Notre Dame lost another close game on Saturday. The Irish special teams unit had, arguably, their best overall game of the season. Brindza bounced back from a terrible game against Northwestern and had one of his best games of the year. Unfortunately, everyone will remember it for one single play. Let's get to it.
Kyle Brindza took all 6 kickoffs for 380 yards, an average of 65 yards per kick, with 4 touchbacks. Every single kick landed in the endzone. Louisville's two returns, both from Brandon Radcliff, totaled 44 yards with a long of 25. The kickoff coverage was spectacular and helped limit a team with multiple dynamic return men. Great job all around.
Kyle also had 4 punts on Saturday for 187 yards, an average of 46.8 yards per punt. He had a long of 54, one landed inside the 20, and one touched back, almost being stopped inside the 1 yard line. Kyle punted like the punter that I believed he is. His average in this game was 10 yards more than his average last week. The blip in the stats happened to be Louisville's only return--a 14 yarder.
Brindza slightly outkicked his coverage, but McDaniel was late in filling his lane. He ended up making the tackle but this could have been a lot worse.
ND Kick Return
John Wallace took 6 kickoffs for 365 yards, a very low average of 60.8 yards per kick. None of these were touched back. Amir Carlisle took all 6 returns for 151 yards, an average of 25.2 yards per return. His longest return of the day was for 36 yards. Only Carlisle's poor return--a 7 yarder--failed to make it past the 25 yard line. He had a fantastic day. Here is his long return.
This was so close at being returned. Again, this was on Cam McDaniel, but it was an understandable mistake. You can see on the replay that he and Carlisle chose different lanes. When Cam realized it, he found the closest guy he could to help Carlisle, not thinking about picking up the kicker 20 yards down field. If he had kept running, Amir may have scored this. Still, this was a fantastic return.
ND Punt Return
This is the unit I was the most excited to write about, considering what happened on Saturday. I opined last week:
ND Punt Return: If ND is going to take advantage anywhere, it should be here.
And boy, did they ever. Louisville punter Ryan Johnson had a decent day (4 punts for 166 yards, long of 51, 2 inside the 20) but it was completely ruined by Greg Bryant, who exploded for a 61 yard return and came arguably the closest Notre Dame has come to scoring a touchdown on a true punt return since Golden Tate vs. Pittsburgh in 2009 (I say true because Robert Blanton, in 2010, was technically credited with a punt return TD vs. Utah, but it came off of a block).
This was awesome. Bryant had a 7 yard gap between he and the coverage team. He was also helped by several Louisville players losing their footing and taking awful angles. Additionally, we saw the burst of speed from Bryant that we have not really seen since he arrived on campus, a burst of speed we hope to see more of in the future. Lastly, Bryant was helped by an absolutely fantastic block from Justin Brent. Seriously, it's a thing of beauty. I know how hard this is in this day and age of spread punts, but Bryant came feet from scoring. I also stand by my opinion that spotting this ball at the 3 was horrendous. His stretch alone put it inside the 2, at minimum. A+ return.
And now we come to the bad. Kyle Brindza bounced back from, arguably, the worst game of his career to have a great day, booting field goals from 28 and 37 yards, and going a perfect 2-2 from the extra point tee. Unfortunately, on Brindza's last attempt went wide right. Opinions were obviously diverse after the game about who was to blame for this, however my opinion is that it boiled down to the hold, plain and simple.
Res ipsa loquitur. Not only were the laces not out, but the ball was still moving when Brindza kicked it, and tilted at a poor angle. Zaire's hand was also in the path of the kick and Brindza made contact with it in the follow-through. There is no problem with the plant (foot does not slide), and Brindza appears to have good balance. The miss was by mere feet. It is my opinion that the hold contributed to this.
I hate to say "I told you so," but the statistics speak for themselves.
FG %: 11-17 (64%) 2 bobbles, a third on a play not credited as a field goal attempt vs. Stanford.
XP %: 39-39 (100%)
Bobble %: 3-57 (5%)
FG %: 2-5 (40%) 1 bobbles
XP %: 6-7 (86%) 1 bobble, kick blocked, returned for 2 pts.
Bobble %: 2-12 (17%)
Smith fumbled three holds, two of them in a game where it was pouring rain. This is not to say that Hunter Smith is the best holder. He is not perfect and not the best in the NCAA. And it would not surprise me if some of Brindza's 5 non-bobble misses were hold-related. And this is also not to say that Malik Zaire is a terrible football player or a terrible holder. He's had multiple attempts and practices with Brindza, and Brindza was perfect against Louisville up until the final kick. That said, in my opinion, based on the numbers, Smith was certainly the best option the Irish had to hold. He went through 57 attempts and countless more in practice with Brindza and Daly the entire season before the Northwestern game. They built up a rapport and a working relationship, much like a 2B and SS working double plays in baseball. Once he was taken out, the FG numbers across the board took a dive. Obviously, I am making multiple assumptions about this, considering that I have not seen what goes on in practice, and it's possible Smith could have bobbled some of the holds against NW and Louisville, but the numbers speak for themselves. We have lost two games in a row that arguably could have been won by special teams. Both were lost after a single position switch on special teams. I leave it up to you to decide whether things could have been different.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone.