Well, here we are. The Irish end the season at 8-4 with a loss to Stanford in which the special teams played admirably, save one play (I'll get to that below). Let's take a look.
If you would have told me after the game that ND would have 5 kickoffs and only one would go for a long return, I would have laughed you off the computer screen. However, this was the case on Saturday. Kyle Brindza took all 5 kickoffs for the Irish, booting them 323 yards, an average of 64.6 per kick, with one touchback. Ty Montgomery took all 4 kickoff returns for 127 yards, an average of 31.75 per return, with a long of 51. Montgomery's returns against the Irish went for 20, 22, 51, and 34. I think that is about as good as the Irish could do and it was the story of the kickoff coverage team's season; for every good play, there was one equally as bad. Let's take a look at one of the good returns by Montgomery (the 51 yarder) and one of the good coverages by ND (the 20 yarder).
Stanford Long Return
Ty Montgomery had an absolutely fantastic return against the Irish on Saturday. He starts out by catching this one in the endzone. Note from the video above that the Irish coverage team purposely kicked the ball to this corner, likely to try and pin Montgomery to the sidelines.
How the field looks when the return man gets to the 10-yard line usually speaks volumes. As you may remember from my Stanford preview, I noted that on both of Montgomery’s TD returns on kickoff, he was all but guaranteed a long return by the time he got to the 10. This time it is no different. Notre Dame has Joe Schmidt and Carlo Calabrese on the outside maintaining their lanes. Lo Wood is hanging back as a semi-safety, semi-outside-contain man. However, the interior of the field is unbelievably concerning, as Connor Cavalaris and James Onwualu are both taking angles not up field, but towards the sidelines. All Stanford has to do is ride these guys own momentum to get them out of the play. Montgomery sees this and makes a run straight for this position.
This screenshot from the post-return replay by Fox should give you a better idea. There is absolutely nobody in the lane next to Kendall Moore and because Cavalaris and Onwualu are too far to the right, they have to take extreme angles to compensate. It is like a crack-back block; you never loop around and block the guy from the side. Rather, immediately on the snap, you run down the line towards the center and work your way upfield to make the block so the defender does not get underneath you. Kickoff coverage is similar. You do not run straight downfield and take an extreme angle Rather, you gradually work your way to the ball carrier making sure you are in a position to keep a lane by the time he catches the ball or soon afterwards. Here, Onwualu and Cavalaris were way too far downfield before taking their angles. They should have been gradually working their way over so that by the time Montgomery catches this, Cavalaris is in the empty lane and Onwualu is in Cavalaris’s lane. Since they left this lane wide open, Kendall Moore and John Turner both ended up getting double-teamed (as you will see below) because those defenders did not have to account for the missing lane.
And there you go. Stanford has sealed Schmidt, Carlo, and Lo Wood to the outside, Onwualu completely overran the play because his angle was so severe, and the Stanford blocker used Cavalaris’s own momentum against him, driving him out of the play. Furthermore, Stanford has got a double team going to Montgomery’s left on Turner (Moore's double team is not even in view yet). Provided Montgomery could navigate traffic, he’s set.
And there you go again. Stanford sealed both the outside and inside. The double team on Kendall Moore is just the icing on the cake. There is no safety valve in the picture.
And there’s the safety valve, Kyle Brindza. Kyle does a good job of forcing Montgomery to take the ball back inside. He knows that if Montgomery gets the sidelines, he’s gone. Equally as impressive is Onwualu, who overran the play terribly to start out with but has since recovered to be within yards of Montgomery’s back.
This was arguably the unluckiest play of the entire game. Kyle beautifully forces Montgomery back inside, Kendall Moore recovers to be on the inside, and Onwualu catches up to Montgomery. Unfortunately, Moore got held and Kyle’s tackling attempt ended up taking out Onwualu. Thankfully, Josh Atkinson is on his way back as a safety valve because there is absolutely nobody there.
Atkinson grabs Montgomery at the 45, but Montgomery’s speed and the fact that he kept his legs moving took him an extra 6-7 yards. The OCD Special Teamer in me wants to note that he got an extra 6-7 yards and see that as a problem but frankly, if Atkinson did not hold on, Montgomery would have scored a touchdown for sure.
This play was doomed from the beginning. Onwualu and Cavalaris failed to properly maintain lanes and ended up creating a hole for Montgomery. An unlucky play allowed him to get an extra 30 yards. Overall just a poor, unlucky play that essentially sums up the special teams for the Irish this season.
Stanford Short Return
ND's goal this game was to try and pin Montgomery in the corner near the sidelines and they did so here as well. Brindza kicked this off towards the pylon and Montgomery caught it a yard deep in the endzone.
At first glance, I thought, "Wow, that's a huge running lane for Montgomery." But, after looking at the tape, it is still looking promising for ND. James Onwualu, on the left side of the screen, is completely unblocked. Devin Butler, at the bottom, has also sprung free. The question remains whether either could close this running lane for Montgomery--or at least force him to slow down--before he can hit the running lane.
It's hard to see from this screen angle (there really wasn't a good angle for this) but James Onwualu made the tackle at the 20 (he is on the other side of the blocker in front of Butler). It was a great move and a great angle, almost the polar opposite of the angles taken on Montgomery's long return. I said above that the long return summed up ND's special teams for this season but I actually think both of these kicks combined did so. For as good as ND could look on special teams, they could be equally as bad.
