What can I say about the special teams in the Michigan game? For all of the back-and-forth about the success and shortcomings of the offense and defense, the special teams units as a whole played a rather outstanding game. With no hesitation, I can say that Michigan’s special teams are in great need of improvement for a variety of reasons and ND did their best to exploit the Michigan special teams flaws in this game. For the sake of space, I am electing to not cover ND’s Field Goal Block unit. A field goal block is, essentially, a glorified pass rush with assignments for eligible receivers. As for the rest of the units, here are my thoughts.
Notre Dame employs two types of kickoff strategies and we witnessed both in this game. The first strategy involves Brindza kicking the ball as hard as humanly possible to force a touchback and the second strategy is having Brindza gain hangtime, sacrificing distance, in order to try to get the kick returner down inside the 25-yard line.
Notre Dame had 7 kickoffs in the game for a total of 449 yards. 64.1 yards was the average kick and 38.7 the average net. An outstanding 4 of these were touchbacks. Of the ones that were returned, Michigan averaged 26 yards per return, totaling 78 yards in the game. The coaching staff appeared to mix it up a bit. After Brindza’s first two kicks went for touchbacks, his third was a hangtime that landed at the 5-yard line, with Norfleet returning it to the Michigan 37 yard line. This was a poor kick in hindsight; a perfect hangtime kick would have about 5 seconds of loft and fall just inside the endzone, giving the kick returner the impression that he has time and space to return it. The return to the 37 was 12 yards more than his touchbacks. At the start of the 2nd half, Brindza again tried a hangtime kick that resulted in a 25-yard return to the 25. It was a textbook kick but Michigan’s coverage unit allowed for a return to the 25. Brindza’s third kick that was returned was after ND cut the Michigan lead to 7. Brindza perfectly hung the ball up and Norfleet returned it to the Michigan 22. Let’s take a look at some of them.
Michigan’s First Return
This is the kickoff that landed at the 5. On paper, I thought that it was a poor kick but here, you can see that the first ND defender to get to Norfleet was Kendall Moore at the 18. He overran Norfleet and enabled the returner to get to the outside. Moore also took a poor angle in another kick return, discussed below.
Michigan’s Second Return
As you can see from where Norfleet fields this ball, it is an absolute textbook hangtime kick. Norfleet catches the ball roughly 3 yards deep in the endzone and with ND’s coverage team at the 30 by the time the ball hits his hands, things were looking good.
Max Redfield made it down first but was well blocked by the Michigan returner, prior to this screenshot. The ND player behind Norfleet is whom the blame should rest on: Kendall Moore. Kendall took a terrible angle and had Norfleet dead-to-rights down inside the 20. Unfortunately for ND, Norfleet took it out to the 25. On a positive note, however, you can see how the coverage unit has surrounded Norfleet and forced him into a channel, of sorts. Onwualu, Lo Wood, Collinsworth, and Cam McDaniel were all in prime position to make the tackle and did so. That said, I have to give credit where credit is due; Norfleet did a great job getting the ball back out to the 25. Improved angles would have resulted in a better result for ND here.
Michigan’s Third Return
This is the kick with the blimp angle, so it is easier to see how ND channeled Norfleet into a pack of waiting tacklers. Moore did not overrun this one nor did he take a poor angle, rather he forced Norfleet into the coverage hole created by the coverage unit. Norfleet was hit at the 20 but a second effort on his part got him 2 extra yards.
Overall, the Kickoff Coverage unit was good. If I were to give them a letter grade, it would be a B. The touchbacks were helpful but you can see from these stills why ND prefers the hangtime kick as opposed to the touchback; the defenders were in place to make tackles had they taken better angles. One can hope that they continue to improve as the season goes on.
ND Kick Return
Michigan had 8 kickoffs for 484 yards this game, with an average kick of 60.5 yards and an average net of 35.4. 5 of these kicks were touchbacks. What I gather from this data is that Michigan relies on leg strength to get touchbacks as opposed to returns. ND only returned 2 of these kicks for 76 yards, an average of 38 yards per return. The third kick was booted out of bounds, which, in reality, was not that bad of a result for Michigan.
ND’s first return was caught by GAIII at the 1-yard line and returned to the 27. A subsequent personal foul on Michigan got the ball to the 42. This was outstanding field position that was wasted by an interception on the 2nd play, resulting in a Michigan touchdown.
ND’s second return was caught by GAIII at the goal line and returned 50 yards to midfield. It was a great return by GAIII. Let’s look at both returns.
