil was beaten twice on first down slant routes, once due to soft coverage and once due simply to a well-run route by the receiver…beaten on a key 3rd and 4 (though had solid coverage) for an 8-yard gain to the Irish 28-yard line.
- Sergio Brown – One great early effort to fight off a block (and a hold) and make the immediate tackle… committed a pass interference penalty (not on TV tape and appeared to actually be a penalty on Walls) that offset a Michigan holding call, leading to the half-ending field goal…corralled Denard Robinson after the lightning-quick QB had eluded the rest of the Irish front seven on an 11-yard run…Brown was replaced for most of the second half by McNeil as the team's nickel defender.
- Robert Blanton – Nice open-field tackle of Forcier to limit the quarterback to two yards…saw fewer snaps (especially in the second half) vs. Michigan than he did last week vs. Nevada…was shoved downfield by Savoy on the game's final drive for a (scramble) 17-yard gain (should have been offensive pass interference early in the route, incidentally).
Observations: Notre Dame's best defender and playmaker through two games.
Observations: No complaints. Smith has been solid and asked to save too many mistakes by the front seven through two weeks. 11 solos at free safety (and 9 more by the strong safety) is obviously too much, regardless of the coverage schemes.
Observations: Walls will have to be better Saturday vs. Blair White and B.J. Cunningham (and Mark Dell could return from injury). He was in perfect position (before a misstep and fall) when he gave up the first quarter 40-yard go-route and has to win one-on-one situations at the goal line vs. pedestrian receivers such as Matthews. Then again, that's why college football games aren't decided on paper.
Observations: I think he's the third-best cornerback but wouldn't mind seeing McNeil more (as he was used in the 2nd half in Ann Arbor) as the team's nickel defender, especially when the nickel is no longer used as the base defense (as will be the case this Saturday).
Observations: The Irish should play less nickel this week though you'll see Brown back in heavy action the following Saturday in West Lafayette vs. Purdue.
Observations: I think I'd like to see him on the field more often than I did Saturday…