A closer look at the Irish defenders in Saturday's victory over Michigan State:
- Toryan Smith – Missed his first one-on-one tackle with a clean shot at freshman RB Larry Caper…late blitz forced Spartans QB Kirk Cousins to miss an open Charlie Gantt on a post route as the tight end dove for the low pass but couldn't make the catch…continues to wait for the play to come to him too often as he did on RB Caulton Ray's 17-yard first quarter run. Smith was shoved back and pancaked by RT D.J. Young who pulled to the middle to crush Smith from his waiting position…unable to shed a feeble, falling block by left guard Joel Foreman early in the 2nd quarter, allowing a 6-yard gain…recovered RB Caulton Ray's fumble after teammate Kapron Lewis-Moore hustled downfield to strip Ray of the football…met Caper one-on-one in the hold at the goal line near the end of the half and Caper scored (Smith did have to sidestep a block)…blocked seven yards downfield on first play of 2nd half (Caper gained 5)…ran himself into a block on Caper's touchdown run over the defense's right side…only Irish player to locate the ball on a Cousins roll-out (forcing the QB to dump a six-yard gain to the tight end)…victimized by WR Mark Dell in a Cover 4 defense on 3rd and 3 (Smith chose the wrong player to chase as Gantt was slipping behind him, but had been easily picked up by FS Harrison Smith). Dell gained 59 yards on the catch-and-run due to missed tackle. Nice scheme by the Spartans' staff.
- Brian Smith – Physical pass rush through the MSU tight end Charlie Gantt on 3rd and long forced an errant pass to the front corner of the end zone (saved a touchdown or Goal-to-go situation)…seems a bit hesitant in run support at times…forced backup QB Keith Nichol out of the pocket, then stayed home and chased the scrambler to his right causing a dangerous (incomplete) pass over the middle…shed a block to team with McCarthy for an late 3rd quarter tackle-for-loss…helped Ian Williams pop Caper in the hole on the Spartans first 4th Quarter drive.
- Darius Fleming – Tremendous play in pursuit (from nickel DE role) to stop Caper for a one-yard loss…seems to have trouble locating blocks in space…buried as nickel DE on consecutive 2nd Quarter runs…effective delayed blitz as a SAM LB caused a holding call late in the 2nd Quarter (Fleming hit Cousins regardless of the hold)…caught too far inside (and on the ground) as Caper slid unmolested over the right edge for five yards…sealed by tight end Brian Linthicum on Caper's 3rd quarter touchdown run over the defense's right side…posted the key QB pressure on Cousins to cause the game-ending poor throw (and interception by McCarthy).
- Scott Smith – Nice hustle and recognition to stop WR B.J. Cunningham on the sidelines after a 12-yard catch-and-run (terrible defensive design and ridiculous assignment for Smith).
Observations: Too often waits for opposing lineman to come to him and is generally effectively removed from the play as a result. Smith is now 0-2 in collisions with opposing running backs at the Irish goal line, something that cannot be allowed for a run-stuffing middle linebacker.
Observations: The Irish need Smith to play to his potential over the next two weeks to ensure a 4-1 mark heading into what should be a much-needed Bye week.
Observations: Fleming will be the team's most improved overall defensive player between September 5 and the Bowl Game.
Observations: I'd like to see Smith back on the goal line defense rather than playing in space as a rotational SLB..
Manti Te'o – Failed to seal the edge as a nickel LB though did occupy two Spartans so Fleming could sprint down the line to make a tackle-for-loss…completely missed a late-3rd Quarter assignment on tight end Charlie Gantt, resulting in a 25-yard gain...part of the team's Dime package during the game's final drive.
Observations: I think you could see Te'o start at MIKE on October 17, but he'll need more playing time over the next two contests for that to be an option.
