And here we are, one game left in the regular season, and the Irish are sitting at 8-3 coming off a fantastic win against BYU. The BYU game had to be one of the most interesting special teams performances that I have ever seen simply because of the weather and field conditions. Only in this game would we see ND pass up a 40ish yard attempt and go for it but attempt a 50+ yard field goal going the other way. Let's take a look at how the teams performed against the Cougars. As a small note, this is probably going to be my longest post of the year and has a lot of screenshots. Hopefully you guys take the time to look through all of it. I tried to be as thorough as I possibly could.
It's hard to fault Kyle for the short kickoffs because of the weather and field conditions but the kickoffs in this game could best be summed up by calling this game Squib Fest 2013. Kyle Brindza took all six kickoffs for the Irish, booting them for 356 yards and one touchback. Adam Hine took four of the kickoffs for 91 yards and a long of 37. Austin Holt took the fifth for a return of 12 yards. This was good enough for a team average of 20.6 yards per return. Overall, I was pleased with the Irish's performance but there were some lane issues, especially on the 37 yard return. Let's take a look.
Hine 1st Return
It appears that the wind in this game was blowing north to south. This was the direction that Kyle kicked the 51-yard field goal. This makes sense since this kick ended up about 4-5 yards deep in the endzone. Hine made an extremely ill-advised decision to bring this ball out as the field was in poor condition, it was a deep kick, and he was moving backwards when he caught it. His lead blocker even tried to stop him from returning it and Hine went so far as to actually dead stop before making the decision to return it. By this point, ND's coverage team was already well within the 25.
In the previous screenshot, you could see the Notre Dame coverage team starting to adjust their lanes to the sidelines where Hine was headed. In this, you can see the fruits of their efforts. CJ Prosise, Kendall Moore, and Lo Wood are all converging on him and Hine has nowhere else to head to but the sidelines.
Moore got blocked and Prosise and Wood took poor angles but Hine, quite literally, had no place to go but the sidelines. Rabasa was credited with the tackle on this play. Overall, it is hard to critique the coverage team other than Prosise and Wood's poor angles. Hine really screwed the pooch when he hesitated on whether to return the ball or down it in the endzone.
Hine 2nd Return
Brindza's second kickoff was much shorter. Hine fielded this one at the 2-yard line.
Hone brings this out and things aren't looking that great for the Irish. Four players, straight-up, are engaged at the left side of the screen. Max Redfield and Devin Butler have flooded he same lane and have four blockers to account for them. The lone bright spots are Josh Atkinson at the bottom of the screen maintaining outside contain and James Onwualu, who has beaten his man at the 20 yard line and has a dead line at Hine because the lead blockers have turned their backs on him.
And Onwualu made it through, along with Devin Butler. Great job by both of them. Hine should be down at the 12-yard line...
Except both Onwualu and Butler overpursued and missed the tackle. This was a catastrophic mistake, as Hine now has roughly 10 yards to run, with multiple blockers ahead of him.
Hine made a break up field past Kendall Moore who was the victim of a minor block-in-the-back as well as some overpursuit on his own. Kudos to Josh Atkinson, who basically threw his man off of him, and to Max Redfield, who maintained position and is beginning to take a recovery angle.
Hine eventually ran right into CJ Prosise, who made the tackle assisted by Max Redfield. The problems with this kick return started when Onwualu and Butler both overpursued at the 12. Because of that, Hine was able to more than double his return yardage on this play. Unfortunate but like the first return, the mistakes really boiled down to a single instance. In this case, it was the missed tackles by Onwualu and Butler.
Hine 3rd Return
This was Hine's longest return of the day, a 37 yard return. I wanted to highlight that Brindza kicked this one off the tee with a holder because the wind was so bad.
Despite the holder, Brindza kicked this to about the same place as his second kick, the 3-yard line. I think the angle was very low, though, because there are zero ND players in view. They should at least be at the 30 with good hangtime.
And here is a huge sign of trouble. Only Devin Butler (at the 21) is by his man. Every other ND player is engaged except for the safety men and outside contain to the top. Hine, if he can bob and weave, can make it through this.