ND’s First Return
Atkinson fielded the ball and had a great lane to the outside that was ruined by a missed block from Onwualu (standing at the 24, let UM coverage man run right by him). I have great reservations about playing freshmen or inexperienced stalk-blockers on return units and this is just one small example why. Had this block been made, Atkinson had a huge lane to the outside.
Atkinson ended up avoiding the tackle but the reduction in speed in doing so doomed the return to only an average one. Countess for Michigan did a great job at forcing GAIII out of bounds but Michigan’s lack of discipline on special teams cost them another 15 yards. It was a great coverage exploitation of a failure by ND on Michigan’s part but the penalty cost them field position. It is unfortunate that ND could not capitalize on this, throwing an interception two plays later.
ND’s Second Return
This was absolutely picture-perfect blocking on ND’s part on this return. Every Michigan defender in the first-wave is accounted for, opening up an enormous hole on the bottom for GAIII to run through. If I had one criticism of this, GAII never seemed to kick it into "high gear." At about the 35, he made a juke move to try and shake one of the safety valves but it did not work. Still, a return to midfield is nothing to scoff at and ND executed this return perfectly.
Overall, my only criticisms of the return unit rest on missed assignments and GAIII’s hesitation to run at top speed. A return man shouldn’t be looking for openings on a return—they should be there and he should run at them full speed ahead. GAIII did this against MSU as a freshman and he needs to continue to do so in order to be an effective return man for the Irish.
Perhaps shocking, ND only had 2 punts in this game for a total of 80 yards, average AND net of 40. Both of these punts were on ND’s first two possessions. This is perhaps an overlooked stat at how well the offense did after the first two possessions. It is unfortunate we could not move the ball effectively, going 3-and-out on both, but having only 2 punts in a game should not be a bad thing. Also positive, while neither punt was inside the 20 ,neither was touched back. This is perhaps a blessing for the Irish, considering the punting failures against Temple. Brindza punted from ND’s 31-yard line and ND’s 34-yard line. This gave him a full field to absolutely boot the ball as far as possible. Brindza’s first punt went for 37 yards to the Michigan 32 and was fair caught. His second went to the Michigan 23 and was returned for 0 yards.
Brindza’s First Punt
Because this punt went only 37 yards, I wanted to take a look at Brindza’s mechanics. Looking at his body, it’s in perfect form; his shoulders are forward and he’s driving his body, and leg, into the ball. Where I think this went wrong was the drop. Ideally, a ball should be angled slightly left (if you think of the ball as hands on a clock, the top of the ball should be in between the 10 and 11) and slightly facing down. That way, the belly of the ball can make contact with the strongest bone in the foot, providing for a good punt. Here, it looks like Brindza turned the ball over and it fell too angled. This may have been by design, as the ball landed against the left (ND) sideline, preventing a return.
Brindza’s Second Punt
In contrast to the first punt, here you can see Brindza got a much better drop and was able to get a great kick out of it.
This was the punt return that Norfleet fumbled. As you can see from the coverage, it was almost—the guys were waiting for him, but some hesitation on the back 4 coverage guys prevented there being more guys around to pounce on the fumble. Unfortunately, the ball took a bounce to Norfleet’s right and he was able to hop on it immediately. ND would have had great field position if they could have capitalized on this. This is a good example of why you ALWAYS play to the whistle.
Overall, ND’s punt team this game was good. The punts were not long, but at the same time, no returns were given up, there was one fumble, and there were only two in the game.
ND Punt Return
Michigan had 3 punts in this game totaling 94 yards, an average of 31.3 with a net of 25.3. One ball was inside the 20 and 1 was fair caught, with the third going out of bounds. This, to put it mildly, is abysmal. I have previously noted that Michigan is one of the few teams in college football that still utilizes the traditional, not spread, punt formation, and this is costly. For example, take a look at their coverage unit vs. Central Michigan:
Here is the CMU return man fielding the punt. While the Michigan gunners are down there waiting for him, they are the ONLY TWO defenders that have a hope of preventing a huge return. On the far left side of the screen you can see a leg—that is the third Michigan coverage man. All ND had to do was cover the gunners and they would set themselves up for a big return. It is unfortunate for ND that they only had one return opportunity in this game but definitely capitalized on it, returning it for 18 yards, arguably the longest punt return of Brian Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame. Let’s take a look at it.
Now Michigan came out in a spread formation, surprising to me since I’ve never seen them run it before. I thought maybe they figured out that the traditional formation is a liability. But, I was wrong. Michigan quickly shifted to the traditional formation. At this point, I started to stand up in my chair a la the scene from Network in excitement.
