Taking Away Their Strength

IrishEyes weekly review of the defense shows improved effort vs. the run, but familiar issues in the secondary still loom large.

Below is our play-by-play recap of the Notre Dame defensive effort vs. the Eagles

Opening Drive

The Irish began in a 4-3 base defense with Robert Blanton and Gary Gray at CB; Sergio Brown gets the start in the secondary as the team's SS (Kyle McCarthy technically played FS most of the game) and Harrison Smith was in a linebacker role, much like the strong side position he played last season. The Irish would use this defensive set for most of the contest (intermixed with new Nickel personnel that will be detailed throughout). BC managed just 3 yards on 3 plays, holding the ball for 1:05 on their first possession. ND 3 BC 0

  • Pre-snap/during snap confusion on the game's first play (Harrison Smith looking behind him on the snap) and the Eagles begin with a wide receiver flea flicker (threw a bubble screen to WR Rich Gunnell behind the line; Gunnell flipped the ball back to QB Dave Shinskie, who targeted Sergio Brown deep down the post (with a throw to RB Montel Harris) but Brown was there to disrupt the pass.
  • Good fill by MLB Brian Smith vs. a Harris run off left tackle. WLB Manti Te'o took on the block from Eagles F-Back/Tight End Lars Anderson on the edge.
  • After a BC timeout, the Irish seamlessly switch to the Nickel (personnel already on the field in the new 4-3 look) and Shinskie's pass to Gunnell sails incomplete out of bounds. Shinskie had ample time and room in the pocket vs. a 5-man Irish rush (Te'o stunt right to center) but Harrison Smith got good depth vs. Gunnell's corner route and Shinskie was forced to throw the ball away. CB Robert Blanton played a stop-and-go (same side) well, reading Shinskie's pass route.

2nd Eagles Drive/1st Quarter:

Trailing 3-2 after recording a Safety, BC drove 25 yards on 6 plays (2:10) before punting back to ND from the Irish 34 yard-line. A field possession ploy that again pinned the Irish near their own goal. The Irish defense began in their new look 4-3 and deployed the Nickel package on the drive's final four plays. ND 3 BC 2

  • (4-3 D with Harrison Smith SLB): RDE John Ryan secures the left edge and LDE Kapron Lewis-Moore gets backfield penetration on the backside. Ethan Johnson and Ian Williams stalemate in the middle while Te'o fills the hole to drop Harris for a 2-yard gain (Williams, Lewis-Moore credited for tackles).
  • (4-3): Solid coverage by Te'o on a short out from the slot by Anderson. Harrison Smith blitzed over the left tackle but was deterred by Harris in the backfield.
  • (Nickel D with Kerry Neal and Darius Fleming as defensive ends). Shinskie hits Colin Larmond for 24 yards on 3rd and 8 and an Eagles 1st Down. Neal stunted inside (looping behind Johnson) and pressured Shinskie on the play but Larmond was wide open on a rub-route to the left corner. Te'o fell down on Larmond's fake inside though I believe Brown had the responsibility to get to the corner defensively as no Eagles player ran down his seam (or side of the field). Gary Gray switched on the cross and covered the outside hook route by Anderson. Lewis-Moore and Fleming also ran a (less successful) stunt on the left side.
  • (Nickel): Harrison Smith deftly times a blitz (from 7 yards deep in the secondary) to cause a Montel Harris fumble in the backfield (recovered by BC). Neal had been caved in and Te'o was neutralized as well but Brian Smith was there to make the stop had Smith missed on his blitz.
  • (Nickel): Sergio Brown drops a tailor-made interception.
  • (Nickel): On 3rd and 10, Gary Gray was slightly beaten by Larmond down the left sideline but showed the wily veteran move of cutting off Larmond's route (without major contact) and the deep throw fell incomplete (and was deemed uncatchable). The ploy is technically pass interference, but was viewed as incidental contact as Gray performed the risky defensive maneuver quite well. If you're splitting hairs, Gray did not turn his hips quickly in coverage on the play and was beaten. The Eagles elect to punt on 4th down.