And Hine did just that. With just Josh Atkinson and Kyle Brindza to beat, ND's coverage team has failed miserably. If there are any positives on this play, it's that Josh Atkinson maintained contain and safety position, Max Redfield took a great recovery angle and Brindza is just being Brindza.
Hine made his second big mistake in kick returns on this play right here. Had he kept going towards the sidelines, he could have probably made it well past the 40, possibly even further if Brindza took a poor angle or screwed up somehow. Instead, Hine tried to break it left, right into the waiting arms of Josh Atkinson and a recovering Max Redfield.
So what went wrong on this play? First, I think the kick was low and ND did not have time to get down field quickly. Second, ND did not do a good job of fighting off their blocks. You can see in the second screenshot that they did a very good job at maintaining their lanes. The problem was that they failed to fight off the BYU blocks in time to make a play on Hine. Hine was able to weave his way through the blocked Irish coverage team and was only tackled because of a poor decision on his part and good positioning on the part of Josh Atkinson. This is precisely what CANNOT happen against Stanford because ND's coverage team will get eaten alive.
Hine 4th Return
Brindza squibbed this one. The ball seemed to die around the 9-10 yard line where Hine picked it up and began his return. You can see the first of the ND coverage team appearing around the 30.
And that's what we call a block in the back on James Onwualu, ladies and gentlemen. This was flagged and the return was killed. Even so, Notre Dame's coverage team is in decent position and have maintained their lanes. What somewhat concerns me is they still have not completely fought off their blocks and Onwualu is one of two players past the 25.
Devin Butler made a great play and took a great angle here. He also has help from Lo Wood at the 30. Hine was going nowhere on this return, especially after the penalty. The penalty brought the ball back to the 8 yard line. Overall, in my opinion, ND was somewhat lucky on this return because they failed to fight off the blocks aside from Lo Wood and Devin Butler.
This was Brindza's first attempt at a squib kick and it only made it to the 22. Austin Holt, one of the blockers, ended up grabbing it off the bounce and attempted to get what yardage he could out of it. To give you an idea, Holt is listed at 6'5'', 262 pounds, and is a DL.
Holt ended up diving to the ground before even engaging any of the ND coverage team. Honestly, this is a predictable result on a squib kick. Kyle's second attempt was much better, as he bounced it through the return team. This one just happened to take a lucky bounce right to one of the blockers standing at the 22. Nothing really to learn from this kick other than pointing out how a squib kick needs to find a lane much like a return man or a coverage player. Overall, outside of a handful of mistakes, this was a good performance for the ND coverage unit. They really lucked out on one of Hine's returns but the rest were not bad at all. Hopefully the Irish clean up the mistakes before rolling into Stanford on Saturday.
ND Kick Return
BYU's kicker, Justin Sorensen, faced similar problems with the weather and field conditions that Kyle Brindza faced. He booted 4 kickoffs for 236 yards, an average of 59 per kick, with one touchback. Because of the squibs, Cam McDaniel actually took 2 of the kickoffs for 43 yards, a long of 26. George Atkinson III, the Irish's primary kick returner, only took one kick return for 17 yards. On paper, that looks bad, but only George's return failed to make it to the 25 yard line (it made it to the 20). Let's take a look at the returns.
McDaniel 1st Return
Sorensen's first kick was to the north and I have a feeling that the wind affected this one. It seemed low and it was short, landing on the 8 where Cam McDaniel fielded it.
When Cam got to this position, he had two options. First, he could've tried going the long route down the right side of the field. Second, he could have attempted to go through the middle hole (small, but it's there). Third, he could have gone left and hoped to get a block or two. Cam obviously chose the third. There is no clear way to go here. The right path is probably gone because Justin Utupo is standing on the has blocking nobody. The middle path, while small, is also probably gone because Eilar Hardy lost his man. McDaniel may have seen the left path as his only option at this point.
Some more failures here. George Atkinson III, Max Redfield, and Kendall Moore all failed to pick up a man. Alex Welch, bless his heart, was blocking someone and got utterly bulldozed by a second BYU man while engaged with his own BYU man. It's arguable that Atkinson III, Redfield, or Moore should have had at least one of these guys. Regardless, Cam is trying to bump this to the outside and has 3 BYU tacklers within range with only Joe Schmidt out there to block for him.
