It wasn’t as bad as you think. That was my initial reaction after completing this review of our special teams performance against the Spartans and my overall conclusion of the team's performance vs. the Spartans. While the blocked punt and missed field goal were (or are) on many of our minds, I watched the film and to be honest, this was one of the better special teams performances of the year, for the most part. This may have been aided by the wind in the stadium but that’s a fact of football—you utilize the weather to your advantage. As for the Let’s get cracking.
Let’s start off with the "Good." This was, without a doubt, the best kickoff coverage game the Irish have had this season. Kyle Brindza took all 4 kickoffs for the Irish in this game, booting them for 259 yards, or an average of 64.8 yards per kick, and a net of 46.2. Brindza touched-back two of the kicks. Of the two MSU returned, they were only able to gain 24 yards on them, with an average of 12 yards per return. Hill took one kickoff return for 8 yards and Kings took the second for 16. Clearly, the coaching staff believes that good field position is obtainable through the hangtime kicks—that or the wind was a factor (certainly possible). Let’s take a look at the two returns MSU had against the Irish.
MSU 1st Return
A clear hangtime kick, Hill fields this ball one yard deep in the endzone and…
Promptly fumbles it.
ND’s coverage unit swarmed Hill almost immediately after he got out of the endzone. I give cookies to Carlo Calabrese and Devin Butler here for breaking down and maintaining outside contain. I also give a cookie to Kendall Moore for taking a great angle and…
Making a fantastic tackle. Overall, a huge success for the kick coverage unit.
MSU 2nd Return
Brindza, interestingly enough, squibbed this one to the left pylon. I cannot figure out whether it was a miskick on his part or if this was by design. Whatever the call, it worked.
Kings let the ball come to him instead of going after it. This is a massive failure on his part. Once it was clear that the ball was squibbed, he should have moved forward and gathered the ball instead of letting it trickle to him. The danger with that, obviously, is having the ball bounce away from you. However, this one didn't really appear to take many, if any, crazy bounces, so he could have picked this up before it got to him. Instead, he remained flat-footed and let the ball slowly bounce to him, and promptly bobbled it after picking it up. Again, another cookie here to Carlo Calabrese for maintaining outside contain. This was also a bad no-call on Joe Schmidt (right side of the screen), who is clearly being blocked from behind.
A slightly bad angle taken by Kendall Moore here, but unlike the Michigan game, he actually made contact with the return man and slowed him down, allowing for…
Max Redfield and Ben Councell to make the tackle. Again, an excellent display of kickoff coverage, and also another kickoff that benefitted from a miscue by the MSU return man. A squib kick is a low, line-drive kick that should give the return team decent time to put together a good return. Here, Kings failed to run to the ball and let it come to him. He also bobbled it once picking it up. A+ for the Irish on kick coverage on Saturday. Cookies all around.
ND Kick Return
No cookies here…in fact, the return unit makes me want to take all the cookies back. ND’s kick return did not improve and, in fact, slightly vs. MSU. ND had 3 kick returns vs. MSU with George Atkinson III taking all of them for 67 yards, an average of 22.3 yards per return. This was down from Temple (29.3), Michigan (38), and Purdue (29.8). Overall, the kick return failures in this game boil down to what they usually do: failed assignments. Muma took all 4 kickoffs, getting 253 yards on them, 63.2 per kick, and an unsightly (for ND) 40.2 net. Let’s take a look at the tape.
ND 1st Return
Atkinson catches this kickoff at the goal line and has his blockers set for a good return.
In past games, the lead blocker back with Atkinson has been Cam McDaniel. Here, it was Austin Collinsworth and he made a rather uncharacteristic mistake. From the blocking, most MSU guys are engaged, but Collinsworth (at the 18-yard line, in between the hashes, running out) completely runs by a MSU coverage man and allows this guy to have a direct shot at GAIII. He didn't even acknowledge him--just kept running straight downfield.
