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Special Teams: Notre Dame vs. Michigan Preview, Rice Review

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Ladies and Gentlemen, We Have Ourselves a Punt Return.

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

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I hope you can stick with me, because this post is long.  I cannot recall ever watching a game and being truly satisfied with the performance of the special teams unit as a whole.  Those of you that know me know that I am a perfectionist when it comes to special teams.  I was not 100% happy with the special teams in this game, and there are things they need to work on, but this was arguably the greatest special teams performance of Brian Kelly's tenure.  Again, this article is going to be long, so let's get into it.  I have two additions: helpful colorful lines and videos of a handful of the plays.  I am also reversing the order from now on, offering next week's preview before the review.  So, to start, let's preview Michigan and then get into the Rice Review.

Michigan Preview

Michigan, like ND, rolled to victory in their opening game, defeating Appalachian State by a score of 52-14.  Michigan utilized some of its special teams on Saturday.

Michigan's kicker is Matt Wile.  Last Saturday, from the kickoff tee, Wile booted 9 kickoffs for 571 total yards and 5 touchbacks.  Of the 4 returns, Appalachian State gained 82 yards on them, with a long return of 25 yards.  Wile had two field goal attempts in the game, going 1 for 2.  His make was from 18 and his miss was from 48.

Michigan's punter is Will Hagerup.  Hagerup only had one punt on the day, a boomer for 46 yards that went for 0 return.  However, i think Michigan's punt team can be exploited and I will address that below.

From a return standpoint, Michigan used two return men.   Freshman Jabril Peppers took one punt return for 6 yards.  Dennis Norfleet took one kickoff return for 36 yards and one punt return for 9 yards.  I believe Norfleet took over the return duties when Peppers was shaken up from the cut block.  Both are very fast and shifty, much better than the Rice return men, but not nearly the caliber of the top tier (Switzer, Montgomery, etc.).  They are still a threat and can be dangerous if given space on Saturday.

Where can Notre Dame take advantage?

The easiest response to this is with scheme.  On the return front, Norfleet was Michigan's primary return man last season, averaging 23.5 yards per return with a long of 44.  He is not incredibly dangerous but he can be.  Proper lane assignments and/or touchbacks on kickoffs can combat this.  As for punt returns, Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo are gone, leaving Norfleet who, before Saturday, had -1 yards on 3 returns last season, and Jabril Peppers, a true freshman who may have an injury.  Proper placement and coverage can prevent any trouble these two guys could give on returns.

On the kicking front, Matt Wile takes over for Brendan Gibbons, after having gone 3-5 last season, with both his misses from over 50 yards.  His 44 yard miss was from the right hash and dinged off the right upright about halfway up (I would have a shot of it but ESPN's view doesn't show where his hips were--it is the behind-the-uprights view).  Wile certainly has a leg, but he can be shaky from distance, especially since he only has few field goals in his career.  If ND can keep Michigan out of the red zone, this is an area where they can take advantage.

Likewise, with Michigan's kickoff coverage, ND could also take advantage.  Michigan was prone to losing their lanes.  ASU, of all teams, took advantage of this and gained several decent returns.  If ND's return team is disciplined enough on Saturday, they can start with excellent field position off kickoffs.

That all said, the largest area where ND can take advantage of the Wolverines is on punt return.  Will Hagerup has a fantastic leg and regularly booms the ball.  However, Michigan is let down by one huge factor: its scheme.  Case in point:

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This was Michigan's punt formation in their lone punt against ASU on Saturday.  This is what we call the traditional punt formation.  And it is idiotic.

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Here is the point of contact.  Now, please note, the line of scrimmage was about the 44 yard line.  Michigan has 9 players behind the line of scrimmage at the time of the punt.  The only two players who are going to make an impact are the two gunners.  Granted, in this play, both gunners sprinted by their return blockers and made a tackle on the return man as soon as he caught the ball.  BUT...

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There is not a man within 15 yards of the return man behind the gunners.