Cam pretty much had no place to go and just tried to get as many yards as he possibly could up the sidelines. It's a testament to his grittiness that he made it to the 25. That said, this is not the type of effort I would like to see from the return team going forward. There were too many missed blocks or just flat-out failed blocks. I love GA3 but he just does not know who to block if he is not returning the kick. With as short of a kick as this was, it should have most certainly gotten past the 25.
McDaniel 2nd Return
BYU's kickoff here was to the south endzone but for some reason or another, Sorensen squibbed it. It went straight through on a bounce to Cam and George, with am taking the ball at the 13. Of note, there are absolutely zero BYU coverage players in view. The ball simply made it back there too quickly. A good squib will take bounces and slow down, much like Kyle's second squib attempt above. This one did not do that. It was, essentially, a line-drive kick that bounced twice.
Well this is a problem. Cam is at the 23 and has two BYU coveragemen heading right for him. John Turner missed his block and nobody accounted for the second man. I mentioned above that George Atkinson III has no real idea who to block or how to block on returns and this is another example, as he is behind Cam doing nothing.
I had to show those four screenshots in sequence so you could get an idea what happened. Cam dodged three almost certain tackles with two fantastic spin moves and was in open field past the 30 when all was said and done. It ended up being an almost punt-like return for him here and it really was just an outstanding individual play on his part. Multiple ND players simply failed to hold their blocks, GA3 still did not pick anybody up, but Cam made a great individual move to get into open field. While this was great, this is not the kind of play that we should expect to happen on every single return. There should be open lanes for the return man to run through and here there were none until Cam made them himself. You can see in the screenshots above the multiple players simply standing around doing nothing. Against better teams, this may not have happened but it happened on Saturday. Luck of the draw.
Cam ended up getting wrestled down at the 39 with some help from Justin Sorensen, BYU's kicker. Overall, an absolutely fantastic individual effort by Cam here. He had no lanes and created them with his shifty moves. Going forward, ND needs to be better at blocking and opening lanes for Cam. With as many ND players that were standing around doing nothing, it was basically Cam vs. The World on this return and Cam came out ahead.
Atkinson III Return
Sorensen tried to kick this one deep and it landed inside the five, bounced, and came to a rest on the 3-4 yard line. I still found this odd, as the kick was towards the south endzone (where the wind was blowing) and it should have gone further. George picked it up off the ground and began his return. Because of the time lost while the kick bounced and stopped, BYU was able to get downfield quickly and you can already see multiple BYU coverage players inside the 25.
There is good and bad here. The good is that Alex Welch and Joe Schmidt both picked up BYU players to block and have created a very small hole to the sidelines. The bad is behind them, there are far too many BYU players open with nobody blocking them. Multiple ND return blockers simply failed to hold their blocks or did not block anybody. You can see them all in a line at the 16 yard line.
George made a great individual effort to break one tackle but really had no chance outside of it. #11 for BYU has him dead-to-rights and there was nothing to stop him. George was eventually taken down at the 21.
What do we make of this? For starters, I love Cam McDaniel but if he's going to return it, ND is basically down a blocker because George just does not know what to do from a blocking perspective. Secondly, ND needs to hold their blocks longer and give a better effort on returns going forward. Stanford is a great team and does not make many mistakes. That said, this was a very weird game from both field condition and weather factors so it is hard to gauge what could have happened had this game been in better conditions. Still, regardless of the field and weather, ND needs to do a better job at holding blocks and creating lanes.
In what must be a testament to the offense on Saturday, Kyle Brindza only punted twice for the Irish. He booted his punts for 75 yards, an average of 37.5, with a long of 44. However, BYU was prolific on the returns. Cody Hoffman, standing in for JD Falslev, took both returns for 18 yards with a long of 13. This was very poor coverage on the part of the Irish. Let's take a look and see what happened.
Hoffman 1st Return
Here is Kyle's drop and point-of-contact. This kick was towards the south endzone with the wind at his back, so many would think that the ball should be easier to punt. However, punting is not like kicking. With a kick (like with Kyle's 51-yard field goal), the ball does not have to travel from the hand to the foot. Because it does with a punt, the wind can almost certainly affect a drop and here it looks like it did. The ball is not in front of Kyle but out to the side.