I previously opined, offline, that the way to beat the traditional formation is to block the gunners. It appears that someone at ND heard my wails over the internet (at least I would like to think so!). Here, you can see that ND, smartly, doubled both Michigan gunners at the line of scrimmage.
And the return...
Here is picture proof of why the traditional punt formation is a liability. Jones catches the ball at the 35 and has an absolute wall of defenders. He may have had a longer return had several things happened. First, the backup gunner-blockers had nobody to guard. One, you can see, is alone at the 44-yard line and the other is at about the 46. If they turned into lead-blockers, Jones may have been able to take this well into Michigan territory.
Jones also made a huge mistake here in out-running his blockers. Punt returning is different from kick returning in that you have to look for holes to develop. Here, if he slowed down just a bit, he may have been able to recognize that the top of the field is WIDE open—he has two blockers in great position and Michigan was shading left. Still, he returned this to the Michigan 46 yard line, setting ND up for great field position. ND was able to drive the ball to the 26 and tied the game up at 10 with this return.
Overall, the return unit is light years ahead of where they have been in the past. Their inexperience in return blocking is still evident from these stills, but things are looking up if they can continue to improve their stalk blocking techniques and if Jones can have good field vision. Against a spread formation stalk blocking is more important than ever and it is unlikely ND will see another traditional punt unit again in this season because of that. Michigan played an absolutely fantastic football game but if you were to judge them by their special teams play alone, they are in some need of work, particularly in the punt game. Wile and Gibbons have great legs and for their sake, they need better coverage units.
ND Field Goals
Brindza was perfect for field goals in this game, kicking three (44, 24, 40) and making them all. Only one was poor by my standards and I would like to highlight it below.
This is Brindza’s first field goal attempt from 44, his longest. For a right footed kicker, aim is important, and that comes from understanding that the natural leg motion. For a kick on the left hash, a kicker should aim for the insider of the FAR (right) post, as the ball will hook left, moving with the leg motion. For a kick on the right hash, a kicker should aim for the inside of the NEAR (right) for the same reason. Brindza, for this kick, did not do this. He aimed almost straight ahead and the ball just hooked inside the upright. Had he aimed just inside the right upright, it would have curved to the middle like his other kicks. Here are stills of the kick in flight to highlight what I am saying:
This is only a minor critique. Brindza was 100% so it is hard to get upset at a guy who accounted for half of our points with 3 field goals and 3 extra points.
Looking Ahead To Purdue
Purdue has not had many special teams opportunities offensively so far this season. Their first game was a 42-7 loss to Cincinnati. The Cincinnati loss highlighted Purdue’s strength in terms of special teams: their punter, Cody Webster. Webster had 3 punts in the game for a total of 169 yards, an average of 56.3 and a long of 73—absolutely outstanding. Their net in the game was higher than the average punt—57—highlighting the strength of their coverage unit. Against Indiana State, Webster had 6 punts for 280 yards, an average of 46.7, a net (again higher than the average) of 47.2, 4 were inside the 20 and 2 were over 50 yards, his longest being 59. That is absolutely outstanding and if I were to have a Ray Guy Award Watch List, Webster would be right near the top of it.
Given the sheer oomph that Webster has in his leg, the lack of return yards is quite surprising. Most often, punters with strong legs will outkick their coverage, so while they may have a long punt, there would be a decent return. Because Purdue’s net is actually MORE than their average, I decided to delve deeper.
Against Cincinnati, the Bearcats managed 2 returns of 3 and 6 yards respectively. The 73-yard leg missile was an interesting punt in and of itself:
Purdue lined up in an odd variation of the spread punt formation. Clearly, the idea here was to punt it to the left side (bottom) of the field to provide for better coverage. Here, Webster booted a low line drive punt that was absolutely crushed.
My initial inclination to the 73 yarder was that he outkicked his coverage, and I was correct. Here, the Cincinnati return man catches the punt roughly 12 yards from the closest coverage man. What made this such a long punt, however, was the fact that the return man fumbled this punt and amidst a wrestling match for the ball, Purdue came up with it.
As for their other punts, the formations were exactly the same.
Purdue lines up in the spread formation but instead of evening out the gunners, they stack one side and attempt a directional kick. Cincinnati failed to do what I harp on in attacking spread punt formations: failed to properly stalk block. Some of the Purdue gunners had free reign on the return man and but for his shiftiness, there would have been 0, or a negative, return.