It ended up being Collinsworth’s man that made the tackle. You can see in this picture that Collinsworth eventually engaged a MSU coverage man at the 21. This is wrong. As the lead blocker and 2nd to last man back, Collinsworth's job is to attack the first-man-down on the kickoff coverage unit. It was a failure to engage this guy on the kickoff return unit to begin with but Collinsworth needs to recognize that 1, maybe 2, coverage players are going to get free. As seen in the previous image, though, Collinsworth ran right by the eventual tackler. George’s only hope was to try and break the return to the outside, which he tried, but had absolutely zero room to do. I would give some fault to George for slowing down on this return and not kicking it into high gear running to the outside (something he has done several times this season thus far) but it really was not only uncharacteristic, but also inexplicable that Collinsworth would not even get a forearm shot on the MSU coverage man—he, quite literally, ran RIGHT BY the MSU coverage man and didn’t even acknowledge the MSU coverage man’s presence. I’ve said it before in these reviews and I will say it again—assignments are key in coverage and return situations and one mistake can ruin an entire return. Here, Collinsworth’s failure to touch his man ruined the return.
ND 2nd Return
Atkinson catches this ball on the 3-4 yard line, a very short kick, and things were looking good for a return. Again, Collinsworth is back to be the lead blocker.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call a hole. If I had any criticism of this whatsoever, it is that 5 ND guys are there in front of George and not spread out or engaged, but they are in prime position. So long as George doesn’t overrun them and the blockers actually engage the coverage team, this is an excellent setup for a return. I also want to give props to Justin Utupo at the bottom of the screen for a strong block on the outside man and creating this lane to the outside.
Well, two of my fears were confirmed from the last image. First, the bunched up blockers failed to engage a single Michigan State player (you can see in this image some of them are still behind GAIII blocking nobody and the others are running down field, also blocking nobody, on the right side of the screen). Second, George overran Alex Welch on the return, but I give more blame to the blockers. It, again, is inexplicable to me that a return unit would fail to engage a single coverage man. George got a good stiff-arm on the MSU coverage man and was able to get this ball to the 30. If it’s past the 25, it is a success in my book, but this could have been a much longer return had the return unit actually made blocks. It is mind-boggling that a return guy can have a flurry of blockers and those blockers fail to engage a single player.
ND 3rd Return
George catches this one at the 2-3 yard line and again has Collinsworth as his lead blocker.
This officially puts Collinsworth in my doghouse. Austin, at the 19, puts his head down, and tries to hit the MSU coverage man at the 20 but completely whiffs (and we may have gotten away with a block in the back as well). This, led to…
You can see Collinsworth still standing on the 19, now looking at the guy he bounced off of, and probably thinking, "Wha happened?"
The guy slowed George down enough to allow for a second MSU coverage man to help assist the tackle. Inexcusable, inexplicable, infuriating, uncharacteristic, the list goes on. These were three solid return setups that were completely botched by the lead blocker(s) on all three returns. ND really needs to take a look at game tape and reevaluate this going forward. The idea works and the holes are there, but it is simple failures of basic blocking and assignments that ruin the returns.
For the second week in a row, we saw Alex Wulfeck take a punt for the Irish. Kyle Brindza got the lion’s share, taking 4 punts for 171 yards, an impressive average of 42.8 per punt, a long of 51, and no touchbacks. The 51 yarder is Brindza’s longest punt of the year. Alex Wulfeck took a single punt that went for 49 yards and trickled into the endzone. Brindza’s 5th punt was blocked and officially recorded as a team punt for 15 yards. In total, ND had 6 punts for 235 yards for an average of 39.2. If you subtract the blocked punt, ND is looking at a Ray Guy Award threatening average of 44 yards per punt. Assuming Brindza maintained his average of 42.8 per punt, ND is looking at an average of 43.8 yards per punt. That’s is incredible. MSU’s lone return came from Kings, who returned his punt for 6 yards. Let’s take a look at the tape of the blocked punt, Brindza’s long of 51, Kings’ return and Wulfeck’s punt.
ND Blocked Punt
ND lined up in the spread formation for their first punt.
Uh oh. The snap here was high. This means that Brindza has to hurry in order to get this punt off. As I noted in my previous Special Teams installment, a kicker (whether it be punter or FG) has approximately 2.3 seconds to get the kick off from the moment it is snapped. Because the snap here was high, Brindza has to sacrifice form for timing. He needs to hurry it, especially since MSU came after this one and didn't safe-return it.