I have written and written on the mind-blowing stupidity of using the traditional punt formation.  It is extremely risky and is prone to huge returns.  How should ND combat this?  Well, it's fairly easy.  First, they could double team both gunners, similar to what some NFL teams do on punt returns (and what ND did last season against Michigan).  ND could also drop Onwualu AND Cavalaris back to the return man similar to what ND did against Rice to serve as safety-valves in the event the gunners beat the return blockers on the outsides.  Regardless, there is absolutely zero reason why ND cannot take extreme advantage of this.  Wasted opportunity would be an understatement.

As for Rice, let's check it out.

Rice Review

Notre Dame Kick Return

The success of the defense did not allow Notre Dame many opportunities for kick returns.  As I noted in my Preview, James Hairston, LSU transfer, was going to handle kickoffs, and he booted four in the game.  Oddly enough (for reasons I still have not been able to figure out), two of these turned into squibs, with the other two being booted out of the back of the end zone.  The two squibs were returned, both by Amir Carlisle, for 49 yards total.  His long was 36 (the first kick) and short was 13 (the second kick).  Let's take a look.

Return 1: Amir Carlisle for 36 Yards

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This is a screenshot of the point of contact .  Hairston's shoulders are down and he is powering through the ball.  Below, I highlight that on his second kickoff (which was booted out of the back of the end zone), he had a holder.  I think it is possible that the ball fell, or partially fell, off the tee.  This ball squibbed down to Carlisle, who picked it up at the 1 yard line.

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Right off the bat, you can see here that Justin Utupo has missed a block, allowing for a free defender to come through.  Cam, as the lead blocker, clearly sees this, and is going to pick him up.  Amir also sees this and is running off Cam's butt.  At the bottom of the screen, Smythe is waiting to seal a lane, and Councell is fully engaged with his man.

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By the time Amir got past the 10, he now has a clear lane.  Utupo's biggest flaw, here, was not picking up anyone.  There is another Rice defender who is now free, so this is going to be up to Amir to use his speed to get by this guy.  Again, HUGE kudos to Smythe and Councell for sealing the bottom lane here.  Absolutely fantastic blocks, both from them and from Cam.

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Amir turned on the jets and blew by these guys.  The free Rice defender took an atrocious angle and Amir was very easily able to get by him.  John Turner is making a fantastic block here.  Cavalaris and Onwualu lost their blocks but Amir has already blown by their guys.

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Amir made it past the 25, was surrounded, and got tackled by the kicker.  All in all, this was a very good kick return.  It was not perfect, as there were Rice defenders not picked up, as well as missed blocks, but a lane was created, and Amir had an excellent return, eventually being stopped by the kicker.  If the kicker is making a tackle, then something has gone right for the return team.  If the blocks had been held, Cam could have been leading the way and it is possible that Amir would have been off to the races.

Return 2: Holder, Kick Out of Back of End Zone

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Nothing really to show here other than the fact that Rice used a holder for the second kick.  I hypothesize that the ball fell off the tee on the first kick and that is why they used a holder on kick two.

Return 3: Amir Carlisle for 13 Yards

And now for the bad...

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Amir fielded this kick off the bounce, again, at the 1 yard line.  The first Rice defender is just hit the 30 yard line and the entire return team is ready to block.  Nothing catastrophic from this view.

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Problem 1: an unblocked Rice coverage man ran through the initial wave of blockers, similar to the first kick.  Amir sees this and is moving left.  Cam needs to pick this guy up because someone obviously missed their assignment.

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For reasons I cannot explain, Cam sat there and did not engage as he did in the first kick.  .  Amir moved left, anticipating that Cam was going to handle this block.  A second man has come free, as well as two behind.  Amir, I think, sees this and is starting to slow to switch right.

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And here we see Amir with two defenders on him and a third in the wings, Cam having missed the block, and Amir trying to double back.  Amir tried running left, off Cam's backside, but Cam did not pick up this block.  Amir now has 2 guys on him with nowhere to go but back to the right.  Oddly enough, he had a lane to the right but failed blocks left him in this situation.

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And the tackle has been made.  This play was blown up the minute Cam missed the lead man.  In reality, this guy should not have made it to Cam, let alone all the way to Amir, but Cam is there to provide space and he did not do so on this return.  Amir is not a miracle worker and cannot dodge every single person.  Better and more disciplined blocking would have prevented this.  Against better teams, this will not fly.

