The Irish lost a turnover-filled game against the Sun Devils on Saturday that saw its fair share of special teams plays. One would think that a 55-31 loss would indicate that the team, on a whole, played poorly. However, while certain segments of the Fighting Irish football team were lacking on Saturday, special teams was not one of them. Outside of one slip up, this was probably the best overall special teams game that the Irish have played since Michigan.
With 31 points scored in the game, the Irish had quite a few kickoffs, and the unit performed spectacularly. Brindza had 6 kickoffs for 390 yards, an average of 65 yards per kick. Yes, that means that every kickoff landed in the endzone or on the goal line. Four of the kickoffs were touchbacks. Of the two that were returned, ASU only managed 15 and 18 yards respectively on the returns. On the 18 yard return, ASU committed an illegal block, bringing the return back. Without a doubt, this is one of the best performances by the kickoff unit on the year.
From this return, you can see that it was doomed from the start. Deantre Lewis caught the ball and when he made his move, he had to switch fields at the 10 because he had no lane to the right. Once he got to the top, he was just too slow to get to the outside, and ND's coverage team did a great job at shutting down lanes to allow him through, funneling him to the sidelines. He also, likely, would have been tackled earlier but for the block in the back. The flag was thrown on this so it did not matter in the long run. I highlighted CJ Prosise on this play because he made a great recovery angle and showed what kind of effort is needed on all special teams plays. A+ coverage by the team.
Given the large number of turnovers, ND did not have many punts on the day. However, when Brindza did get the chance, he did not disappoint. Kyle had 4 punts on the day for 177 yards, an average of 44.2 yards per punt. His long was 53 and two of the four punts landed inside the 20. None of the four punts were returned. Like with the kickoff team, the punt team had an A+ day. This was one of, if not the best performance of the year. A+.
ND Kick Return
ASU's 55 points mean that Alex Garoutte was going to have many kickoff attempts. He had 10 kickoffs on the day for 623 yards, an average of 62.3 yards per kick. 5 of the 10 went for touchbacks and one went out of bounds. Of the four returns, Amir Carlisle took all of them for 102 yards, an average of 25.5 yards per return. His long return was for 32 yards.
Returns like this are the kind that have me standing up in my chair and then sitting down satisfied but knowing it could have gone for longer. On this return, you can see that the return unit did an absolutely fantastic job at opening up a lane. Amir did a fantastic job at lowering his head and running for the lane. The return went for very long but could have possibly gone for longer if Doug Randolph had made the block at the end. He was in great position but needs to engage his man earlier. Even one yard of space on a return is too much. Still, he was in good position so hopefully some gametape will improve his blocking techniques going forward.
ND Punt Return
Going into this game, I opined that Matt Haack, ASU's punter, was very good but was coming off of a bad week. He had another mediocre showing on Saturday, at least if you compare it to his season numbers. Haack had 6 punts for 236 yards, an average of 39.3 yards per punt. He had a long of 49 and 3 of his 6 punts were touched back.
Greg Bryant did a fantastic job filling in for Cody Riggs at the punt return position. Greg was credited with 2 returns for 3 yards but his play was smart. He did not take many risks and his 3 yard return (longest) prevented a longer punt by bounce. Most importantly, he did not fumble.
While this was not a return in the traditional sense, Bryant really showed his smarts and athleticism on this play. I would arguably say that it was reckless, but you can see in the replay that the initial ASU players overran him, assuming he would let the punt go. His getting the ball and securing it was a smart move to help with field position. It was a play where, if he had fumbled, I would be saying the exact opposite, but it did help the field position and he did not fumble.
And we end with the controversial part of the special teams. Zane Gonzalez, ASU's kicker, made both of his field goal attempts, from 47 and 28 yards. Kyle Brindza was credited with 46 yard field goal on his only official attempt. There was one mistake: the fumbled attempt at the beginning of the 4th quarter that went down as a rush for a loss.
This is the first field goal attempt all season that I can opine that the fault here lies 100% with Smith. The snap was at his hands and while it was slightly high, it was certainly one that Smith has handled perfectly before.
This play is particularly relevant in light of the recent news that holder Hunter Smith has lost the holding job to Malik Zaire. On the season, Smith has fumbled only 3 holds out of every field goal and extra point snap on the season. My count of the total snaps is somewhere around 57-58. This is about a 4-5% fumble rate. This is higher than one would like, but it also fails to take into account certain factors. For example, as many of you may remember from my Stanford game review, there were some issues with the snap, along with the hold. Also, the Stanford game had the problems with the weather. In this game, Smith held three kicks perfectly up until this point. After this fumbled snap, he held two more perfectly. And I understand the "Well, if he would've held it fine, we would've been tied," but keep in mind that the score was 34-17 at the time of this attempt, and on the subsequent drive, ASU threw a pick, and ND was unable to stop ASU for the rest of the game after cutting the deficit to 34-31, so in hindsight, it did not matter. Now, maybe there is some injury to Smith or something that Kelly and the coaching staff want to do or try against Northwestern with Malik, but if the change was made because Smith fumbled this one snap in the game, then I think this is a bit of a rash decision. I defer to the coaching staff and hope Malik gets enough work at holder and that this practice time does not cut in to his offensive snaps in practice.
As always, I welcome your comments and questions.