Still not all is lost, despite the high snap. As is common, three return unit players rush the punter and should be accounted for by the three blockers back protecting Brindza.
This is a colossal failure by Jarron Jones. He completely whiffs on his man and allowed him to run, almost untouched, to Brindza. The result is what you would expect.
I have to give a cookie to the MSU man here. He made sure to dive across Brindza and not at him, ensuring no roughing penalty on the kicker. He got a hand on the ball and ND was left with terrible field position. Thankfully, Muma hooked his field goal (a point I will address later). This was a catastrophic miscue by the protection team and ND really lucked out here.
On a side note, Brindza’s form in the above screenshot is much better than his prior game vs. Purdue. Here, his shoulders are forward and he is exploding into the ball. He is more vertical than I would like but given the high snap and the fact that he had to rush the kick, this was to be expected. No cookie for Jones here, though.
ND Brindza Long Punt
Good snap here and excellent form from Kyle on this punt. He has his body forward, his shoulders forward, and has the ball out ready to boom.
Here, Kyle’s body is still too vertical for my liking, so I think the wind may have been a factor in this kick.
The ball went out of bounds at the 33. Overall, a great result from Brindza’s vertical kick. If the wind was in fact blowing out that way, kicking the ball vertical is actually preferable, as you can get both hangtime and distance from it. That said, if the wind was blowing and Cody Webster from Purdue was kicking this, I could have easily seen it going into the endzone. Kudos to Kyle for his longest punt of the year.
ND Returned Punt
Again, I think Kyle is way too vertical here. He’s kicking UP into the ball and not OUT. I previously stated with the high snap that he had better form and I agree with it. Yes, he was up in that punt but his shoulders were forward. The same cannot be said here. That said, the ball travelled 45 yards in the air, so it’s not like this was a complete catastrophe—simply a missed opportunity, if you can call it that.
I think the wind may have been a factor here, as Kings went back to get this one. Also, the coverage unit was slower to get down, in part from good blocking by MSU but also, I think, because of a lack of knowledge where the ball was going. That said, the coverage unit here is in good position—Kings is trapped against the sidelines and the ND players are not over-pursuing.
Great job by Farley to seal Kings to the outside and by John Turner in keeping the sidelines. Good coverage—I will gladly take this result.
ND Wulfeck Punt
Better blocking here than the blocked punt. Wulfeck takes the snap and is in good position.
Someone get Brindza this tape and show him how it’s done. Wulfeck’s shoulders are forward, he’s exploding into the ball, and it’s a shoe-in that this punt is going far in a line-drive sense.
The kick here bounced on the 15. The MSU return man COULD have picked it up to stop its forward momentum but he did what I said TJ should have done vs. Purdue: he recognized the ball was bouncing forward and the coverage unit was over 5 yards away, meaning the odds of this going into the endzone were very high.
Now, this paragraph goes to my interpretation of the NCAA rules—if I am wrong, please feel free to correct me in the comments. As far as I am aware, and from reading the NCAA rules, the NCAA does not follow the NFL rules as it pertains to downing punts. The NFL rule is the ball can cross into the endzone but must be batted back in the air (like saving a basketball going out of bounds) so long as the player began his jump from in front of the goal line. Rather, there is an invisible barrier ON the goal line and so long as the BALL doesn’t cross it, it’s a good down. There is zero reason why anybody, including Farley, should be diving for this. They can run it down and be standing in the end zone so long as they keep the ball from going in the end zone. This, I believe, is consistent with Section 6, Article 1 of the NCAA rulebook: "It is a touchback when… [t]he ball becomes dead out of bounds behind a goal line…or becomes dead in the possession of a player on, above or behind his own goal line and the attacking team is responsible for the ball being there…[or]…a kick becomes dead by rule behind the defending team’s goal line and the attacking team is responsible for the ball being there." Batting the ball, in my opinion, is not possession, but the batting does not need to be done from in front of the goal line, if I read the rules correctly. Again, I stand to be corrected on this but I went through the rulebook and this is what I came up with.
In closing, I think Wulfeck should have coffin-cornered this punt. At the same time, the punt was certainly downable. Hopefully these guys get some game tape lessons from this leading up to Oklahoma.
