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Special Teams Review: Notre Dame vs. Syracuse

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Solid performance...but that fake punt...

Coach Brian Kelly and Special Teams All-Star Kyle Brindza prepare to lead the Irish onto the field.
Coach Brian Kelly and Special Teams All-Star Kyle Brindza prepare to lead the Irish onto the field.
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

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Notre Dame had an up-and-down performance against the Orange on Saturday in a 31-15 victory.  The special teams, for the most part, played decently, save for several plays.  Let's take a look at how they performed.

Before getting into the review, I would like to offer a credit and a thank you to WarRoomEagle from SBNation's Auburn site, College and Magnolia, for his guidance with making the annotated GIFs you will see in this article. Going forward, I am going to try to incorporate similar elements into the Special Teams posts.  Because there are lots of GIFs on this page, it may load slowly.  Let it load--it is worth the wait.

ND Field Goal

Kyle Brindza did not have much work on Saturday night from the field goal block.  He made his only attempt, a 37 yarder (impressive also because of the massive offsides by Syracuse), as well as all 4 extra points.  I am of the belief that Kyle does better as the game goes on and thus I was not surprised at all that his 4th quarter attempt was spot on.  Had this kick been in the first quarter, things may have been different.  However, by the time Kyle kicked the field goal against Syracuse, he had taken 5 kickoffs and 4 extra points.  I think he was comfortable and thus able to boot the ball through the uprights.

ND Kickoff

Kyle Brindza took every kickoff for the Irish on Saturday, booting them for 387 yards, an average of 64.5 yards per kick.  Four of these went for touchbacks.  Both of Syracuse's return men took a kick return and both of them ended up with the same result.  Brisly Estime and Ervin Philips each took a kickoff and both returned them for 19 yards.

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This is Estime's return.  You can see from the pursuit that ND kept their lanes down the field and while a hole opened up briefly, ND quickly closed it and swarmed the ball carrier.  All the more impressive is that Taurean Folston was not only one of the first men down, but he was smart enough to not overpursue, sit in the lane, and make the tackle.  Essentially, the return man ran into him.  This is precisely how a coverage unit needs to field a kickoff.  On Friday, you will see why this is even more important as ND will face the most lethal kick returner in the country: Ty Montgomery.

ND Field Goal Block

Yes, you have seen the unicorn, as I only include this section when it is relevant.  ND's field goal block unit had a great game on Saturday, with one missed kick by the Syracuse kicker (mostly his fault) and the extra point block.  Let's take a look at both:

Missed Field Goal

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This is incredibly rudimentary but I attempted to highlight my point through the yellow and red arrows.  The yellow arrows are where his hips and shoulders were pointed, and the red arrows were where his hips and shoulders should have been pointed.  This is why he missed the kick.  All right-footed kickers, regardless of the hash, need to aim for the inside of the right upright.  The kicker's hips and shoulders dictate where the ball goes.  In this case, the kicker had his hips and shoulders too far to the outside.  He just needed a slight adjustment and he would have been fine.  Still, this is to be expected from a guy who only had two prior attempts to this one.  I think he has a strong enough leg, he just needs practice.

Extra Point Block

There's really no complex way to analyze this--Jarron Jones completely demolishes the two OL blocking the gap he ran through, knocking them both onto their backs. After gaining this positioning, he easily blocked this kick.

ND Kick Return

Greg Bryant had a fantastic night at running back but he could probably use some film room teaching on the kick returns in this game.  Filling in for an injured Amir Carlisle, Bryant took two kicks for 33 yards, an average of 16.5 per kick with a long of 17.  Greg was far too hesitant, as you can see from the video below:

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Greg needs to be more aggressive and hit top speed immediately.  There might not be a hole but speed can help you get past some guys.  This was the problem last season with GAIII--far too tentative on kick returns.  There's not always going to be a hole, like at running back, so sometimes you need to improvise.  That said, he also was not helped by his return team.  In this case, Cam McDaniel missed a block and there was also a missed block by Conor Cavalaris right in the middle of the field.  This play was doomed almost from the start.  Amir is supposedly coming back this weekend but if Greg gets any more chances at kick returns, he needs to trust his speed and welcome the contact.  He's good enough to return one all the way and he just needs to believe that when he catches the ball.

ND Punt

Brindza was lights-out punting on Saturday.  He had 2 punts all game, booting them for 80 yards, an average of 40, a long of 43, and one inside the 20.  Neither of these punts was returned.  I said in my preview that I expected this to be an exciting matchup, considering Brisly Estime's success at punt returns and Brindza's skill, but it ended up the exact opposite--rather uneventful.  Brindza got great hangtime and placement on his punts and the coverage unit did not give Estime a chance at a big return.  A+ performance by the coverage unit and by Brindza.

ND Punt Return

Syracuse's punter performed below his normal average against the Irish.  Riley Dixon had 5 punts for 194 yards, an average of 38.8 yards per punt, a long of 44 and 2 punts inside the 20.  Cody Riggs returned one of these for a very good 16 yards.  Because of this return, Dixon only ended up with a 35.6 yard net. It's not a TD but I will happily take any return more than 10 yards, especially if it is against a spread punt.

He had a great game, but Matthias Farley blew this one.

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As you can see from the replay, he blocks nobody, and one of the men he could have helped block, or taken on, ends up making the tackle.  He could have also been a lead blocker for Riggs up the left side, as the outside contain had fallen down.  This one could have gone for MUCH further.  Special teams is an important part of the game and it is equally important that every player play to the whistle, regardless of the outcome.

Despite the positive return, the story of the night was Syracuse's fake punt rush that went for 42 yards, making punter Riley Dixon Syracuse's leading rusher of the game.  How did this happen?

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As you can see from the GIF and/or video, Notre Dame had 6 men in the box, with the gunners on the outside in man-to-man coverage.  Instead of watching for the fake, ND completely vacated the middle of the field.  ND was very clearly in a "return" for this punt, as every player vacated their position to retreat.  Syracuse deserves all the credit in the world for this one.  Not only did they recognize this and run it to perfection, they did so after a 5 yard penalty for delay of game.  The return team, in future situations, needs to keep in mind is that the punter has about 2.5 seconds to kick the ball from the snap.  That means they need to watch for a fake for at least have that time.  Within 1.5 seconds, the punter will already be in his drop and the rear blockers will show fake or kick by their actions.  In short, the return team needs  account for the man-to-man assignments.  In a spread punt, the return team needs to account for every man on the field, like in man-to-man coverage.

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Here you can see lines drawn between the assignment that, if I were coaching, I would teach the return team.  The goal of the return team is to watch what these men do and if there is a fake, immediately scream FAKE and react.  James Onwualu and Conor Cavalaris need to react to what the punter and middle rear blocker are doing, as they will dictate whether or not this is a fake.  Folston and Councell, the outside contain, recognized it immediately, however they were immediately picked up and blocked.  If Cavalaris AND Onwualu react, there is one blocker for two men (assuming the snapper misses them).  In this play, the snapper went to block Cavalaris but Cavalaris shed him and almost made the tackle...though the punter was already past the first down marker. Neither Cavalaris nor Onwualu did what the return team did against Rice. The team, going forward, needs to remember their assignments and prepare for them.  Fakes are obvious once they start and the team needs to react appropriately.

As always, I welcome your questions and comments below.