In the ISU game, Purdue’s coverage unit (and perhaps Indiana State’s lack of athleticism) won out. Of the 6 punts by Webster, only one was returned for -3 yards. Here is the formation.
As you can see, Purdue made a slight adjustment to this, moving one of the bottom guys up top. Poor stalk blocking and a slip by the ISU return man on that punt resulted in the -3 return.
From looking at these punts by Webster, I have several observations. First, he is not a mixed hangtime/distance guy. Rather, Webster, often, goes for straight distance. It has not hurt them yet, as Cincinnati and ISU failed to adequately stalk block the gunners, allowing for short returns. My second observation has to do with Webster’s kicking motion, which hopefully many readers will see Saturday. Webster, instead of stepping forward, steps to the left before booting it, almost in a hybrid-rugby style. It is an odd form but it has worked for him so far. I think if ND wants to capitalize on Webster’s punts, they need to be ready to stalk block and for the fact that Webster has an absolute cannon for a leg. In several of the Cincinnati and ISU clips, the return man was running backwards to catch the ball. In fact, that was how the Cincinnati return man fumbled his return—he was running backwards and attempted to catch it over his shoulder.
For field goals, Paul Griggs, the Purdue kicker, is 2 for 4 on the season. He missed his only opportunity vs. Cincinnati, a 39 yarder. Against ISU, he was 2/3, hitting from 18 yards and 37 yards respectively. He missed a 49-yard attempt that fell short, landing about halfway into the endzone. The kick itself was great, in my opinion. He aimed for the inside of the right post, kicking from about the left hash. It just so happened that the ball fell short.
As for the Cincinnati miss…
Here is Griggs lined up for the kick. Above, I noted that Brindza made his "almost-missed" (using the phrase very loosely) kick because the natural leg motion for a right-footed kicker is to sweep the ball across the field. Well, Griggs, in this kick, aimed for the MIDDLE of the field goal. Any guess what happened?
The ball is hard to see so I added circles where it actually is. I think it’s questionable whether he would have made this even if he aimed correctly because he really hooked it. That said, this is a lesson on why the plant and aim are so important when kicking from a hash.
Overall, Griggs is a serviceable kicker. He is not fantastic but he is hardly the worst I have seen. Hopefully, he does not get many opportunities to kick against us, outside of the beginning-of-the-half kick.
Going into this preview, the only area of real concern for me was kickoff coverage. I say this because Purdue returned the opening kickoff vs. ISU for a touchdown. However, having looked at the numbers, I am now mixed. Versus ISU, Purdue had 2 kick returns, one being a 99-yard return for a touchdown and the other a 24-yard return. The 24-yard return is slightly better than their average versus Cincinnati, where Purdue had 4 returns for 76 yards, averaging 19. Since the 99-yard return was the outlier, I decided to go to the videotape.
Purdue’s kick returner catches it. BUT WAIT!
The old trickeroo reverse return. Akeem Hunt got the return and ran untouched with a wall of blockers.
My observations from this return, and their others, are similar to others that I have when it comes to kickoff and punt coverage—so long as the ND special teams coverage units stay in their lanes and do not fall prey to the trickeration, they should be fine. I could easily see Purdue trying this against us but I would hope that Coach Kelly and the rest of the staff saw this and plan for it.
The only remaining area to tackle is punt coverage. This is hard to predict. Purdue had no returns versus Cincinnati, as both Cincy punts landed inside the 20 and were downed/out of bounds. Purdue had 2 versus ISU for 16 yards. The two returns are surprising, as Jordo Stangler, ISU’s punter, had 7 punts on the game. That said, I think we should be fine here.
In closing, I would like to provide a brief teaching point regarding "coffin corner" punts. A coffin corner punt is a punt that a kicker directs towards the sidelines in order to prevent a return and down the ball inside the 20. Coffin corner punts are great because the punter is in complete control of what happens to the ball , whereas if he hangtimes it inside the 20, he is dependent upon his coverage team getting down there and in position to prevent it from going into the endzone. I ranted and raved about these following the Temple game where Brindza booted the ball out of the back of the endzone multiple times. I give credit where credit is due, and Jordo Stangler, punter for ISU, had arguably one of the greatest coffin corner punts I have ever seen. Congrats Jordo, you win a gold star from me. Please watch this awe-inspiring and glorious punt:
If you have any thoughts or have anything to share, I would welcome comments below. Many apologies for the length of this review/preview. As you can tell, special teams are kind of my thing.