Notre Dame won a surprisingly close but not close game on Saturday against the Naval Academy. Having been at the game, I knew, even before the opening kickoff, that we were going to be in for some interesting special teams play, and I was not surprised at the result. The weather was very poor for special teams; cold and windy. I attempted to video some things before my phone died and was unable to do so, but I can tell you from my seats, you could clearly see the uprights shaking and swaying from the strength of the wind. How did that weather affect the play? Let's get into it.
If there was a high point to this game in special teams terms, it was this. Kyle Brindza only had one punt in the game for 45 yards. Navy fair caught the kick. In a very hostile environment for kicking, this was definitely a fantastic boot and worthy of an A+ rating for the game. It is also a positive for the ND offense that Brindza only punted once all game and that this was the only time all game that ND even had a 4th down. The negative to this punt was it came on ND's first possession of the third quarter. Six plays later, Navy took the lead for the first time in the game. The lead did not last for long, as just four minutes (10 plays) later, ND retook the lead for good.
On Saturday, Brindza booted 8 for 498 yards, an average of 62.2 yards per kick, with 5 touchbacks. The wind was a factor on his other three kicks, with one landing at the 7, one at the 11, and another at the 4. Toneo Gulley took 2 returns for Navy for 36 yards, a long of 20. Navy's primary return man going into the game, Demond Brown, only took one return for 18 yards. Here's the long and short returns. First, the long return:
I have no annotations on this one because it speaks for itself. This was ND's last kickoff after its last touchdown. The kick was squibbed downfield and fielded on a short kick. With squibs, if they do not bounce around and delay the return man, the coverage team does not have time to get down field quick enough. This is why all Navy had to do was lower heads and run forward for an easy 20 yard return. As for the short kick:
Notre Dame, very nicely, kept their lanes with a trailer to cover any men who slipped through. here, Mathias Farley did an absolutely fantastic job of getting off of his block and absolutely bulldozed the return man, throwing him backwards. It was a tad embellished, but the hit was a very nice clean strike. Good job here on the kickoff team.
ND Kick Return
With the large amount of scoring, ND had its chances for kick returning in this game. Navy's kicker booted 5 kickoffs for 308 yards, an average of 61.6 yards per kick. Only one of these resulted in a touchback and another went out of bounds (weather contributed). Of the three returns, Amir Carlisle took them all for 67 yards, an average of 22.3 yards per return. His longest was for 30 yards and his shortest went for 16. Let's look at them both:
This kick return was ruined the minute Councell missed the block on the outside Navy coverage man. Carlisle had a lane and likely could have gotten maybe 10 more yards. It's possible that Councell thought Carlisle would miss this guy and so he picked up the next man. Instead, it was this Navy rusher that made the tackle. The positive of this return is that it made it past the 25 yard line. I consider it a good return even though it did not go for as long as it should have.
This return was great, outside of a couple of missed assignments. With the bad, a Navy coverage man ran right into the play, untouched. It looks like, from the replay, that Doug Randolph misses him, but the camera is panning and it is hard to tell exactly where he came from. I guess Randolph (#44) because he is out in front of the play blocking nobody. Despite this, Carlisle dodges the overpursuit and could have made it further if McDaniel and Farley had held their blocks for longer. Still this was a return out past the 25 yard line and I consider that successful.
ND Punt Return
My hope going into this game was that ND would give Pablo Beltran a lot of work, and it would be tough against him because he is one of, if not the best punter ND will face all season. Beltran only had 3 punts in this game, but all of them were fantastic. His punts went for 145 yards, an average of 48.3 yards per punt. He had a long of 51 and two punts inside the 20. His two punts that landed inside the 20 were both 47 yarders. This kind of situational kicking in such bad kicking weather is nothing short of spectacular. Of ND's three possible chances at returns, Riggs attempted to return two of them--one went for 0 yards and the other was fumbled. Here's the fumble:
This was, very obviously, a safe return. Navy was sitting at 4th and 7, down 4, with ND moving the ball with relative ease in its last possession. ND was expecting a fake and protecting against it. Cody has to be smart enough to recognize this and stand on the 10 yard line and approach the ball, or let it go if it's too difficult to get. Given that he would have no blockers for the safe return, he was on his own, and needs to play this one more safely. It would not surprise me in the least if the wind had something to do with the difficulty in fielding this punt, though.
Navy's new field goal kicker, Austin Grebe, made his only field goal attempt on Saturday from 44 yards right before halftime. He was also perfect on extra points. Other than kickoffs, this was the extent of his work, and while the field goal was with the wind at his back, making a 44 yarder in his third collegiate attempt was outstanding.
Notre Dame's field goal unit, on the other hand, was the horror show of the special teams unit on Saturday. Kyle Brindza missed both attempts on Saturday, from 46 yards and 44 yards. His 44 yarder was blocked. Let's take a look at both and see what happened. First, the miss:
This kick looks like Kyle just hooked it. The angle is tough to determine exactly what happened but from what I can tell, at the point of contact, Kyle's hips and shoulders appear to be pointed to the left of the goal posts. He also had a fairly severe follow through on the kick. He definitely had enough leg on it but this hook was right up there with his hook vs. Arizona State last year--very severely hooked. I've said it before and will continue to say it: hips and shoulders determine where the kick goes. Here, Kyle's were to the left and that's exactly where the ball went.
As for the block:
Weather had nothing to do with this block. This was a fantastic rush by Navy, who just absolutely bowled over Matt Hegarty. Brindza never had a chance.
If there is one positive from these, it is that they both came with ND winning 42 to 31 halfway through the 4th quarter. Obviously, making both of these would have increased the lead to 48-31, putting the game well out of reach. Instead, Navy was able to score a touchdown plus a two point conversion after the block, narrowing the gap to 42-39 with four minutes to go in the game.
From personal observation, overall, there were both good kicks and bad kicks made in this game. The direction ND was going in the fourth quarter was into the wind. The wind, at times, was so bad that it was shaking the goal posts. There's no doubt in my mind that Kyle could have made both field goal attempts, however these were drives that the team needed to score on. Kyle pulled the first and bad blocking led to the second. Overall, the weather was not as much of a factor as I think it could have been. I think it certainly contributed to some poor kickoffs and possibly Riggs' fumble, but this was not Stanford-type special teams weather issues. I think the problems in this game were the same ones that have been constant for the past few weeks--inconsistent blocking, inopportune fumbles, etc..
As always, I welcome your questions and comments below.