3rd Eagles Drive/1st Quarter:

BC drove 18 yards on 4 plays (1:23) before again pinning the Irish (with a punt from the ND 40-yard line) at the 7-yard line. ND played exclusively in its Nickel defense on the four-play drive. ND 3 BC 2

  • (Nickel): Another well-timed blitz by Harrison Smith who this time leapt over the running back's cut-block to pressure Shinskie on the pass. Gunnell offers a portent of things to come with a stretching one-handed grab for a 15-yard skinny post despite solid coverage by Sergio Brown. Steve Filer beat the LG and LT (knifing between) them to apply pressure as well.
  • (Nickel): Te'o easily sidesteps one block then fights through another by RT Rich Lapham to stop Harris for a gain of 3 yards.
  • (Nickel): The Irish front four and Te'o (through the right B-Gap) rush Shinskie who had time to find Gunnell but his pass is low and incomplete. Lewis-Moore's late burst might have hurried the freshman QB.
  • (Nickel): Lewis-Moore again applies pressure from his Nickel position of LDT though ND's standard 5-man rush (Te'o) is again picked up. Nice physical coverage by Gray vs. Jarvis underneath and the Eagles punt from the ND 40-yard line.

Three 1st Quarter Observations:

  • Credit BC for sticking to the plan and executing the pooch punt/field position game. A lost art for middle-tier teams in today's game (Former Irish punter Joey Hilbold and Tyrone Willingham's 2002 squad were especially effective with this game plan).
  • Harrison Smith looked like a new man in his hybrid LB role as a blitzer. There's no reason for the athlete to re-audition at Safety until the spring if Brown and redshirt-sophomore Jamoris Slaughter can aid McCarthy at Safety.
  • Lewis-Moore, Filer, Gray, and Te'o have all improved with increased playing time this season.

1st Eagles Drive/2nd Quarter:

BC drove 21 yards in 6 plays (2:57) with the drive ending on a Harris fumbled exchange at the ND 44-yard line. The Irish began in the 4-3, switched to the Nickel package for three consecutive plays, and finished the drive with two straight 4-3 sets. ND 3 BC 2

  • (4-3): Johnson hits the deck underneath center Matt Tennant and LG Nathan Richman; John Ryan is collapsed inside by LT Anthony Castonzo while Ian Williams is controlled and pushed back to the second level by RG Thomas Claiborne. Harris gain 2 yards on the play as McCarthy and Brian Smith both fight off blocks to make the stop.
  • (Nickel): Blanton, Harrison Smith, and Brian Smith (arriving later) play a bubble screen as well as any Irish defensive trio has this season, limiting Gunnell to a few yards on the pass. The Eagles are called for holding (vs. Blanton) on the play, setting up 2nd and 16 from their own 25-yard line.
  • (Nickel): Gray stops Harris after a gain of 6 yards over right tackle. Te'o took a poor angle (inside) while Fleming (at LDE) was guided outside by RT Lapham. Brian Smith was a bit shallow in his angle as well and Sergio Brown flailed at a full-speed miss in space (Brown simply needed to breakdown and make the stop). Ethan Johnson and Kerry Neal hustled downfield and were in position had Gray missed.
  • (Nickel): Facing 3rd and 10 from their own 36-yard line, the Eagles set up trips left and Shinskie again finds Gunnell (inside receiver), this time for 23 yards on a well-run post-corner between Gray and McCarthy. Good throw and catch by BC though McCarthy should have cleaned up Gunnell on the play. The Irish rushed four and had every receiver, including the backfield option, perfectly covered but Gunnell made the play.
  • (4-3): Shinskie hits Anderson on a flair to the right but McCarthy immediately tackles the versatile tight end for a 2-yard gain.
  • (4-3): Harris and Shinskie muff the handoff and Johnson makes a diving fumble recovery to end the Eagles threat. Manti Te'o timed a run blitz expertly and would have dropped Harris for a backfield loss without the fumbled exchange.