Despite the poor drop, Kyle got enough leg into the ball to get it downfield for a 44-yard punt. Unfortunately for him, he moderately outkicked his coverage. Cody Hoffman, BYU's return man, caught this ball at the 18 and does not have a ND defender within 5 yards of him.
Here, Scott Daly, James Onwualu, and Austin Collinsworth all took either poor angles or overpursued. Collinsworth actually got a hand on Hoffman but failed to wrap him up. This absolutely cannot happen. ND needs to be more disciplined on coverage and cannot miss tackles. Against dynamic returnmen like Barry Sanders Jr., this could be disastrous.
Despite the three misplays, Max Redfield and Alex Welch did a great job at angling towards Hoffman and eventually made the tackle. Overall, this return should not have gotten any yards whatsoever. Instead, it got 13 yards. Three ND coveragemen were in a position to make a play and failed to do so. This is something hopefully that they will work on going forward.
Hoffman 2nd Return
Here is the punt at the end of the game from Kyle. I've highlighted two things on this screenshot. First, I noted at the top that the wind was blowing out. Second, I've highlighted where the ball is after he kicks it. I would call it a duff. I think the wind affected Kyle's drop on this punt and it caused him to get too far under the ball, booting it almost straight up in the air. The result was what you would expect--a 31 yard punt, one of the shortest of the year for Kyle.
Interestingly enough, BYU had two guys back to field this punt. Hoffman fielded this punt at the 45. Despite the fact that the punt was poor, ND has players in place to make a play. CJ Prosise has no blockers on him and can easily make a tackle here.
But CJ overpursued and while he got a hand on Hoffman, he failed to make a tackle. If there is a good part to this, ND, specifically Austin Collinsworth, is still maintaining outside contain and Hoffman has nowhere to go but into that hole at the right hash.
Austin Collinsworth made a great play to shed his blocker and with help from Scott Daly, made the tackle. Overall, this was another case where ND had players in position to make a tackle early but failed. They need to clean this up going forward. ND's punt coverage has been the runner-up MVP of the special teams units this season to the field goal unit and they are better than this. Hopefully in the Stanford game they are much more disciplined.
ND Punt Return
Scott Arellano booted four punts on Saturday for BYU for 146 yards, an average of 36.5 per punt with a long of 45. Two of his four punts landed inside the 20 and only one was returned, a 10 yard return by TJ Jones. Let's take a look at that return.
Interestingly enough, on this return, ND dropped James Onwualu to be a blocker. Unfortunately, you can see him standing at the 31 blocking nobody. When TJ caught this ball at the 20, he had about 5 yards with which to work. Cole Luke, at the bottom of the screen, let his man go. Kendall Moore, in the middle, did not block anybody. There is a third BYU player at the top unaccounted for. This is another case where ND just simply didn't hold blocks and TJ is on an island, left to make a play on his own.
Like a good punt returner should, TJ made a fantastic individual play to dodge the first two men down. The third BYU player is still unblocked but at this point, TJ has more room with which to work. He also has blockers ahead of him, provided he can get by the unblocked BYU guy at the top of the screen. Quick teaching point here: Kendall Moore should not be running backwards towards the ball carrier. Rather, he should be looking for the hole and looking to block someone. If he turned around upfield to his right, he would see the BYU player unblocked and could take him.
TJ tried to make a move to the outside and actually had blockers in front of him. James Onwualu did a great job at recovering and picked up a block to open up the outside of the field. Unfortunately for TJ, he ran into Max Redfield. Now, in this screenshot, it looks like Redfield is just standing there in the way. However, the video shows that he stopped blocking his guy because his guy turned around. If he had kept blocking him, it would have been an obvious block in the back and this return would have come back. That was great awareness on his part and unfortunate timing for TJ.