Defensive Tackles/Defensive Ends
- Ethan Johnson – Nice play to shed a block and stop Caper for a two-yard gain late in the 1st half…hustled downfield for first tackle of 2nd half…followed that play with a one-yard stop of Caper, hustling down the line of scrimmage…made the Play of the Day simply powering between the Spartans C/RG to block Swenson's PAT attempt, allowing the Irish to retain a 3-point lead (which indirectly won the contest for the home team as the Spartans would have attempted the game-winning field goal on their final drive)…nice edge rush to help force a 3rd and 10 near the five-minute mark (from DT on a stunt with John Ryan)…
- Ian Williams – Anticipated the game's first snap and slid by center John Stipek but was off-balance and shoved to the ground by Spartans guard Joel Foreman…excellent play sliding down the line and stuffing RB Glenn Winston for a one-yard loss… ushered out of the middle by guard Joel Foreman on a 1st quarter 17-yard run by Ray…controlled by center John Stipek and moved out of his gap allowing Caper a 6-yard gain (Hafis Williams drew the double-team)…not enough penetration, but played off a block nicely to limit RB Glenn Winston to a 5-yard gain…destroyed the middle of the MSU line but received no help on the left edge during a Caper gain of 5 yards on 1st play of 2nd half…fought off the center and another chip block to drill Caper for a two-yard gain early in the final period…collapsed the pocket to force a premature throw by Cousins at the five-minute mark.
Observations: Still moved from his gap too easily by one opposing lineman but played his best half of the season Saturday as he was able to fight off a few blocks and make plays down the line of scrimmage. Williams will have to continue to improve with games vs. the Trojans, BC, Navy, Pittsburgh, and Stanford: teams that will test the Irish front seven.
- John Ryan – Showed up late 1st quarter shedding two blocks and forcing a third into Cousins on a 3rd and 10 incompletion (looked more physical than I've seen him in the past on this play)…switched to LDE for 2nd Quarter series and was easily sealed for a B-Gap (between tackle and guard) run of 5 yards …lost sight of the ball on a Cousins roll-out (only a six-yard gain)…exposed in run support at LDE, regularly turned around by Spartans O-Linemen.
- Kerry Neal – Came unblocked on a nice blitz design to pressure Nichol into a 3rd down incompletion (first drive of 2nd half)…one the ensuing possession, pressured Nichol out of the pocket (but a 4-yard gain on first down)…held the edge on 2nd down to allow Brian Smith a tackle-for-loss…sealed by the left tackle on Caper's 3rd Quarter touchdown run over the defense's right side…actually provided the initial pressure on Cousins on the game's deciding play. Cousins rolled away from Neal who had come around the left tackle. Darius Fleming had beaten the right tackle and pressured Cousins into the poorly thrown interception.
- Kapron Lewis-Moore – Shoved out of his gap for a Spartans first down (on 2nd and 2)…juked off his feet by Kirk Cousins when KLM had a chance for a tackle-for-loss on the quarterback's scramble…part of a nice line stunt that allowed Ian Williams to make a tackle-for-loss in the 1st Quarter…solo-blocked by right guard Brendon Moss but K-Mac saved the day, filling in as an extra ‘backer to make the stop…showed impressive downfield hustle, sprinting after Caulton Ray on a screen pass to strip the runner of the ball and a key 2nd Quarter turnover near midfield after a 14-yard gain…called for a facemask during Spartans go-ahead touchdown drive (but was also held on the play with no call).
- Hafis Williams – Nice penetration on his first snap (he was held, no-call) on Ray's 1st quarter 17-yard run…drew a double-team later in the drive (was blocked to the ground) on a Caper 6-yard gain.
- Sean Cwynar – Stood up Spartans center John Stipek on the 2nd drive but T-Smith missed the tackle…buried early in the 2nd Quarter on a designed QB run by Nichol…nice penetration and occupied two blocks on B-Smith's tackle-for-loss during the Spartans second possession of the 2nd half.
Observations: Has had his quickness used against him at times as a DT when he's shoved out of his lane after initial penetration. Johnson could eventually get a look (back) at DE if both of the redshirt sophomores, Cwynar and Hafis Williams, can become consistent contributors. Until then, he's necessary inside next to Ian Williams on the nose.
Observations: The danger, of course, is that overexposure (too many snaps) will detract from his otherwise solid contributions as a weakside DE. Incidentally, Ryan makes far more plays on the right side than left.
Observations: Plays too tall against the run and looks a bit out of place dropping into coverage. I think Neal should enter the game as a pass-rusher on obvious passing downs. His backside, final defensive pressure greatly aided the game-ending pick.