Notre Dame Punt Return

The best performing unit of the day, the Punt Return was night and day compared to last year.  Two ND players returned punts in this game.  Cody Riggs was the first, taking two returns for 49 yards, a long of 25 yards.  Greg Bryant took the next three returns for 31 yards, with a long of 18 yards. Unbelievably, none of these were fair caught (though one should have been, I will get to that below).

This was not simply a team taking advantage of a bad punter.  On the contrary, Farrimond performed admirably.  He had punts of 52, 46, 67-the bouncer, 42, and 34-the safe punt/no fair catch (these will make sense below).  On the game, he averaged a ridiculous 48.2 yards per punt, placing 2 of the 5 inside the 20 yard line.  Of the 241 yards he booted the ball, Notre Dame gained 80 of it back, a whopping 33%.  In perspective, last season, total, opposing teams punted the ball against ND 59 times for 2,373 yards.  Notre Dame only returned 15 of these for 106 yards (14 from TJ Jones, a long of 27).  Of the yards punted against ND last season, ND was only able to gain approximately 4% of it back.  33% to 4%...unreal.  If this is sustainable, I will be the happiest blog poster on the site.  As for TJ's total returns, Cody Riggs alone almost got half of it and was 2 yards shy of tying TJ's long punt return from last season.  Combined with Bryant, the two punt returners gained over 75% of the total punt return yards from last season, all in one game.  Farrimond's 241 yard, 48.2 average plummeted to a 32.2 net.

This is not simply better return men--this is indicative of a better scheme.  Players were blocking better, return men were running better, and, if Farrimond had one issue, his punts did not have great hangtime.  All in all, it was a formula for success.

Let's take a look at what went right to the guys on Saturday.

Old formation

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This is ND's old punt return formation from last season.  ND gave looks similar to this in the Rice game but mostly lined up slightly differently.  Last year, the formation idea was clear--even matchup, man-on-man coverage.

Return 1: Cody Riggs for 24 Yards

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Here, you can see Rice lined up in the standard spread punt formation with double gunners lined up as wide outs (to protect outside contain).  If you can tell, ND is lined up further off the line and has several guys back.  You can also see ND has an extra man lined up to the top.

With the spread formation, there are basically three ways you can handle it:

1. Block the Kick: This is fairly simple.  Instead of dropping men back for a return, you send them forward for a block.  The rest man-up to prevent any sort of fake punt.  This was how ND blocked the punt vs. Utah several seasons back.  It is not 100% effective and is used sparingly because it depends on speed and overloading assignments.

2. Safe Return:  The return team plays a hybrid prevent/goal line zone defense in order to prevent any sort of fake punt from succeeding.  I examine this below, where ND decided to do a Safe Return on Rice's last punt.  Because no return is set, the return man should be instructed to fair catch anything kicked to him, if he decides to catch it at all.  Notre Dame did this on Return #5 below.

3. Return: This is what Notre Dame did on Saturday for the most part.  Several players focus on the ball and the line of scrimmage to prevent any fake.  The rest fall back and set up a return with a combination of stalk blocking as well as zone blocking (for the drop men).

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This is Rice's first punt.  Notre Dame is clearly set up for the return.  You can see ND sent two men on the outside to watch for a fake.  ND held several more close to the line of scrimmage that retreated with their men when they saw it was going to be a punt.  ND, different from previous seasons, has several blockers falling back and has decent stalk coverage.  You can already see, however, that Devin Butler has lost outside contain on the gunner on the top.  This is inexcusable.

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Here Riggs is about to catch the ball.  You can see that while Butler lost his man, the free gunner is currently being picked up by Cavalaris.  Onwualu, the other blocker, is free to pick up anyone.  The bottom coverage is courtesy of Farley.  I was excited about this because this man was not the bottom gunner; the bottom gunner tried going to the middle of the field upon the kick, for some reason, and is not even in the view of the TV screen.

