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Special Teams Review: Notre Dame vs. North Carolina

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For the second week in a row, the special teams unit held a key return man in check

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

OFD Films II

Notre Dame won a barn-burner of a game on Saturday against the Tar Heels.  Because of the high scoring, special teams plays were numerous in this game.  Here is a review, including some analysis into several, more rare, plays.  This will be longer than my normal posts because of the sheer number of special teams plays in this game.

ND Kickoff

Because of the scoring in this game, Kyle Brindza was no stranger to the kickoff tee on Saturday.  He had 8 kickoffs for 505 yards, an average of 63.1 yards per kick.  An amazing 6 of his 8 kickoffs were touchbacks.  I wrote that UNC kick returner TJ Logan was smart and disciplined, but he sure did not show it against the Irish. Logan had one kick return in this game for 20 yards on a kick that should have been kneeled in the endzone, in my opinion.  The other kickoff was returned by sophomore defensive back Brian Walker for 15 yards on what ended up being perfect coverage.

Here is Logan's return:

NDUNCKickoff1

As you can see from this kick, Logan takes the ball from about 3 yards deep in the endzone, right next to the pylon, and decides to run diagonally across the field, away from his blockers.  Amir Carlisle loses outside contain but look at who is surrounding Logan when he is finally tackled: CJ Prosise (made tackle), Cam McDaniel (running back, safety valve on this return), Amir Carlisle (slot WR), and Tarean Folston (running back).  Arguably 4 of the fastest players on ND's team were involved in the play to stop Logan.  There was little to no chance he was going to break this, especially with no blockers.  Had Amir not lost contain, he likely would have been tackled at or around the 15.  Still, this was a sub-25 yard line return and is a success in my book.

As for Walker's return, here is the GIF:

NDUNCKickoff2

As you can see, Walker had an open lane to his right, however Tarean Folston was sitting there, unblocked, in the event he made that move.  The rest of the coverage team, specifically Drue Tranquill, James Onwualu, Greer Martini, Matthias Farley, Cam McDaniel, and Amir Carlisle (among others), were sitting there waiting to tackle/involved in the tackle.  This was picture-perfect coverage of fighting off blocks and keeping proper lanes.

Both of these kick coverages highlight something Brian Kelly said earlier this year about getting faster players involved in special teams.  On both plays, you can see starting WRs, RBs, and DBs involved in the plays.  This is evidence of what BK and Company are trying to accomplish.  Kickoff Unit Grade for Saturday: A

ND Punt

Last week, I wrote about ND's need to keep Ryan Switzer in check. How did the ND punt team do with facing, arguably, the best punt returner on their schedule?  Awesome.

Kyle Brindza had 5 punts on Saturday for 209 yards, an average of 41.8 yards per punt.  He had one inside the 20 and 1 touched back.  Of his 5 punts, 3 were returned by Switzer for a grand total of -13 yards.  Yes, that is right, the best punt returner on ND's schedule was held to negative return yardage.  His returns went for 0 , -1, and -12 yards respectively.  Here is the -12 yard return:

NDUNCPunt1

Here is a GIF of the return.  Things were certainly in UNC's favor on this return.  4 of ND's punt team were bottled up in the middle by blockers.  However, Switzer overran the ball and had to turn around to catch it over his shoulder.  This killed whatever forward momentum he had.  When he saw Greer Martini fly up the sidelines, he attempted to double-back and run to the left (where he should have run in the first place).  In an unbelievable show of athleticism, Martini chased him down for a -12 yard return.  His effort was not solo, however, as you can see John Turner, Cam McDaniel and CJ Prosise in prime position to tackle Switzer should Martini have missed the opportunity to do so.  Watch how all three players break down and stop pursuit when Switzer tries to juke.  This is absolutely perfect coverage after a really uncharacteristically bad decision by Switzer.  He overran the punt, which left him only one way to go (right up the sidelines) and tried to make something out of nothing with no blocks.  The opportunity was there for him but ND capitalized on a mistake.