Observations: A hustler but he's had trouble securing the edge and has yet to provide a strong point vs. the outside run.
Observations: The redshirt sophomore's development is essential if the run defense is to improve. Williams will continue to receive more defensive snaps but he has to embrace that in order to become a bigger part of the rotation.
Observations: I think Cwynar, a redshirt sophomore, will be a load to handle in 2011 but the Irish need him to step up to "solid" status this season.
- Kyle McCarthy – Saved a long run with a diving ankle tackle of Caper on the Spartans 2nd Drive…just missed a diving pass break-up/intercetpion of a 3rd down conversion to White (actually a play the D seemed to know was coming and one K-Mac might have missed)… continues to make saving tackles downfield…excellent one-on-one pass breakup vs. tight end Dion Sims – who ran a nice out-and-up – downfield when the Irish blitzed 7-men (and were all picked up by solo blocks)….fills running lanes better than anyone on the Irish roster…committed too early and too low and was faked out by Nichol on Spartans first TD drive…saved a touchdown (per usual) with ankle tackle of Caper inside the Irish 5-yard line…effectively blocked by lead fullback Andrew Hawken on Caper's 3rd quarter TD run…missed a tackle in space on Mark Dell's 59-yard catch and run. Made the game-ending interception (caused by QB pressure), his third pick of the season.
- Harrison Smith – Solid hit sneaking into the box pre-snap to stop Ray…one-on-one form tackle on Caper in space near the end of the first quarter…needless personal foul penalty (late-hit) on Spartans first TD drive (chippy play and weak call)…one play later, two false steps forward allowed Blair White an unfettered touchdown reception on a halfback pass, though White was not his assignment (as the only deep receiver, Smith should have been behind him)…fought off a downfield block and saved a touchdown on Dell's 59-yard slant catch as the last defender with a chance at the speedy receiver.
- Darrin Walls – Turned slowly in "bail" technique on Blair White's out-route for a first down on the Spartans 2nd Possession…continued to offer a cushion this week with Blair White as his oft-assigned receiver… as he did in '07, Walls holds his own on stretch/wide runs to his side as tackler….allowed a diving 3rd and 6 out-route first down by White though had decent coverage…beaten by Gantt on a pump-and-go but Cousins just missed the tight end at the goal line…extremely soft on stops and comebacks and appears afraid to be beaten deep…employed bail coverage again and was beaten by a Mark Dell comeback immediately following the Spartans onsides kick …miss-timed his leap on an out-route (probably offensive pass interference on Mark Dell, holding Walls) that should have been a pick-six… worked over by Blair White on a post-corner route for the go-ahead touchdown with under 10 minutes remaining…excellent break on the ball on his next defensive play to break-up a sideline pass with just over 5 minutes remaining.
- Raeshon McNeil – Entered the contest late in the first half and allowed 11 yards to Cunningham due to a huge sideline cushion…looked to be confused about his assignment on a 12-yard sideline reception by Mark Dell (on 3rd and 7) late in the third quarter. There's no doubt it was his assignment on tape.
- Sergio Brown – Beaten by three yards on a B.J. Cunningham corner route for a would-be-score, but Cousins missed the open throw…continues to face-guard tight ends and slot receivers, rarely locating the football…timed a blitz nicely from the right to begin the 2nd Quarter but the left edge lost containment, allowing a 5-yard run by backup QB Keith Nichol…made a solo-stop in Nichol in space later in the drive…let Dell come to him and was easily blocked on the receiver's 59-yard catch and run in the fourth quarter…terrible tackling form on Cunningham with just over two minutes remaining allowed the Spartans another nine yards on a 16-yard gain.
- Robert Blanton – Broke on an out-route but offered far too big a cushion and WR Mark Dell beat him for an out-route 12-yard first down…wrongly called for a late-hit personal foul to begin the 2nd Quarter. Blanton simply held on to Nichol's leg as the backup QB slid out of bounds. Blanton was removed immediately…solid coverage downfield on Spartans' penultimate drive…teamed with K-Mac for solid coverage on a Dell post-route on the final series (incomplete). MSU was targeting Blanton on a pump and go but he didn't bite.