ND Punt Return
While ND struck out in the punt return game vs. Purdue, they were able to return one punt vs. MSU. Going into the game, I thought it was going to be tough to return ANY punts against MSU because their punter is one of the best in the game right now, and Mike Sadler did not disappoint (for MSU fans). Sadler had 5 punts for 207 yards, a 41.4-yard average. His long was 54, he had one touchback and one land inside the 20. What shows to me that the punt return game is still a work in progress is the fact that TWO of Sadler’s five punts were fumbled or muffed by the punt return team. One hit a blocker (which could be chalked up to wind) but the second was inexcusable, and it was the second that has ND fans, myself included, still talking about the "punch" thrown by a MSU player. There are no ifs or buts about it: it was an absolutely horrific no-call by the officiating crew. Such a gutless play should not only garner an automatic flag, but also an ejection. As for the one that hit a blocker, TJ needs to be screaming "PETER" (the universal punt returner call for "Stop what you are doing and run to the nearest sideline immediately, there’s a crappy punt falling right now"). I couldn’t hear him make this call but I stand to be corrected. For now, let’s take a look at the punt that was returned as well as the punch.
ND TJ Return
This was a low snap but clearly ND is in a "safe" return here. The 3 men that would normally rush the punter are hanging back protecting for a fake. Given the history between MSU and ND as it pertains to fake kicks, this was a smart strategy (especially since MSU only needed 3 yards).
My conclusion was correct—only one ND man actually passed the line of scrimmage and he was still looking for a fake. That said, spread punt formations DEPEND on proper stalk blocking and you can already see one MSU man has gotten free at the 20-yard line.
This is the kind of stuff that continually gives me heartburn. The MSU man who came free is the first man down there and only James Onuwalu and Jaylon Smith are actually engaged in blocking—the rest of the guys are just running back. There is zero chance TJ could turn this into a decent return unless he was covered in mayonnaise.
TJ made the first guy miss but the subsequent MSU defenders are already there waiting for him. His only hope was to try and outrun these guys to the outside.
And he could not.
ND MSU Punch
I don’t think there’s any more that needs to be said about this. I have absolutely zero idea what was going through the side judge and umpire’s minds but they clearly missed "What To Do When A Player Throws a Punch" class at referee school.
Overall, this was an average to mediocre day for the return game. The chances were there but ND did not take advantage of them. This was hurt by the wind and the fact that Sadler is an excellent punter. I know many ND fans will see the fact that we are no longer taking fair catches on every punt as a success but there’s more to the return game than just not fair-catching punts. Punts NEED to be returnable in order for there to NOT be a fair-catch. Simply making an attempt to return a punt when a player should fair catch it is reckless. But again, this all goes back to proper stalk-blocking; if the return team wants to return punts, they MUST stalk-block. As always, I hope the ND special teams unit watches some game film and takes a look at what they need to do going forward.
ND and MSU Field Goal
In my preview for Michigan State, I highlighted the fact that Muma missed a field goal by "limp-legging" it to the right, pulling the ball, from the left hash. I wanted to take a look at his miss vs. the Irish to see if there were any similarities. I was not disappointed.
Here is MSU lining up for a field goal from about the left hash. As I have stated previously in my special teams installments, a right-footed kicker should be aiming for the inside of the right goal post because the natural leg motion is to hook the ball. I have highlighted with a box where Muma should have been aiming on this kick to give the readers an idea.
Here is the point of contact. You can clearly see that Muma limp-legged this one, just like his miss prior. You can also see that he’s hooking his leg across his body—precisely what I pointed out and have pointed out. This, however, is one of the most extreme examples I have ever seen. That said, the result was what you would expect.
I also wanted to highlight that Kyle Brindza did the SAME EXACT THING, albeit from the opposite hash. Let’s take a look.
Here is Brindza lined up for the kick from the right hash. Remember the inside-of-the-right-goal-post rule and see how he failed. I have highlighted where he should be aiming.
It’s hard to tell from this angle whether or not he limp-legged it but in my opinion, he is not balanced. He’s leaning and not kicking through the ball, trying to rely on leg strength to get the ball through the uprights.
Look at where Kyle's hips and shoulders end up in this view. He's practically facing past the left-side of the goal post. That's way too much.
