Purdue was a game of angst for many Notre Dame fans, myself included. However, while the rest of you were worrying about defense and tight ends, I was having conniptions over the special teams miscues. While there were some bright spots in this game for the Irish, the missed assignments and blocks were just as prevalent this week as they were last week. ON TO THE REVIEW...
Kyle Brindza handled the kickoff duties for this game again. He had 6 kicks for 383 yards, averaging 63.8 yards per kick with 4 touchbacks. Horrifyingly enough, Notre Dame only had a 35.8 net on the kicks—a little more than half of the total kick distance on two returns. Purdue’s first return by B.J. Knauf 29 yards and their second, also by Knauf, for 39 yards. This, by all accounts, is poor coverage. Let’s look at the returns.
Purdue’s 1st Return
Knauf catches the ball in the end zone and decided to return it. In hindsight, with perfect coverage, this would have been an unbelievably poor decision. He caught this ball 3-4 yards deep in the end zone and would have had a difficult time getting back to the 25, given that ND's coverage unit was already at the 30 at this point.
As I noted in my Purdue Preview, Purdue scored on a reverse return to Akeem Hunt and I would not have been surprised if Purdue tried it vs. Notre Dame. They did, but Knauf elected to keep the ball here, faking the reverse.
Here’s the first problem with that return (for ND) and why perfect coverage would have made the decision to return the ball a poor one. Carlo was the first man down and had Knauf dead-to-rights on the 14-15 yardline but the reverse threw him off and he ran right by Knauf, missing him and giving Knauf a lane to the bottom/left. I give great credit to Purdue here; they banked on the first-man-down missing and created a good lane for Knauf to return it here.
Knauf hit the hole and ND defenders swarmed him. BUT…
Greg Bryant missed the tackle and Knauf got an extra 5 yards from the miss. It slowed him down enough to allow for ND defenders to catch up but this could have been a catastrophic miss. I understand the importance of getting freshmen playing time but Bryant is a running back and really should not be on the field if he doesn’t know how to tackle properly. Overall, this return summed up ND’s failures in the special teams game vs. Purdue: Missed Assignments.
Purdue’s 2nd Return
This was arguably Brindza’s worst kickoff of the year. He hung it up and it landed on the 3 yard line. That said, he hung it up enough to give ND’s coverage unit time to get down the field, and there was still a chance to tackle Knauf inside the 25.
Once again, Purdue ran a reverse and faked the handoff to Hunt, with Knauf electing to keep the ball.
Here, you can see the hold created by Purdue’s return unit, an absolutely excellent job of blocking. If there is a culprit here to blame, it is once again one of ND’s freshman running backs—this time Will Mahone. He stayed in his lane but instead of going downfield, got turned and allowed for the Purdue man to block him to the middle of the field, creating a hole. I will give Mahone some credit—this would have been a very difficult play to make and Purdue did an excellent job of blocking.
Another player at fault here was Romeo Okwara(standing on the 23). He failed to close the hole and instead Knauf was off to the races. If not for a great recovery by Cam McDaniel, Knauf would have scored. I should highlight where Cam is in the picture above…
And where Cam ended up making the tackle. This was an excellent recovery and possibly a game-saving tackle. Overall though, another miscue by the ND kickoff unit.
Now, I would like to take a brief moment to highlight something I addressed in my previous post on special teams. I think that ND has two kickoffs—one for hangtime and the other for distance. I think the coaches tell the unit what kickoff is being attempted before they run out there. I also believe that the coaches see the benefit in the hangtime kick and there is benefit. From these returns, you can see that ND had ample opportunity to tackle the return man inside the 25 but mistakes prevented that from happening. It would not surprise me if the coaching staff just tells Brindza to boot the hell out of it from here on out because these returns are costing them great field position. My worry with this is the simple fact that Brindza may be, or will be, suffering from leg fatigue. If Brindza is punting, FG kicking, and kicking off, he’s bound to get tired, and this can be the difference between a booming kick and a low line drive like we saw from Purdue all night. As for Purdue’s second return, Purdue marched down the field and scored in 9 plays. ND sacrificed 20+ yards in returns to allow that to happen. It should not have happened at all.