Switzer also made some terrible decisions with regards to other returns in the game.  On the Roughing the Snapper punt, the following happened:

NDUNCPunt2

Switzer made the decision to not catch this.  When a return man decides to not catch the ball, he should make the alert call (I always screamed "PETER" at the top of my lungs) to warn the entire return team to run to the sidelines and away from the ball.  Instead, Switzer stood right next to where the ball landed and it proceeded to bounce up and hit him in the chest.  Despite the fact that ND got the first down off the penalty, this was an unbelievably lucky break for UNC, as ND could have ended up with the ball inside the 10 yard line.

Despite the almost (and I am generous when using that word) long return, ND held the best punt returner in the nation (in my opinion) to negative return yards with 0 positive yardage returns.  There is no other grade to give this unit other than an A+.  Absolutely fantastic job on Saturday.

ND Field Goal

For the first time since the Southern Cal game last season, Notre Dame attempted 0 field goals.  The positive of this? ND was a perfect 6-6 in scoring red zone TDs so field goals were not necessary.

ND Field Goal Defense

I said going into this game that UNC's field goal unit was the hardest to analyze and Saturday was proof of that. Nick Weiler, going into Saturday's game, was a perfect 4-4 on the season, however his longest FG was for 23 yards.  On Saturday, he made a 19 yarder but missed a 32, which would have been his longest of the season.  Additionally, Notre Dame again blocked a field goal on Saturday, this one being an extra point attempt that led to subsequent 2-point conversion attempts by both teams later in the game.

NDUNCFGBlock

Once again, it was big Jarron Jones coming right through the middle to get a hand on the ball.

ND Kick Return

Like UNC's kick return, ND's was not very successful on Saturday.  Amir Carlisle took 4 kickoffs for 60 total yards, a dismal average of 15 yards per return.  His longest return went for 21 yards.  Ben Koyack, officially, was credited with a -3 yard return for recovering the onsides kick.

ND's return woes were a result of a very good coverage unit in UNC and poor blocking.  Here is one such example, Amir's shortest return of the day: 12 yards.

NDUNCKickReturn

Amir's first problem was he ignored the advice of Cam McDaniel, who clearly thought Amir was going to down this ball, almost 5 yards deep in the endzone.  Since he did not, Amir basically ran headlong into the coverage team with no lead blocker.  The second problem was multiple members of the return team (including but not limited to: Durham Smythe, James Onwualu, Ben Councell) wiffed on their blocks, giving UNC players an unimpeded lane to Carlisle.  This was a kick that Amir should have downed in the endzone but at the same time, the team needs to make their blocks.

ND Punt Return

Cody Riggs had a silent day from the punt return spot for the first time all season.  Tommy Hibbard, UNC's punter, had 5 punts for 195 yards, an average of 39 yards per punt.  His long was 44 yards and he had one touchback.  None of these were returned.  As was typical (and not worth showing), ND did not adequately block the gunners, leaving Riggs with no option but to let the ball go or call for fair catches.  Unfortunately for the ND Special Teams on Saturday, both return units were failures.

Bonus Section: Onsides Kick Recovery

Because Saturday featured an onsides kick recovery, I wanted to highlight it here.

NDUNCOnsidesKick1

Here is the lineup.  UNC tried to be tricky by having both kickers on the field.  This, in my opinion, was stupid.  The return team is watching the ball, not the kickers, and the ball has to travel 10 yards before they can do anything with it.  From this view, you can see that ND has 5 players on the top-half of the field but only 3 at the bottom (outside the hashes).  If UNC had placed another rusher down low instead of having two kickers on the field, the kicker could have made a judgment call on the field, seeing the mismatch in numbers.  Instead, Kicker #2 was a wasted player.

NDUNCOnsidesKick2

NDUNCOnsidesKick3

NDUNCOnsidesKick4

Secondly, this was an absolutely beautiful onsides kick.  I included multiple angles so you could see them all.  The ball rolled on the ground and took the giant hop just as it passed ND's front line of players.

