Notre Dame won a nail-biter on Saturday in absolutely terrible weather conditions that certainly affected special teams. Let's get into it.
Notre Dame Kickoff
Going into this game, I wrote about the need to limit Ty Montgomery. Montgomery is arguably the greatest kick returner in all of college football. The chances that he could single-handedly change the game were in full force on Saturday, with the weather limiting both offenses. However, for the most part, Notre Dame did its best to limit Montgomery.
Kyle Brindza had 4 kickoffs for 234 yards on Saturday. Two of these were touched back, including the final kickoff of the game, which went out of the back of the endzone.
Of the other two, one was a pooch kickoff that was returned by fullback Lee Ward for 3 yards. The second was returned by Montgomery which, predictably, went for 42 yards. The Montgomery's return was a combination of poor angles and great vision by him. Here's what happened:
As you can see from the return, ND failed to keep their lanes and because of that, Stanford was able to block the remaining men and with a little great vision from Montgomery, the return went for 40+ yards. This is precisely how a kick return is supposed to play. The return team is supposed to block correctly and the kick returner is supposed to use his vision to find whatever hole exists. Fantastic return.
The gameplan going into this game was to limit Montgomery's touches and ND did that. However, the one time he did touch the ball, he had the longest kick return against the Irish this season. That leaves me with mixed emotions, especially since they did their best to keep it out of his hands. Obviously the coverage was poor but the overall gameplan was great.
Notre Dame Punt
As noted above, the gameplan for this game was very clearly to keep the ball away from Ty Montgomery. Kyle Brindza had 6 punts for 221 yards, an average of 36.8 yards per punt, a long of 51, 2 inside the 20 and 2 touched back. In total, Montgomery only touched the ball on two of these punts, fair catching them. Two were downed and two were booted into the endzone. None of these 6 punts were returned. This is an unbelievable effort by the Irish. If I had any issues with Brindza (and I saw this addressed on Twitter), I would be upset that none of these kicks went out of bounds. I think it may have been strategic but if this is the worst that the punt team does, then I will take that every day.
Notre Dame Field Goal
ND's field goal unit got the brunt of the criticism on Saturday. Brindza was 1 for 3, making his longest attempt at 45 and missing the other two, the first from 41 and second from 27, through no fault of his own. What went wrong on the two kicks?
This is the best angle I could get of the first miss. There are three glaring problems with this field goal. The first is obviously what everybody is talking about: the bad hold. In this case, Hunter Smith, the holder, fumbled with the ball a bit and was late getting it down. This was likely due in part to the weather and other factors, like the snap. The snap was the second problem. The ball should be to Hunter's hands, not to his body. Smith had to reach back to grab the ball and, in the process, fumbled with it. The third problem was with Brindza. Because of the fumble and bad snap, he was likely distracted by the mess happening in front of him and failed to properly plant and get his hips and shoulders in line with the uprights. It also likely affected his timing. As a kicker, you have an internal clock when you go up to kick a football. As a former kicker, what my pre-kick routine would consist of is taking the steps back, setting myself, relaxing, and then staring right at the spot where the ball would be planted. Once I saw the ball in my field of vision (the holder catching it), I would start my approach. I think Brindza may do something similar and if he does, seeing the late placement and fumble hands in his peripheral vision may have affected his approach. You can see from this GIF that he is clearly facing to the right and doesn't follow through. This miss was a formula of errors: Bad Snap + Bad Hold + Bad Set/Kick = Miss.
And here is the second. This is a much easier one to assess. While the snap was slightly behind Smith, it was not remotely as bad as the first. This one is mostly Smith's fault. It is arguable that Brindza should have recognized the ball was not set and just stopped the kick, but this is very difficult to do when the kicker is in his approach.
For all of the angst Smith got on social media during the game, I think he is a fine holder. He had not fumbled a hold all year until this game, which happened to be in the pouring rain. It is possible the weather was a factor. Still, Smith focused, got a pair of gloves, and managed to successfully hold the game winning field goal.
Because of the lack of scoring on both fronts, ND only had 3 opportunities at kick returns on Saturday and returned none of them. Jordan Williamson had 3 kickoffs for 194 yards, an average of 64.7 yards. Two were touched back and one went out of bounds on an absolutely excellent piece of recognition by kick returner Amir Carlisle. This was a key moment in the game, as Stanford had just scored to take the lead and it gave Notre Dame the ball at the 35 yard line with 3:01 to play.
Given the lack of offense on both fronts, it was not surprising that Stanford also had multiple punts in this game. Ben Ryhne had 7 punts for 271 yards, an average of 38.7 yards per punt, a long of 43, with none kicked inside the 20 or touched back. Cody Riggs returned three of these for 10 yards, a long of 8, with one fumble. His long of 8 could have been better.
As you can see from the video/GIF above, the Irish were hurt by two factors. First, James Onwualu did not manage to hold his block. Second, the gunners who had been beaten by their men, including Cavalaris (at the 27), failed to turn around and find a man to block. ND has suffered from two problems on punt return this season that have been consistent: gunners losing their men and beaten blockers failing to turn around and block someone. This was no different here. The 8 yard return was fantastic but the gunner at the top lost outside contain almost immediately. This could have gone for much further, save for the missed blocks.
Stanford Field Goal
Like Notre Dame, Stanford's field goal unit suffered problems as well. While both Williamson and Brindza were perfect from the PAT spot, both field goal units as a whole had issues with kicks from the rest of the field. Stanford fumbled a field goal attempt from the 25 yard line as the ball went right over the snapper.
I should note that even if this had been caught and placed for a perfect hold, the make was not a sure thing, as Williamson has not made a kick longer than 35 yards all season. You will not see this in the box score, however, because the kick was never actually completed. Because of this, it goes down as a negative rush.
As always, I welcome your questions and comments below.