- Gary Gray – Forced a cutback by RB Caulton Ray on a screen-pass which allowed a hustling Kapron Lewis-Moore to strip Ray of the football downfield. An underrated play by Gray in "run" support…had the coverage but was (correctly) called for pass interference on a Blair White skinny post late in the 2nd Quarter. Gray was immediately removed from the game.
- Jamoris Slaughter – Hustled to tackle Caper after a 6-yard gain early in the 2nd Quarter…completely fooled by WR Blair White for a halfback pass TD (Slaughter bit on the halfback run to his side). Nice design by MSU to put White on the inexperienced Slaughter's boundary side of the field for this play.
- Ray Herring – Beaten on a 3rd and 10 corner route by Cunnnigham but Cousins threw behind the receiver…targeted for two passes on the sideline on the final drive, another over the middle (nice stop of White to limit the gain to four yards with the clock moving) and blitzed once…read the route, jumped it, and dropped a game-winning interception on 3rd and 6 (that resulted in a sideline completion to Dell).
Observation: It's a rarity when a big play is made by the Irish defense and K-Mac isn't somehow involved. He's far and away the team's best defensive player.
Observation: Like McCarthy, Smith may never leave the field. The defense would be helpless without either of them.
Observation: I'd love to see Walls in more press coverage because he's struggling with his bail technique.
Observations: I think McNeil would be best used as the base Nickel defender with Gary Gray receiving more snaps at cornerback.
Observations: Has struggled to take down the ball carrier upon first contact and should not cover receivers from the slot. Brown's talents lie in disruption near the line of scrimmage but he's yet to reach a level of play similar to last year in games vs. SD State and Hawaii.
Observations: Willing in run support and doesn't mind taking on a back at full speed whether he wins the battle or not. I don't think Blanton should leave the field (other than necessary breaks).
Observations: I'd love to see Gray in a three-CB rotation or at least two more series per contest. He seems less tentative in coverage than do his senior teammates.
Observations: Physical, but Slaughter is currently the team's 5th best cover corner. Then again, physical play could only help the defense after three games.
Observations: Knows his role quite well in ND's Dime package but Herring MUST make that play at the end.
Dell wide open on square-in for opening drive first down but Cousins didn't see him (either Te'o didn't drop or Harrison Smith didn't come up)…halfback pass touchdown vs. Irish defense came after timeout…linebackers are struggling with crossing routes and receivers sitting behind them when the Irish don't blitz…16 defenders on the field is probably too many (5-yard penalty on ND during MSU's go-ahead TD drive near the end of the half…not sure about the personnel decision to have Ryan, Lewis-Moore, and Brown in the goal line package…too often the defense plays straight man rather than inside/out coverage when matching up with two receivers on one side, allowing easy slants (and picks) to beat them as the defenders negotiate crossing receivers (this was an issue on the final drive vs. the Wolverines as well)…impressive three-and-out when the Spartans took possession at the 5:18 mark of the fourth quarter…began the final drive in Nickel and switched to their Dime package after two easy receptions netted 23 yards. ND's dime personnel includes Ray Herring and Manti Te'o along with Brian Smith, three defensive linemen (in this case Johnson, Fleming, and Neal) and five DB (Brown, Smith, McCarthy, Blanton and Walls): Te'o is generally used as a blitzing linebacker in this set…
Missed Game-Winning Touchdown Pass by the Spartans: MSU was in 5-wide empty. The outside left receiver was RB Larry Caper. He had Dell slotted next to him with the Irish in what appeared to be "Quarters" coverage (Blanton outside, Harrison Smith inside with Walls/K-Mac running the same coverage on the opposite side of the field). Caper did not run a wheel route he simply ran a 3/4 speed route straight down the sideline. Blanton and Smith both bit up to cover Dell who ran an out. In Cover 4, this would be Blanton's fault and he was, in fact, removed from the game after the play (McNeil). Smith "conversed" with Blanton after the missed touchdown pass (I was standing right there) so I can only report what I saw live and on tape. Regardless, I'm not sure why Smith's first reaction wouldn't be back on that play. Probably better to ask Coach Brown.