Lastly, Matthias Farley should buy Ben Koyack a Coke.  The point of the front line on an onsides kick should be to take out the front line of the kickoff team, so long as the ball is not kicked at the front line.  This GIF is a thing of beauty, as you can see Onwualu and Councell, on the front line, absolutely demolish their assigned players.  I cannot imagine they have the best hands on the team, but they can both hit like brick walls, and this is my guess on why they were out there.  Just look: Councell hit his guy so hard, his helmet came off, and Onwualu hit his so hard that he pancaked him.  Farley did not get over quick enough to slow the UNC players down and two of them were right on top of Koyack.  That said, the kick was at such an angle that Koyack had the ball secured with the UNC players about 1 yard away, giving him precious tenths of a second to prepare for the ensuing hit.  Jumping airborne, in any contact sport, is risky, and Koyack knew he was going to get hit.  This was a fantastic job on his part to get the ball secured before the hit.

Bonus Section #2: Roughing the Snapper

With a call as rare as this, and it being special teams-related, I could not ignore it.

Rule A.R. 9-1-14-I-III of the NCAA Football Rulebook states:

When a team is in scrimmage kick formation, a defensive player may not initiate contact with the snapper until one second has elapsed after the snap.

It is important to note that incidental contact is allowed.  The rulebook provides two examples:

  1. Team A is in an obvious scrimmage kick formation. Immediately after the snap, nose guard B55 charges directly at the snapper, contacts him, and drives him backward. The ball is snapped to an upback three yards behind the scrimmage line or to the potential kicker, who instead runs with or passes the ball. RULING: Foul. Penalty—15 yards and automatic first down. The snapper may not be contacted until one second has elapsed after the snap when Team A is in a scrimmage kick formation and it is reasonably obvious that a kick might be attempted
  2. Immediately after the snap, with Team A in an obvious scrimmage kick formation, noseguard B71 attempts to "shoot the gap" between the snapper and the adjacent lineman. B71’s initial legal contact is with the lineman next to the snapper.
    RULING: Legal. Incidental contact with the snapper after this initial legal contact is not a foul.  See Rule 2-16-10.

Here is an example from the UNC game of how the snapper should be treated in a punt situation:

NDUNCSnapperOK

As you can see from this, the snapper is largely ignored, left to snap the ball, maybe block, and run downfield.

With regards to the penalty call, UND.com has a great segment on this which I have linked below:

I wanted to point out some key points to this call.  First, this penalty call is unbelievably rare, as most teams simply let the snapper proceed past the line of scrimmage or ignore him entirely until he makes it downfield (i.e., 3-4 yards past the line of scrimmage).  In this game, long snapper Scott Daly was hit multiple times throughout the game.  It was not until the coaching staff brought it to the attention to the referees that the call was made.  Here are several gifs of the actual penalty:

NDUNCRoughingPenalty1

NDUNCRoughingPenalty2

Daly is hit almost immediately following the snap.  This is an absolute perfect example of the letter of the rule and there is absolutely zero excuse for it.  What Norkeithus Otis was thinking, I have no idea.  He either had no knowledge of the rule or was never instructed on what to do.  The snapper is not a threat in this situation and hitting him is useless and stupid.  What made this even more galling is that it was not the first time in the game UNC had done it:

NDUNCRoughingPre1

This was Kyle Brindza's second punt of the game, the very same one addressed above that resulted in Ryan Switzer's -12 yard return.  As you can see, Daly gets absolutely rocked, almost immediately after the snap.  This play was more angering to me, as a special teams aficionado, than the one that resulted in the penalty.  This is just an unbelievably ignorant, cheap play, on par with the leg-dives we see from the chop blocking teams.  But it does not stop there.

NDUNCRoughingPre2

Yep, you guessed it, UNC actually did it to him twice before the third that resulted in a penalty.  I applaud Brian Kelly and the refereeing crew for talking to each other and looking out for this.  It is a very rare penalty, which is obvious why the referees missed it the first two times.  However, as you can see, it was not so rare in this game.  If anybody ever tells you that the call was a garbage penalty call, I implore you to direct said-person to this section of this post.  As for how I felt once the ref threw the flag for the roughing calls, well, I guess Battlestar Van Gorder summed it up for me during the game:

BVGThumbsUp

I welcome your questions and comments below.