ND Kick Return
Just as with the kickoff team, the kick return team performed about average. ND had 6 kickoff returns in this game, all six being returned by George Atkinson III for 139 yards, an average of 23.2 per return and a long of 37. I would be upset but the 37 yard return by George was the longest return allowed by Stanford all season, beating DeAnthony Thomas's 35 yard return earlier this year. George's returns went for 29, 17, 20, 37, 18, and 18 yards. I am not going to show you all of them, just the best (the 37 yarder) and the worst (the 17 yarder).
ND Long Return
Ukropina booted this kick inside the 5 and ND began the return.
Couple things happening in this picture. First, George loves going for the sidelines and is on his way there. Second, Max Redfield absolutely flattened his guy. George is on his way down to the sidelines and provided he gets a kickout block from McDaniel, will have Alex Welch as a lead blocker down the sidelines.
And that is precisely what happened. Everybody is flowing towards the sidelines and George has Welch ahead of him to block.
Atkinson came very close to getting loose on this one. He ran out of space on the sidelines and was run out of bounds by a diving Ukropina, the kicker. I do not think the kick return was great in this game but you have to give props where props are due. This was the longest kick return against Stanford all season.
ND Short Return
I noted in my Preview for this game that Williamson, the regular kicker, is not 100% and thus Ukropina took the kickoffs. His leg is not nearly as strong and this kick landed on the 5.
Several things to note here first. First, Cam McDaniel was too passive on this and did not attack anyone to block. He did not have to lunge at a guy but you can't sit inside the 20 if you are the lead blocker unless someone managed to break free. Second, one of the ND return team lost his man at the 23, meaning Cam was going to have to pick this guy up. Thus, when George gets to the 15, there are two paths he can choose. The Green arrow is the one he ended up choosing and it was a poor choice. George is great in open field and the seam straight up the hash is just way too small and risky. Stanford has 2 extra players down on this end as well. George should have taken the Blue path. Not only would this have rendered the missed block moot, but he has another lead blocker up top and better numbers.
And because George chose the middle path, the seam closed really quickly and he ran right into McDaniel's butt, stopping all forward momentum and allowing for an easy tackle. Overall, this was not a systematic breakdown by the return team but rather a poor decision by the return man. Yes, there were missed blocks but that's why you have a lead blocker. That said, ND needs to make those blocks. There's a reason Ty Montgomery has had almost 10 returns on the season of around 50 yards and it is not just his speed. Game film, discipline, and practice will help the team improve.
Kyle Brindza and Alex Wulfeck both played in this game, however the box score neglects to note Wulfeck's punts, a beautiful 37 yarder that went out at the 7 and a 40 yarder. Brindza officially recorded 4 punts for 164 yards, a fantastic average of 41 yards per kick, a long of 47, with 2 downed inside the 20. We saw both Kodi Whitfield and Barry Sanders Jr. out there fielding punts but only Sanders returned any, just one for 4 yards. Let's take a look at the coverage on that return.
Stanford Punt Return
Before getting into the return, I wanted to highlight this. Stanford rushed 3 but ND left the wide man, #23, wide open to dive at Kyle. This, typically, should be RKG Bruce Heggie's responsibility and he didn't even look at the guy. I think, given the fact that his and Welch's legs are crossed, this is by design. It's like the outside rusher on a field goal--you give him a shot but prevent someone from getting inside of you. Still, it was a little too close for comfort for me. Additionally, Stanford #40 ended up breaking through Utupo and Welch. That absolutely positively cannot happen and the three guys back there (Utupo, Welch, and Heggie) are real lucky Kyle got this one off in time.
First man down for the Irish was John Turner and he failed to chop his feet and break down in front of Sanders Jr. Because of this, he ran right past him (I think with a little help from the Stanford gunner blocker) but still, that absolutely cannot happen. He was there before the ball was and thus this should have "fair catch" written all over it.
I was going to draw lines on here but there really is nothing to show. Sanders Jr. has no place to run. Lo Wood has outside contain to the bottom and is not overcommitting. Kendall Moore recognized Sanders Jr. was returning this and went to block outside contain to the top. Prosise and others are in the middle leaving Sanders Jr. no place to go.
Sanders Jr. hopped and skipped through a couple ND players but this one had no chance. The coverage team played it great after the overrun by Turner and it really ended up not as bad as it could have been.
ND Punt Return
Shockingly enough, Stanford only punted twice all game, recording two punts for 76 yards, an average of 38 per kick and a long of 47. Both were fair caught by TJ Jones. ND failed to record a single punt return yard in this game.
ND Field Goal
Kyle Brindza continued to be automatic from close range, booting two field goals on two tries, good from 21 and 27 yards respectively.
I would like to thank you all for following my special teams posts all year and thank you for the comments and critiques. I also wanted to thank the OFD family for allowing me an outlet to write about something that I enjoy. I do this because I know it, I follow it, I'm OCD about it, and I enjoy it. If there are things you would like to see or elaborated upon, please let me know. Special teams is a lost art amongst many football viewers and my goal is not only to inform but also to educate. I will be back for a bowl game preview when our matchup is announced. Until then, as always, I welcome your comments and critiques below and I bid you good kicking.