TJ made a fantastic move by ducking under a tackle and broke into open field. Unfortunately for him, he was tackled by the field, as he lost his footing after making this play. There is zero doubt in my mind that this would have been a touchdown had TJ not lost his footing. I do not want to get into a field turf debate but we have seen players injured for the year, and possibly part of next year, because of the turf conditions in Notre Dame Stadium. Here is the first example, arguably, where the field directly cost Notre Dame points. I will say it again: THIS WAS A TOUCHDOWN IF THE FIELD WAS NOT A PILE OF POO. I do not know what has to give for the university, or its fans, to make up their minds about the turf but something has to give and soon. As for special teams analysis, ND did a good job of picking up secondary blocks after missing the first wave. However, the first wave should not have gotten through as easy as they did. ND needs to do a better job in the future of blocking the punt coverage teams to give TJ a chance. Even giving the coverage team a shot at the line, just a quick forearm to the chest, might create enough time for TJ to do something. This was a great individual effort on his part to break tackles and find space. Hopefully the team improves for Saturday.
ND Field Goal
This was a crazy game considering the weather but Kyle took advantage of it and was a perfect 3 for 3 from field goals. He made 2 from 26 yards and a third, his monster, from 51 yards out. Considering the weather and field conditions, that has to be one of the most impressive field goals I have seen this year. I would be remiss to note the effort of Jarron Jones on the field goal block team as well. Jarron blocked his second field goal of the year, a crucial block late in the game that preserved the Irish's 10 point lead. Hats off, and cookies, for Jarron!
Looking Ahead to Stanford
There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it; Stanford is going to be the best overall special teams unit that the Irish will face this season.
On the kicking side, Stanford has employed two kickers for kickoffs this season. Their primary go-to guy is Jordan Williamson, who has 41 kickoffs for 2,629 yards, an average of 64.1 per kick, 20 touchbacks, and one kick out of bounds. Their second man is Conrad Ukropina, who has 29 kicks for 1,752 yards, an average of 60.4 per kick, 3 touchbacks, and one kick out of bounds. Ukropina appears to be getting time only when Williamson is injured and when Stanford is winning by a lot. Williamson was injured roughly a month ago but kicked last week against Cal. On the coverage side, Stanford has allowed 45 returns for only 781 yards, an average of 17.4 per return with a long of 35. This is absolutely outstanding coverage from Stanford. Notre Dame, if Williamson is the kicker, is going to have about a 50% shot at returns and is going to face an amazingly impressive kickoff coverage unit. The 35 yard return was by stalwart athlete DeAnthony Thomas from Oregon, and I will highlight that return below. Notre Dame has its work cut out for it on the kick return side of things. Hopefully they can translate the effort against BYU into good things on Saturday.
On the field goal side, Williamson is 13-17 on the year. He is perfect from 1-19, 5-5 from 20-29, 4-5 from 30-39, and 3-4 from 40-49. He has missed both of his attempts from over 50 yards out. Ukropina, when filling in for Williamson, is 2-4. He is a perfect 1-1 from 20-29, 1-2 from 30-39, and 0-1 from 40-49. Williamson's misses were against San Jose State (from 52), Arizona State (from 51), Utah (from 38), and Oregon (from 40, blocked and returned for a TD). Ukropina's misses were against UCLA (from 46) and Southern Cal (from 30, blocked).
In sum on the kicking front, Notre Dame's only hope is that Jordan Williamson is injured and cannot play. He has a stronger leg from kickoffs and is practically automatic once Stanford has the ball inside the 30. Ukropina is much more inconsistent and does not have as strong of a leg. Notre Dame needs to be disciplined on kick returns and on defense, recognizing that giving Stanford the ball inside the 30 is practically automatic points.
Ben Rhyne is Stanford's punter. He has 42 punts on the year for 1,780 yards, an average of 42.4 per punt with a long of 58. He has only 1(!) touchback on the year, 13 fair catches, and 15 punts inside the 20. 9 of his punts on the season have gone over 50 yards, and no Stanford punt has been blocked all season. Rhyne has a fantastically strong leg and because of it, Stanford's opponents have had their chances at returns. Stanford's opponents have 22 returns on the year for 165 yards, an average of 7.5 per return with a long of 41. That 41 yard return came at the hands of Brandin Cooks from Oregon State, a return I will highlight below. Notre Dame should have chances to return punts on Saturday but it is not going to be easy. Rhyne is a great kicker and Stanford's punt coverage has only allowed 3 punt returns all year in excess of 10 yards. Notre Dame has its work cut out for them on Saturday in the return game.