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This image appears that Farley and Cavalaris have lost their men, but the contact they provided, combined with Riggs' speed, created a lane.  Onwualu is sitting here ready to create a lead block.  This is the first time that I can remember, in the Brian Kelly era, that Notre Dame has created a blocked lane on a punt return.  As you can imagine, seeing this, for me, was like seeing your first child take his first steps.

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Colossal block from Onwualu in the middle, a seal from Tranquill up top, a block from Turner, and a block at the bottom Cam McDaniel made this all possible.  I mean, look at this.  I am speechless.

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The man below Riggs is the bottom gunner, who was being blocked by Cole Luke.  Both Turner's man and Luke's man are far enough away that they are not a problem.  This hole is approximately 40 feet wide.

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Riggs ran out of blockers and ended up getting tackled here by the safety valves.  It's possible if he made a break to the bottom, he could have made a play off of Folston's and Cam's blocks.  Also, had Butler stuck with his man, Onwualu might still be leading the way for him.  Regardless, this was an absolutely excellent return.  One mistake (Butler losing the gunner) but this still ended up being one of the best punt returns of the Brian Kelly era.

Return 2: Cody Riggs for 25 yards

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Punt #2 showed a different look from the ND return team, much closer to the line.  Given their movement after the snap, I think this was a look to make Rice think ND was coming for a block.  It also may have had something to do with the yards-to-go.  I am waiting for a larger sample size to see if there is any correlation for this alignment.

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As you can see ND's play on this return, ND sent no men towards the 3 rear punt blockers and dropped 7, leaving the usual three to watch out for any fake.  Two are engaged near the line of scrimmage and two are coming on the outsides looking for contain.  I marked the guy at the top as "Free Man," but he has a ND defender (Turner) right next to him.  The one difference is it is only Onwualu sprinting back, not both Onwualu and Cavalaris.  I do not know if this was intentional or a mistake.  Regardless, it still worked.

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Onwualu here was over-run by Turner's man and he is looking for someone to block.  Riggs has over 10 yards of room to figure out a return path.  When I watched this I really thought he was going to go right.  Cole Luke is applying a fantastic block at the 46.

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Turner, wisely, raised his hands here to emphasize that he was not touching the Rice coverage man.  This could have brought back an excellent return on a penalty.  I am not happy with the fact that there were so many free return men--ideally I would prefer they would be covered, similar to the first return.  However, Riggs was/is fast enough and shifty enough that they did not pose an immediate problem.

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I really though Riggs was going to sprint for the right, but instead he made a fantastic move and juked left.  He left himself the short side of the field but he has a lane here, with fantastic blocks from Drue Tranquill and a PANCAKE from Cole Luke!  The negative here, obviously, is once again, Devin Butler lost his man.

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Another lane.  Tranquill is demolishing his man at the 35 yard line and Cole Luke is still blocking his man, who managed to get up.  Riggs has lead blockers at the bottom in Councell and Cavalaris (there he is).

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Unfortunately (and I can't believe I'm saying this is a bad thing), Riggs was far too fast for the crew at the bottom in Councell, Cavalaris, and Greer Martini.  Cole Luke still blocking.

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Return is over, Riggs once again being tackled, this time by the punter.  Riggs' return crew was too slow to catch up for him and save for 1-2 extra blocks, this could have gone all the way.  If I had one critique, it would be this: The men who lost their guys off the line or down the field (Butler, et. al), should have turned around and found someone to block.  Once Riggs passed them, they became wasted players on the field.

Return 3: Greg Bryant Return for 10 Yards

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Rice's punt was Greg Bryant's debut at punt returner.  Rice, seemingly trying to change things up, moved the bottom gunner to the top (left to right).  ND shifted back into their original return with two drop men.  Notre Dame, I believe, also recognized that there might be something fishy and thus the inside gunner's blocker is further off the line.

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On the snap, ND did what it had done on the first two punts; outside contain men went forward, inside zone men engaged, and the return men dropped.  The difference here was three guys falling back instead of 1 or 2.

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Unlucky. The punt was horrific and actually bounced at the 36...right over Greg Bryant's head almost 10 yards away.