(hard to see because I stupidly used yellow, but the ball is up in the air to the left of the scoreboard and to the left of the left goal post)
He definitely hooked this one because of poor form and plant. It’s uncharacteristic for Kyle but all too common for right-footed kickers in football. I wanted to point this out to emphasize the importance of the plant and the aim and not giving up on a kick simply because it is short.
Overall, though, the special teams was not as bad as some fans probably thought it was after the game. Our kickoff and punt coverage units had, arguably, their best performances of the season thus far. Our kick return needs some work but it all mostly boiled down to the play of a single player. Our punt return unit continues to give me headaches from failed stalk blocking and poor decision-making. I will continue to watch game tape and critique, praying that I see changes and adjustments but the same issues that surfaced against MSU have been present all season. Since the spread punt formation has become commonplace, I have yet to see a ND return unit effectively stalk-block a coverage team.
Looking Forward to Oklahoma
Oklahoma is coming in 3-0 with wins over Louisiana-Monroe, West Virginia, and Tulsa, 3 teams that are a combined 5-6 with 3 wins over FCS teams and a victory over Georgia State. Tulsa’s victory over Colorado State is the only victory by an Oklahoma opponent over a non-FCS/new-FBS school.
Because of the lack of a strong schedule thus far, Oklahoma has been able to take advantage of the special teams game. Jed Barnett is Oklahoma’s punter and is an excellent one. He has 13 punts for 573 yards, 44.1 per punt, a long of 54, 9 fair catches, 7 inside the 20, 3 over 50 yards, and none blocked. Their punt coverage unit has allowed only 2 returns for a monstrous 75 yards, an average of 37.5 yards per return. They allowed none vs. ULM, one for -2 yards vs. West Virginia, and one for a whopping 77 yards to Tulsa which, oddly enough, did not go for a touchdown (I’ll take a look at that one below). Oklahoma’s kicker is Mike Hunnicutt, who is 8-9 on the season with kicks made from 41, 33, 44(long), 21, 32, 20, 30, and 36. His lone miss came against West Virginia where he bonked it off the left upright (I could not find video of this one). Nick Hodgson has taken all 22 kickoffs for the Sooners this season, booting them for 1422 yards, an average of 64.6 yards per kick with 15 touchbacks and 1 out of bounds. The kickoff coverage unit for Oklahoma is stout, allowing only 6 returns for 114 yards, an average of 19 per return. Clearly Hodgson’s goal is to boot it out of the back of the endzone and I don’t see that changing vs. Notre Dame. Oklahoma’s kick return unit, on the other hand, has only returned 3 kickoffs for 72 yards, for a respectable average of 24 yards per return. That said, ULM had 1 kickoff vs. the Sooners (touchback), West Virginia had 2 with 1 touchback (Brennan Clay took the kickoff back for 20 yards), and 2 returns vs. Tulsa (Trey Franks took both of these kicks for 52 yards and a long of 28). Oklahoma’s return strength, however, comes from their punt returner Jalen Saunders. Saunders has 8 returns on the season for 108 yards, a long of 45, and an average of 13.5 per return. His 45 yarder came against ULM (his other 3 returns vs. Tulsa went for 3, 3, and 4 yards respectively). Against WVU, Saunders had returns of 0, 17, and 8, and against Tulsa, he had one return for 28 yards (I will look at this one below). I could easily see Kelly and Company ordering Brindza and Wulfeck to sideline every punt they make since it seems as though Saunders rarely takes fair catches. Averaging almost 3 returns per game is insane in this day and age of the spread punt, but it also speaks to Oklahoma’s stalk-blocking ability to provide such long return opportunities. Let’s look at the videotape.
Oklahoma Punt Formation and Tulsa Return
This is the 77-yard return by Tulsa. Oklahoma utilizes the spread punt formation, like most teams in college football right now. Let’s see what happened on this long return.
Shoulders are forward, low drop, nothing wrong with this picture. Barnett is a tad too vertical for my liking but contrast this with Kyle and note the subtle differences.