On the return side of things for Stanford, the Cardinal have probably the best kick returner the Irish will face all season in Ty Montgomery. Montgomery has taken the bulk of Stanford's returns this season, 26, for 811 yards, an average of 31.2 yards per return. He has returned 2 of them for touchdowns, his longest being a 100 yard return. These returns came against Utah (100 yards) and Washington (99 yards). I will highlight both returns below. He has had help in the return game and for the most part, none of his replacements are nearly as impressive as Montgomery is. Jackson Cummings has 3 returns for 30 yards and a long of 16, Kelsey Young has 1 return for 20 yards, Lee Ward has 1 return for 30 yards, and Joe Hemschoot has 1 return for 7 yards. It is important to note that Hemschoot is an ILB and Ward and Young are both fullbacks. I think it's safe to say that Ty Montgomery is going to be the go-to return man on Saturday on kickoffs.
With punt returns, Stanford has spread the game out more. Kodi Whitfield is Stanford's primary return man, taking 8 returns for 39 yards, an average of 4.9 per return with a long of 25. His long came against Army. Barry Sanders Jr. has been much more impressive at punt return but has not taken as many returns as Whitfield. He has 5 returns for 64 yards, an average of 12.8 per return with a long of 29. His long came against Washington. Sanders is much more prolific and has multiple returns of over 10 yards on the season. However, his last punt return was over a month ago against Oregon State, a 21 yard return. Oddly enough, this was the last punt that a Stanford player returned, and I would expect to see Sanders as the primary guy on Saturday. I will highlight Whitfield's Army return and Sanders's Washington return below. Like Montgomery, Whitfield and Sanders are no slouches in the return game and Notre Dame needs to be conscious of the return threat that these two guys possess. In all honesty, I would be perfectly happy if Brindza booted the ball to the sidelines on every single punt.
Let's take a look at Stanford in action. Here, I am going to highlight DeAnthony Thomas's return against Stanford's kickoff unit, Brandin Cooks's punt return against Stanford's punt team, both of Ty Montgomery's kickoff returns for touchdowns, and the punt returns from Whitfield against Army and Barry Sanders Jr. against Oregon State.
This is the longest kick return against Stanford all season. De'Anthony Thomas from Oregon, arguably one of the most dynamic athletes in college football, caught this ball at the 5.
I've highlighted here where the lane for Thomas is. You can see that most of the Stanford players are being blocked by the Oregon return team. There is one Stanford player who has a run at Thomas, which is a major mistake on Oregon's part. Thomas ended up getting by this guy so it was not a complete failure.
By the time Thomas gets in the hole, it's obvious where is path should be. You can see that Stanford has all but one of their players sealed off from this lane. #2 for Stanford is unblocked but Thomas is too far away and too fast for him to have any sort of immediate impact on the play.
#2 did a great job of recovering and ended up making the tackle with help from Stanford's safety valves. The teaching points from this return are important. First, Thomas is incredibly fast and incredibly dynamic, and Stanford only allowed him a 35-yard return on this play. Oregon did a great job at blocking this and Stanford had safety valves ready. From this return, I would have to guess that ND has its work cut out for them on Saturday. They are going to need to be very disciplined to get the ball past the 25 yard line. If the kick goes into the endzone, my advice would be to kneel it immediately.
In what may be a good sign for Notre Dame on Saturday, Stanford does not run a true-spread formation for punts. You can see that they have all of their players in tight on the line except for two gunners and the three rear blockers. Because these players are so bunched up in the middle, it is difficult to get downfield quickly. The point of the spread formation is to basically have 7 gunners on the line. When they are bunched up like this, it defeats the purpose.
And because of the close in formation, Cooks has about 10 yards of open space ahead of him after catching the punt at about the 21. Rhyne also out-kicked his coverage by over 10 yards.
Cooks broke it to the sidelines but has absolutely nowhere to go. He has a Stanford player broken-down and waiting for him at the 27 with another Stanford player right behind him. #67 for Stanford is recovering towards the sidelines. However, other than a handful of blocks, most of the Oregon State players in the frame of the screenshot are doing absolutely nothing.