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By the time Bryant got to the ball, he had 3 Rice coverage men approaching from the left and wide open field to the right.  I marked this is green, since that is the path I would have taken.  Instead, Greg went left, against the flow of the coverage players.  For those playing the home game, it was Farley and Butler who lost their men.  I am not entirely sure where the third came from, but he likely came free from Onwualu once the ball took a bounce.

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1. 2. and...

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3. Unbelievably, Greg Bryant broke all three tackles...at the 4 yard line.  He now has about 10 yards of space, with a lead blocker.

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Here, Bryant juked so hard that the Rice defender at the 10 simply fell over.  Onwualu, standing at the 12, is about to engage a coverage man.  Cam has his guy at the 10, creating a lane.  I highlighted Cole Luke at the bottom for a reason...

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Here, you can see the lane more definitively, as well as the problem; Cole Luke did not turn around fast enough and there is a Rice coverage man making a beeline for Greg.  I put the yellow markers here to show where the man is headed and where Luke should have been.  He did not do this and this Rice player is the one that ended up making the tackle.

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And there it is.  This was a great return, considering the circumstances, but it could have been much, much better.  It also could have been a lot worse.  I hate criticizing someone that did so well in the first two returns, but if Cole made that block, Bryant would have likely gotten a 30+ yard punt return, if not longer.  This goes to my prior criticism: if you lose your man, turn around and find someone else IMMEDIATELY.  Do not follow the ball, do not watch the play--turn around, find a man, and block.  Running after the guy who just blew by you does not help the play.  Find a man and hit him.

Return 4: Greg Bryant for 18 Yards

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Rice went back to their original formation for Punt #4.  ND also went back to the return formation from Punt #2.

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Like with Return #2, ND has a return blocker dropping, several remaining around the line of scrimmage for a fake, etc.. The difference here was Rice's punter decided to go with a rugby-style punt on this one.  It did not help.  Another plus for the Irish: the gunners have good positioning.  I smell a long punt return coming.

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Once again, Onwualu is the first man back and is ready to block someone free.  Greg has the ball with more than 10 yards to move.  There is one man free coming down the sidelines.  On review of the tape, this was actually the man lined up on the right end over the ND outside contain man.  There was no 1-on-1, so this is understandable why Onwualu is picking him up.

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At the top of the screen, to Greg's right, Cole Luke lost his positioning and blocking on the gunner.  However, Onwualu and Devin Butler (at the bottom) are applying just vicious blocks and positioning on their guys (Butler is hard to see--he is being obscured by the camera).  Greg is making a move for the hole with the hope that he can speed by Luke's lost man.

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And he did.  Greg ran by him and while Turner lost his guy (in the middle), Cavalaris and Drue Tranquill (at the bottom) are opening up a hole.

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Bryant made it through but unfortunately, he ran out of field.  The Rice player standing on the 47 made a fantastic open field tackle on Greg.  Overall, a handful of missed blocks but a great return.  Bryant is a hell of a player. He is not as refined as a return man as Cody, but Cody has been playing college football for 4 more years than Greg, so it is understandable.  He is still an unbelievable athlete with ludicrous speed.  Once again, a great return that could have been perfect, save a few missed assignments.

Return 5: Greg Bryant for 3 Yards

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If there was one mistake Greg made all day (and I can't think of many), it was this.  Rice attempted to run a fake in the third quarter and thus, on this punt in the 4th quarter, ND sat back in an obvious fake punt defense.  NBC (to my horror), did not give us a normal camera angle and thus I am resorted to analyzing with this view.  Here, it appears that the outside contain men sat further back and ND's return team is in a hybrid-prevent defense zone.

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This is the point of contact view. You can see that none of the players really moved (1 second difference, I know), but the point is that they are in a prevent zone, by my view.

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And this punt prevent defense was even more obvious when Bryant caught the ball.  There are 6-7 Rice players around him with no return men blocking for him.  Insanely enough, he did not fair catch this.

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Couple of broken tackles (amazingly).