ND Kick Return
Purdue had 5 kicks for 312 yards, averaging 62.4 yards per kick and only having 1 touchback. ND had a very good average in the kick return department, averaging 29.8 yards (4 returns for 119 yards total). Notre Dame’s first return was very poor by Atkinson, going for 17 yards after being caught at the goal line. Atkinson’s second was much better, going for 24 yards. Atkinson’s third was his longest of the day, a 47 yard return after being caught at the goal line. His fourth was also excellent, going for 31 yards after being caught at the 5. That said, the kick returns, like previous kick returns this year, were ripe with missed assignments and lanes. Let’s take a look at them.
ND’s 1st Return
ND’s first return was ruined from the start. Purdue’s kickoff man kicked it short and it bounced on the 3, with Atkinson fumbling it when it hit his hands.
Atkinson smartly didn’t listen to Cam here. Cam was hollering at George to down it but the ball hit him in play—if he took a knee, it was a safety, so he did his best to return it. Here, despite the miscue, he had a great lane to get decent yardage. However, this was ruinedby multiple players on ND’s return unit not playing to the whistle (probably thinking Atkinson was going to down the ball). Most notably the man who screwed up here was Joe Schmidt, who ended up backpedaling past Atkinson and hitting no one (at the 8 in the first picture, at the 5 in the last). A bobbled ball, a busted return, and not as bad of a result as it could have been.
ND’s 2nd Return
Here, Atkinson fields a very short kickoff at the 10. Contrast this with Brindza’s short kick above; ND was already to the 30 and past it, whereas here Purdue is not even there yet, save one man.
Atkinson has a hole here, but once again, Joe Schmidt failed to make a proper block. What could have been a very long return was relegated to a moderate one. Corey Robinson also failed to stick with a block later in this return but it was doomed once the first missed block forced Atkinson inside instead of into the lane.
ND’s 3rd Return
Atkinson catches this ball at the goal line and with the blockers set, has a good chance for a decent return.
Arguably Cam McDaniels’s only mistake all night (at the 20, about to block), he elects to not hit the first man down and goes for the second level, a guy that also should have been blocked already. That said…
Atkinson turned on the jets and blew right past him.
The ball here is already past the 30, making it a great return. Atkinson did a great job of protecting the football.
What you don’t see in these pictures is what happened just before it: Akeem Hunt (down on the 37), stuck out his foot and tripped Atkinson up. It slowed him down enough for Purdue to get back and tackle Atkinson. However, the damage was already done. Atkinson was tackled at the 46.
ND’s 4th Return
Another short kick by Purdue. Atkinson fielded this one at the 5.
Now by the time Atkinson made it to the 17, he had a hole here to return, with decent blocking in front of him.
Atkinson hit the hole but Purdue was able to cover it quickly. Still, he returned it past the 25 so it must be considered a success. That said, it may have gone for longer if not for a missed block, this time by Will Mahone (on the ground in front of #53 Justin Utupo). Mahone was supposed to have blocked #33 but wiffed. He was able to contact GAIII and limit the return.
That said, this, overall, was a very good night for the kick return unit. Some missed assignments but 3 out of 4 returns past the 25, one to midfield, is not bad. The fact that hurts from those three returns is ND failed to capitalize off any of them, punting 3 times and Carlisle fumbling on the 4th.
Going into this review, I thought, based on my own personal eye test, that our punting was poor. It turns out it was not poor but rather it was average (my measuring distance is 35 yards). Notre Dame had a very average 36.8 yards per punt, on 4 punts for 147 yards total. Brindza accounted for three of these punts with a total distance of 109 yards, an average of 36.3. Alex Wulfeck made his season debut on the fourth punt of the night (possibly a sign of the leg fatigue I mentioned above) with a 38 yarder that ended up inside the 20. ND had a net of 32.2 yards on these 4 kicks, with Purdue’s sole return going for 18 yards, a massive return and major screw up by the punt unit. Brindza has a strong leg, so my initial thought, going into this review, was that something was off with Brindza’s form (drop, body, or steps). Let’s take a look at the punts.
ND’s 1st Punt
Because of ESPN replays, I was unable to get the steps but I screenshot Brindza’s point-of-contact. Here, it looks like his shoulders are back and not forward, almost as if he is leaning back. This is poor form, by my view. There is nowhere for the ball to go but up and this was precisely the result, with the punt going for only 32 yards.