Cooks made a great individual move to get the Stanford defender's position and momentum away from the sidelines. This opened up a very small lane down the sidelines where Cooks ran. Oregon State, similar to ND on Jones's return above, picked up some secondary blocks. However a major mistake here was made by #41 for Oregon State. He should be looking upfield to block someone instead of back at the ball-carrier.
#67 for Stanford took a great recovery angle and has Rhyne on the sidelines to help him make the tackle. Cooks also ran into his own man.
There's really not much to critique here other than pointing out that Cooks made an absolutely fantastic individual move to break two more tackles. Like many of TJ's returns, there is absolutely no reason why he should have made it this far. Stanford's biggest failure here was taking poor angles and using poor form to tackle. #67 for Stanford had Cooks but simply lowered his head and let Cooks run right around him. #17 for Stanford made a fantastic move to get off of his block and in doing so, he saved a touchdown by forcing Cooks out of bounds. What can Notre Dame learn from this? For starters, it helps to stick with blocks. Also, Cooks did a fantastic job at making individual moves because his team did not do much to help him out. However, on this return, Stanford missed an inordinate amount of tackles, which is really uncharacteristic for them. This return shows that it's possible for Stanford to do such a thing but in reality, it is not very likely.
Stanford Kick Return, 1st Return (vs. Utah)
Before going into an analysis of Ty Montgomery's kick return, I wanted to point out Stanford's alignment here. This alignment would be perfect for a surprise onsides kick. Stanford only has 4 players across the front and it would be a perfect surprise if a team were to try an onsides kick in such a situation. Maybe Notre Dame has scouted this, but it has been quite some time since the Irish have attempted a surprise onsides kick.
Montgomery was officially credited with a 100 yard kick return on this play but it was more like 103 yards, as he caught the ball 3 yards deep in the endzone. Stanford is sitting back for Utah to come into play for them to block.
By the time Montgomery gets to the 10 yard line, a long kickoff return is all but guaranteed. This is an absolutely massive hole. Every Utah defender is accounted for except for the left outside contain and the guy with his back to the play on the 19 (what he is doing, I have no idea). With someone as dynamic as Montgomery is, a hole this large can only lead to a huge return.
Montgomery hit the hole and only has two players to beat on this play, one of them being the kicker. It would take superhuman speed to catch him at this point.
The kicker took a hail mary dive and missed, leaving one guy to beat.
Montgomery assured himself of running untouched for a touchdown once he got in open field. It was impressive that #7 got back so far but he was still too far away from Montgomery to affect his return. Overall, from a teaching perspective, this is a prime example of the importance of fighting off blocks and maintaining lanes. Stanford perfectly utilized the Utah players' momentum to open a running lane for Montgomery and this was probably one of the easiest kick returns for a touchdown of his career. Notre Dame needs to recognize this. Squibs might come in handy again in this game. It would also help if Kyle could simply boot the ball out of the back of the endzone.
Stanford Kick Return, 2nd Return
Remember what I said above about a surprise onsides kick? Stanford had the same alignment against Washington.
Washington's kickoff fell to Montgomery at the 1. Like with the Utah return, Stanford's players are sitting back waiting to block.
Once again, by the time Montgomery made it to the 10 yard line, a long return was guaranteed. Every Washington player is accounted for and being blocked except for one lone defender at the 20 (but Stanford has lead blockers for Montgomery) and the outside contain to the left. The sidelines man at the 25 is being double-teamed, even. This is just absolutely fantastic blocking by Stanford and really shows why they are such a threat in special teams.
Unbelievable secondary blocks by Stanford here. The free man at the 20 was picked up by one of the lead blockers and the bottom contain has a blocker headed right for him. Washington's only hope would be a mistake by Montgomery or one of the outside contain men at the 25 making a great individual play.