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And a swarm tackle.  I give props to James Onwualu who, when he realized Bryant was attempting a return and, being the closest man, attempted to hit the closest Rice player he could.  It did not help, as Greg was sufficiently swarmed, but I recognize effort and give credit where credit was due.  It is hard to make anything of this punt in particular, since it was not really a failed punt return.  In reality, it was not meant to be a punt return at all, and Greg managed to get 3 yards out of it.  Amazingly, he did not fumble.  Against teams like Rice, he could get away with this, but against the tougher teams on ND's schedule, he may have some issues.  I really hope he does not do this again.  It was borderline reckless and could have been an enormous disaster.

Fake Punt Stop

This was not a return in the traditional sense, however ND's return team has players that anticipate a fake for a reason: plays like this.

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This is just after the snap.  ND is in a return similar to their first return, with two rear players standing on the first down marker (this, I believe, is done on purpose).  The right (bottom) personal protector for the punter is the one who caught the ball.  The red arrow shows where he's headed, off the left tackle.

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After the play starts to matriculate, a hole appears.  James Onwualu and Conor Cavalaris, however, were not fooled, and are moving in.

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And here is first contact with James Onwualu, at the original line of scrimmage.  Now, in the broadcast, Mike Mayock seemed to think that this had a chance, however I think that the return team had it sniffed out from the start.  You can see on the video replay and in these scenes that James Onwualu and Conor Cavalaris both stayed at home and reacted as linebackers should.

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The up back, admirably, managed to lunge this out to almost the first down marker.  I would say, going forward, that James needs to make better tackles, but this was one hell of a football play.  He (and Cavalaris) had this sniffed out from the start and reacted as they should.

How did this defense succeed?  In the spread return, the "linebackers" need to watch the up backs for a fake before retreating to block.  On average, a punt takes 2.7 seconds from snap to kick, so the linebackers only need to watch for about a second to a second before retreating.  The outside contain men help in the event the punter tries to run it around the outside.  I can't imagine any team would attempt to snap it 15 yards back to the punter, only to have him attempt a run up the gut.  I have never seen it.  Therefore, this is how I would defend it.  Notre Dame did this perfectly and they get an A+ from me.

Notre Dame Punt

Notre Dame did not have many punts this game--only three--but Kyle certainly showed he has the leg to get the ball downfield.  His three punts went for 144 yards, an average of 48 yards, with a long of 55.  Unfortunately, these only resulted in a net of 34.7, as two of these landed for touchbacks, none inside the 20.  The positive for Kyle was that he placed these balls almost perfectly inside the 5 yard line.  However, he was let down by his coverage team.  Let's take a look at one of them.

ND Punt Touchback

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This is Brindza's second punt that was a touchback.  Here, the ball landed inside the 5 yard line and had sufficient hangtime.  The problem here was the two gunners who made it down first waited by the return man.  A good return man will fake as if he is going to catch a ball in order to sucker the gunners into staying with him and not running towards the goal line.  This is precisely what the Rice return man did.  However, I highlighted Cam McDaniel (at the bottom) and Mathias Farley (at the top) for a reason: they are not with the return man (in the crowd at about the 12) and should have run to the goal line.  Cam came close to stopping this but he was not quick enough.

Personally, I am ok with this.  I would rather the coverage unit focus on the return man as opposed to sprinting by him hoping for a downed punt.  However, there are ways to combat this.  ND could have a dedicated guy (Cam, for example) sprint to the goal line in the case of fair catches.  Brindza could also aim for the pylon instead of just trying to drop it inside the 5.  ND lost 20ish yards of field position from these touchbacks that could have been played better.  It is not a huge mistake but against the better teams on the schedule, every yard helps.

Notre Dame Field Goal

For purposes of saving space, I am not going to get into Rice's field goal miss.  The one thing I was wrong about was James Hairston taking over all of Rice's kicking duties, not just kickoffs.  He was 1-2, with a make from 33 and a miss from 47.  For a first-time kicker, this is about average.  He has a great leg and I hope he does well this season.