Because of the angle, it was hard to gauge Brindza’s drop, but he clearly hooked his leg (remember what I said about the natural leg motion for right-footed kickers sweeping across the body). The ball ended up on the left sidelines and contain was lost immediately at the catch. The ND defender, in this case Joe Schmidt (funny how the same guys come up time and time again), should have protected the sidelines but stayed too far in the middle. This, inevitably, led to…
Williams, the Purdue return man, had free reign to run right down the sidelines untouched because of the failure to contain and the poor punt.
ND lucked out here. Williams, for some unknown reason to me, decided to stop running and try to juke Jarrett Grace. I have no hesitation saying that Williams could have gained possibly 10 more yards on this return had Williams continued up the sidelines. Further replays show decent downfield blocking and it is more than possible that he could have actually ran this one back. Overall, a poor kick, poor coverage, and a poor decision by the return man led to the 18 yard return. Dare I say "Disaster averted."
ND’s 2nd Punt
This is the point-of-contact for ND’s second punt. Endzone punts are extremely tough. A punter has to shorten his steps and get the ball out quicker. Normally, on most kicks (punts, FGs), a kicker has about 2.3 seconds to get the ball off from the moment of the snap (depending on the rush, of course). Here, Brindza, because of the short field, has an even shorter time to get it off and he did an excellent job. However, his body still looks like he’s driving the ball up and not out. Before looking at the box score, I would have said that he had a much better punt on this one because his shoulders are still slightly forward, and it’s possible he was driving the ball up because of the short field that he had to work with for his steps. It turns out, I was right—this punt was 38 yards. That is still average and ideally, I’d like to see Kyle get 40 yards but 35+ is nothing to scoff at.
ND’s 3rd Punt
Once again, ESPN replays prevented me from seeing Brindza’s steps but I was still able to get the point-of-contact screenshot (someone get me that video mixer’s email so I can rant). Here, similar to his second punt, Brindza still has poor body form, leaning back but having his shoulders forward. He’s punting the ball up and not out. However, this was his best punt of the day, a 39 yarder. Like the 2nd punt, it was not returned. If you want to get mad, here’s something to ponder amidst your anger: This was ND’s third punt on it’s third drive of the game. ND failed to get a scoring drive until late in the 2nd quarter.
ND’s 4th Punt
The Alex Wulfeck show begins! And it starts with happy feet. Watch the video.
There is no nice way to put this—it was terrible. A punter should be controlled and it should be in one fluid motion—snap, catch, step, plant, kick—all in 2.3 seconds. Wulfeck probably had first-punt jitters (I hope).
Here is the point-of-contact screenshot. Note that Wulfeck traveled nearly 4-5 yards because of his happy feet. Not only is that poor form, it is also dangerous--he could have ended up kicking this right into the butt of one of his blockers (and ND would inevitably join the butt fumble, the butt snap, and the butt slide in Internet lore). Wulfeck, similar to Brindza, has his shoulders forward but is too leaned back to make this a 40+ boot. It wasn’t, going for 38 yards. Now, I have no idea why Brindza did not punt this one, but it is possible that he may be starting to suffer from the leg fatigue I previously mentioned. Overall, another average punt—not great but not terrible. This one was fair caught as well.
In sum, ND’s punting was meh, blah, or however you want to put it. Average is good enough but ND should be, and is, better than this. Again, the coverage units continue to give me headaches and I hope that we can clean those up going forward.
ND Punt Return
Going into the game, I noted that Cody Webster is arguably the top guy on the Ray Guy Award watch list and he did not do anything in this game to fall from that position. After having a great punt return against Michigan, Notre Dame failed to return a single punt in this game. Webster had 5 punts for 209 yards, averaging 41.8, 3 of them being inside the 20 and 1 of over 50 yards (a 52 yarder that was fair caught at the 4). I received several text messages after that punt about whether I was upset that Jones fair caught it at the 4 yard line. The short answer is yes. Now, I know what some of you may think, that Purdue had many guys around the ball, and they did--one.
But, you need to look at probabilities. If TJ doesn’t fair catch it and fakes a fair catch around the 10, it is possible that the coverage unit doesn’t cover the ball perfectly and instead follows Jones. In my non-expert expert opinion, there is zero chance that this ball would have been downed inside the 5. It was going in the end zone all the way. Watch some NFL games on Sunday to get the fake fair catch idea…or watch this video where the Chicago Bears scored doing just this (yes it was called back, but my point stands).