And that does it. Montgomery was not even at the 35 and he had already assured himself of a touchdown. Washington failed to maintain their lanes, failed to react quickly to the return and fill gaps, and had absolutely no safety valves back to stop Montgomery once he made it through the first wave. Overall, a catastrophic play for Washington, as this was the opening kickoff of the game. What a fantastic job by the Stanford return team to pick up blocks, make great secondary blocks, and Montgomery for using his speed here. Once again, he ran absolutely untouched for a touchdown and this may have been even easier for him than the Utah touchdown. Hopefully Notre Dame realizes the threat that Ty Montgomery poses and learns from the mistakes of Utah and Washington. Going forward, I would love to see ND's coaching staff use videos like this to teach our return teams what exactly they need to do to create opportunities for our return men and to teach our kickoff team what they absolutely CANNOT do and must do to prevent such long returns. Fighting off blocks and maintaining lanes is as important as defensive and offensive plays. A good special teams play can create momentum for a team and hopefully ND is on the positive end of that on Saturday.
Stanford Punt Return, Whitfield Return (vs. Army)
While I do not expect to see Kodi Whitfield returning punts against us, it is a possibility, and this is his longest return of the year, a 25 yard return. He caught the ball here on about the 30 and has 10 yards of space. The ball landed near the sidelines but #17 for Army is the outside contain and has absolutely vacated his responsibilities by running where he is.
Whitfield saw what I saw but decided to cut it back left because of the momentum of the Army players. Also, just as a quick teaching point, look at what Stanford's team is doing. Almost every Stanford player is looking for someone to block or is engaged at blocking someone. Notre Dame really needs to learn from this as I have seen far too many returns from TJ Jones where he is left on an island to make individual plays without the help of blockers.
Whitfield made the move to the sidelines and has blockers ahead of him. There is a lot of traffic that can converge on him but for the most part, the damage has been done 10 yards into the return. He saw a hole and went for it, and Stanford did their best to block for him.
Whitfield made a great spin move to dodge a tackle from Army's punter but #30 grabbed him immediately and Whitfield's momentum only carried him 5 more yards. Overall, this was a fantastic return from Whitfield and the Stanford punt return team. This just goes to show you what good blocking, or any blocking for that matter, can do to a return. Whitfield should have had nowhere to go at the sidelines and ended up getting a 25 yard return out of it. Notre Dame needs to recognize this and prevent such a thing from happening to them. Fighting off blocks and maintaining lanes is paramount for success on Saturday.
Stanford Punt Return, Sanders Jr. Return (vs. Washington)
Barry Sanders Jr. is the punt returner I expect to see on Saturday and hopefully Notre Dame can keep him in check. His long return went for 29 yards and hopefully ND learns from Washington's mistakes. Let's take a look.
Unbelievable discipline by Stanford's return team here. Sanders Jr. caught the ball at the 35 and EVERY Washington player is accounted for. He has an absolutely massive hole to run through in the middle of the field and there is nobody to stop him. It also does not hurt that Washington failed miserably at maintaining their lanes on punt coverage. They have almost three guys at the left hash and two guys in the same lane on the right hash/middle of the field. This absolutely cannot happen.
Sanders Jr. did not start running immediately. Rather, he waiting for his lead blocker to take out the free Washington player at the right hash. That is an unbelievably disciplined play that I would expect from a veteran return man and not a newer player like Sanders Jr.. Fantastic. You can see the hole is even more obvious than it was before. I was going to use colored lines to highlight where it is but you have to be blind not to see it. There is nobody within 15 yards of him.
Credit to Washington here. They did a good job at having safety valves and taking recovery angles. Sanders Jr. is surrounded and the return should end here...
But they missed the tackle. Sanders Jr.'s momentum has stopped but he still has open field ahead of him to run.
And here is Sanders Jr.'s fatal mistake. Instead of continuing to the sidelines and using his speed, he tried to bounce this return back to the inside. He may not have been able to outrun the rear guys to his back left but he could have made an attempt. Instead, he is surrounded again with no place to go.
And the tackle was made. Overall, this return was made possible by fantastic blocking and vision by Sanders Jr.. It was also made possible by the mere fact that Washington failed miserably at maintaining proper lanes. Washington's punt coverage team did a good job at fighting off blocks to prevent a touchdown or an even longer return but the damage was done the minute Sanders Jr. caught the football. Notre Dame needs to learn from Washington's mistakes and be disciplined.
I hope that you have stayed with me thus far and as always, I welcome your comments below.