On the Notre Dame front, Kyle started out the season going 2-3, making from 36 and 29, and missing his first, a 39 yarder.  The 39 yard miss was understandable, looking at the video and the screenshots below.  I think, personally, that Kyle gets a little antsy on his first kicks of the game.  After this miss, his makes from 29 and 36 would have certainly been good from further distances.  As I noted in my season preview, for some reason or another, Kyle's problem distance happens to be 30-39.  Let's see what went wrong with the shot below:

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Here is the point just after contact (ball is a blur in the line), but based on Brindza's body, you can tell it is a miss.  Here it is, pixelated, but blown up:

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Here I traced in red where Brindza's hips are pointed and in yellow where the ball trajectory went.  I have stated previously that the natural leg motion is to swing across one's body.  Therefore, for a right-footed kicker, his or her leg would swing across his or her body from right to left.  It is vice-versa for lefties.  Brindza is no different.  This is why right-footed kickers should always aim for just inside of the right upright on contact.  Based on the natural swing of the ball, the kick would end up going through.  If you wish to look back, Kyle did this in a textbook fashion in his 53-yard, record-tying field goal last season. Here, Kyle simply did not plant his foot and get his hips right enough and pulled the ball severely. He can do better, and he did so on his subsequent two kicks.  Like with the punts, not a huge mistake in the long run, but against the better teams on ND's schedule later in the season, ND can use every yard it can get.

ND Kickoff

The kickoff unit on Saturday performed excellently, save for the one return, which could have been covered better, and one unlucky bounce.  Brindza took all 9 of the kickoffs for the Irish, booting them for 580 yards, an average of 64.4 yards per kick.  7 of the 9 kicks were touchbacks.  Amazingly to me, 4 of Brindza's kickoffs sailed out of the back of the endzone.  The box score lists the wind at SW 17 mph but some of these kicks were to the north end.  I am not certain whether the wind played a factor.  Regardless, Brindza followed my recommendation on how to handle kickoffs.  I am a huge fan of the touchback.  Yes, the ideal play would be to kick it high enough to pin the team inside the 25, however I will take a touchback.  It saves players, saves time, and is the safer play.

As for the 2 non-touchbacks, let's take a look at them.

Kickoff Out of Bounds

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After Notre Dame's first touchdown, Brindza booted a kickoff following ND's first touchdown.  On the above screenshot, I highlighted where the ball landed (the 2) and where it is (bouncing out of bounds).  Quite literally, if the ball had bounced any direction other than the way it did, this would have been a potentially disastrous kick return for Rice.  If it bounced forward, it would have been a touchback.  If it bounced back or to the inside, ND is looking at a potential tackle inside the 10.  Instead, ND got unlucky.

Rice Return: 29 Yards

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Rice fielded the ball inside the 5 and broke up field.  No ND players are in view just yet.

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By the time the runner crossed the 10, ND had 5 men inside the 25 yard line, a good sign.  Unfortunately for the Irish, Devin Butler and Connor Cavalaris are in the same lane.  ND has enough men to the bottom that the Rice return man has nowhere to go but up, but the players NEED to keep their lanes.

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And ND is closing.  The coverage team is converging on the man by the time he gets to the 20. However, #82 for Rice opened up a big hole for the return man with a border-line hold on Drue Tranquill.  Cam McDaniel is standing on the 25 ready to make a tackle.

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And unfortunately for the Irish, Cam missed.  However the return man stopped his forward momentum and was forced to switch fields.  Poor Drue Tranquill is now getting triple teamed.

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Cam managed to get up and attempt to make a tackle again and tripped up the return man.  Devin Butler, just above Cam, took a bad angle and bounced off the return man.  Cavalaris is being blocked, Amir is retreating to help, and poor Drue Tranquill was pancaked into the ground by three guys.  Because of the missed tackles, this went from great coverage to questionable in just a few seconds.

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The return man was finally forced out of bounds by a combination of Morgan, Cavalaris, and Carlisle.  Unbelievably, he was not tackled but forced out at the 32.  ND NEEDS to tackle better.  Against the Ryan Switzers, Ty Montgomerys, and Nelson Agholors of the world, this could be catastrophic.

As always, I hope you stayed with me thus far and I look forward to your questions and comments. I am traveling to South Bend tomorrow so I will do my best to try and answer any questions and share in comments from the road.