2nd Eagles Drive/2nd Quarter:

The Eagles answer an ND field goal with a 9-play, 68-yard (4:04) touchdown drive, aided by a 3rd and 12 conversion near midfield. BC 9 ND 6

  • (4-3 with John Ryan at RDE): ND's 5-man rush (Harrison Smith, no delay or stunt) gets no pressure as Shinskie hits Gunnell on a deep cross (left slot to right hash) for 24 yards. Gunnell simply ran through the ND zone, turned and caught the pass.
  • (4-3): Te'o's right B-Gap run blitz drops Harris for a 2-yard loss. Excellent timing and instinct shown by Te'o on the play (perhaps more promising than his hitting prowess). John Ryan helped out on the backside and Brian Smith would have also had a solid chance to stop Harris for no gain.
  • (Nickel with Fleming and Filer as defensive ends): The Irish bring 5 pass rushers (Brian Smith over left tackle - no stunts) but the rush is handled. Shinskie's sideline pass to Larmond sails out of bounds. FS Jamoris Slaughter was in position to make a play on the ball in the Cover 2 defense. Slaughter delivered a shot on the sideline and could have been called for unnecessary roughness. I'm all for it if it means Slaughter will hit like that on every play.
  • (Dime with Zeke Motta as a sixth DB, playing near the line of scrimmage): The Irish show a three-man DL of Lewis-Moore Johnson, Fleming, and Neal. Harrison Smith's late blitz up the left B-Gap (between T/G) is picked up as is Motta's looping blitz through the right B-Gap. Shinskie hits TE Chris Pantale on a simple post. Brian Smith appeared a bit late in coverage.
  • (4-3): Lewis-Moore goes low and Ian Williams sheds the center's block to stop backup RB James McCluskey for no gain. Ethan Johnson was shoved out of (this) gap by two Eagles linemen while Te'o ably took on the block of pulling LG Emmett Cleary
  • (Nickel with Fleming and Filer at DE): Shinskie hits Jarvis on a post-corner to the right sideline for 21 yards and another 1st Down. Gray didn't get enough depth in his pass drop (there was an out-route in front of him, but covered by Harrison Smith. It appeared Gray could have broken up the pass on replay, though that might have been the low replay angle. McCarthy made the hit but Jarvis hung on. Notre Dame's 4-man rush applied no pressure on the play.
  • (4-3): 1st and Goal from the ND 3-yard line: Ethan Johnson holds the middle; Lewis-Moore recovers to help secure the inside right and Harrison Smith gets penetration on a run blitz outside right which forces Harris to cut back into Te'o for a 2-yard gain. Ian Williams was controlled by backup LG Emmett Cleary one-on-one.
  • (Goal Line D: Paddy Mullen inside with Toryan Smith and Scott Smith joining the fray replacing Te'o and both Irish cornerbacks): BC is hit with a false start penalty to set up 2nd and Goal from the ND 7-yard line.
  • (4-3: Ryan, Te'o, both CB back in): Harrison Smith turns to K-Mac pre-snap (ball is snapped as Smith turns back late to face the offense). Four defenders cover three Eagles receivers running a flood left.
  • (4-3): Harrison Smith the victim of pre-snap confusion again and the Irish secondary is inexplicably again beaten by the initial cross of same side receivers. Shinskie hits Gunnell for a laughably easy out route touchdown as Smith covers no one while Blanton cut off Larmond's slant-route. It in no way appeared Blanton was supposed to switch and cover Gunnell's route outside.

After an Irish touchdown drive, BC kneels to end the half.

2nd Quarter Observations:

  • I asked Kyle McCarthy about the appearance of excessive pre-snap confusion: "There's a few plays with confusion out there but not as much as you guys think. There's checks that people from the outside don't realize that our entire defense adjusts to. We had some new guys in new spots today and I think they played well."
  • Rich Gunnell would make an outstanding third receiver for the Irish: a perfect possession target for Clausen (with Tate and Floyd healthy). Gunnell, incidentally, would shred the Irish defensive backs every day in practice.
  • The Fleming/Filer defensive end duo appears to be the nickel look of the near future, though I'd like to see Filer as a "space" pass rusher, much like the Irish use Te'o, on obvious passing downs (especially in the Dime package). Kerry Neal could handle the edge rush in that situation.

Halftime Score ND 13 BC 9

A review of the 2nd Half will be published prior to today's press conference.

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