Tulsa’s return man catches this one at the 19 with decent room. This is a coverage problem on Oklahoma’s part, likely because they are up 24 points and backups might be in but also the fact that Barnett booted this ball 45 yards and may have slightly out-kicked his coverage. The fact that Oklahoma only has two guys down there to cover this guy is somewhat alarming, considering their punt coverage success. That said, the rest of the team is about 10 yards away, so there shouldn’t be any reason why the Tulsa man could get free, provided they stick to their lanes and do not overpursue.
Some of the Oklahoma guys have overpursued but they are still in a decent enough position to make the tackle, but there is a danger; only #50 is in a position at this moment to make a tackle, and Tulsa #38, #24, and #27 have sealed off a hole, with #9 ready to block if necessary.
Tulsa’s return guy abandon’s the hole because #50 closed it off. He breaks for the outside. Now Oklahoma should be sweating because Tulsa never gave up on this play. He has a lane now to the top of the field.
Tulsa return man does more shaking and baking, and Oklahoma misses a crucial tackle right here. #9 on Tulsa, inexplicably, hasn’t picked anybody up yet but his other return man at the right side of the screen is still engaged. What didn’t start as an over pursuit has turned into one, as now 5 Oklahoma players are behind the return man.
#9 woke up and now the return man has a hole right in the middle of the field.
Off to the races. The Tulsa return man’s only problem here would be if he overruns his protection. He already overran #9 (but he seemed a bit out of it anyways, so this doesn’t matter).
Boom. Don’t need to say much more about this. Great vision by the return man to run to the butts of his blockers and cut it to the outside.
But wait: the Tulsa man whiffed on his block, and Barnett, the punter, made a great attempt to tackle. He missed, obviously, but he slowed the return man down enough to try to allow his coverage team time to recover.
The time helped. Bester, #11, was able to take a great angle here to try and get the Tulsa return man out at the sidelines.
And Bester pushed him out at the 9. Overall, I think this is an anomaly in Oklahoma’s punt coverage and a great job by the Tulsa return man to make something out of nothing. He broke two tackles on this play and utilized his blockers excellently. Oklahoma was in good position to tackle him but they just didn’t finish. Again, I chalk this one up to the fact that they were steamrolling Tulsa at this point and probably half-ran the coverage. They looked to be in good position, albeit deep, and simply failed to converge, take good angles, and make tackles. Again, I think it’s an anomaly but who knows—maybe they’ll do it again against the Irish.
Oklahoma Punt Return
This is the point of the kick on Saunders’s 28-yard return. Now, note the difference between this picture and the images of ND’s returns; there are no Tulsa men running downfield unblocked in the first wave. There is a guy untouched at the 26, however, but the first wave at the top, and the guys at the bottom, are all being stalk-blocked excellently.
Some Tulsa guys got free but Oklahoma had already sealed off the left side of the field, leaving Saunders a HUGE amount of space for a return.
Here Saunders fields the ball. The closest Tulsa player to him is about 5 yards away and sealing off the top. While hard to see, the bottom man at the 48 is engaged with a blocker.
This is a debatable block in the back (at the 39) but it wasn’t called. Saunders took advantage of it, running off the blocker’s butt.
A failed tackle by Tulsa and with open field in front of him, Saunders was off to the races. He could have been down immediately but over pursuit on the part of Tulsa and a missed tackle have now opened a hole to the top of the screen. Saunders sees #45 up field blocking for him and makes a beeline for him. Great vision. I’m beginning to see why he’s such a good return man and why he is going to be a threat on Saturday.
Once Saunders got to #45, Tulsa did a great job of sealing him in. Good recovery on botched coverage.
A missed tackle here from the Tulsa punter. I can’t fault him for that—he’s not coached to tackle, that’s his coverage unit’s job, but Oklahoma did a good job at not giving up totally on the play, and Saunders’s excellent vision decided to take him towards the hash.
But Saunders got too cute. He had another 5 yards in front of him but tried going for the home run and was tripped up by a Tulsa tackler.
As for the block in the back...
Oklahoma has a stout special teams unit, one of the best I’ve seen yet. I don’t think they are going to be a threat on kick return but Saunders gives me nightmares, and this is now the third week in a row that the Irish are going to face a top-notch punter. Hopefully game film teaches the team a thing or two this week.
As always, I welcome any criticisms, critiques, or pointing out any typos in the comments below. Cheers.