It is also equally as likely that the punt would have gone in the endzone, setting Notre Dame up with better field position. Think about it—this was not a coffin corner punt but was booted deep. A line drive like that isn’t going to bounce straight up, so the odds are in ND’s favor. Purdue would have had to have perfect coverage on that, with the coverage unit knowing exactly where the ball was going to land. They didn’t—in the screenshot above, one guy was standing immediately next to TJ, and he arrived there as TJ caught the ball. Instead, ND began the drive at the 4, went 3 and out, gaining 1 yard, and Brindza was forced to punt from the back of the ND endzone.
ND Field Goal
There is not much to say here other than Brindza continued to solidify his hold on the field goal kicking duties, making his only attempt, a 20 yarder. It is arguable that ND should have gone for the touchdown instead of the field goal. At the time, ND was on a 10-play drive down to the Purdue 3. However, it was with less than a minute to go and ND had failed to score in the half up to that point. I think it was important for ND to get on the board and Brindza converted. I don’t blame the coaching staff for making the choice to kick it.
Purdue Field Goal
In my Purdue Preview piece, I mentioned Griggs’s miss vs. Cincinnati and how he hooked it from the right hash. His miss vs. the Irish was practically a mirror image of that kick. Griggs failed to aim for the inside of the right goal post, instead aiming for the center of the field goal. He hooked it massively, ruining a chance for Purdue to take a 10-0 lead.
ND lucked out here because this is a very makable, practically chip-shot field goal that Griggs simply pulled. Inexcusable for him, lucky for us.
Looking Forward to Michigan State
Michigan State is coming into this game with a very solid special teams unit. Their kicker is Kevin Muma, who is 4-5 on field goals for the season, 3-4 from 20-29 yards and 1-1 from 30-39 yards. He has a long of 30. He has 18 kickoffs for an average of 63.2 yards per kick, 10 of them being touchbacks. Their punter is Mike Sadler. He has 20 punts on the season for 823 yards and an average of 41.2 yards per boot—very solid. He has a long of 54, only 2 touchbacks, 4 fair caught, and an amazing 11 of these punts were inside the 20. In the return game, they have 5 returns for 101 yards, averaging a mediocre 20.2 per return. Punting, they have an astounding 16 returns for 154 yards for a very solid 9.6 yards per return. Their opponents (for whatever strength you may give them) have managed 8 returns for 182 yards, 22.8 yards per return, and 6 punt returns for 25 yards, with 4.2 per return. 4 of MSU’s kick returns were from Nick Hill, who has managed 87 yards on these returns for an average of 21.8—very mediocre by my estimates, especially since he has a long of 27. Darien Harris has 1 return for 14 yards. On the punting side, Andre Sims is their go-to guy, having 14 returns for 121 yards, 8.6 per return (amazing for a punt returner in my opinion) and a frighteningly long return of 33. And now, to dig deeper into these stats…
For what it’s worth, Sims’s long return came against Western Michigan. Muma’s made field goals are from 20, 30, 20, 22, and he missed from 25. I will look at that below, but what these field goal distances tell me is Muma’s leg has not only not been challenged, but MSU’s offense must be woeful to resort to basically extra points to get on the board. To figure out the yard line for a field goal, you subtract 10 yards for the end zone and a further 3 yards for the point of kick. That means MSU’s field goals were kicked from the 7, 17, 7, and 9 yard lines. That is a horrible red zone percentage for touchdowns, in my opinion. But I digress…non-special teams are not my forte. As for the punt unit for MSU, here is how they lined up vs. South Florida:
And against Youngstown State last week:
Both of these are variations of the spread formation. It is going to be up to our return unit to get decent blocks on these guys one-on-one if TJ is going to have any hope at a return. I also wanted to note that Sims, the MSU punt returner, is very "free" with the ball and had it stripped from him vs. Youngstown State. If our coverage unit can take advantage of this, it would be a plus in my book.
I also wanted to take a look at Muma’s missed field goal--his only one of the season.
Muma lined up at the right hash. His aim should be to the inside of the right upright (left on the screen since the view is from behind).
Muma limp-legged this one. He has terrible form, is leaning away from the ball, and is not kicking through it. In all honesty, it reminds me of the form of former ND kicker Brandon Walker and explains Walker’s struggles when he was the ND kicker.
And he pulled it. As I have noted in previous comments, the natural leg motion for a right-footed kicker is to sweep the ball to the left. Here, Muma did just that and because of his poor form, the kick was doomed the minute he made his plant.
As always, feel free to critique and make fun of any typos you may find.