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Notre Dame Special Teams: USC Review

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The Irish Special Teams continued to perform excellently and received the game ball for an outstanding performance against USC. Let's see why. Oh, and ALL THE GIFs!

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

OFD Films II

Author's Note/Introduction: Howdy OFD'ers! I'll be moonlighting as the Special Teams blogger for the interim while Punter Bro is out of the office. Think of it as PB being Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men and I'm the Kevin Bacon character. Sure, I'm a pretty good lawyer but I'm lousy at softball. Ok. /end intro

Let's do this!

The Irish Special Teams were outstanding in their contest against USC (sans one kickoff but I'll get to that) and did enough to earn the game ball from Brian Kelly for their performance. Ok. Enough Talk. Let's dig in and see what we've got!

ND Kickoff

The Irish had 8 kickoffs totaling 481 yards for an average of 60 yards a kick. On a cold night in South Bend, Tyler Newsome did pretty well on these. Yes, he did kick one out of bounds, but it ended up not costing the Irish because the ensuing USC possession resulted in a turnover.

However, the Irish were clearly concerned with USC returner/every position guy Adoree Jackson and they had every right to be. Jackson took 4 of the 6 kickoffs in play for a total of 101 yards, with a long of 33. If you take out that long return, Jackson is only averaging 23 yards per return. A good number.

Let's take a look at Jackson's long return.

jr

What ND tried to do all night on kickoffs was to neutralize the threat posed by Adoree Jackson, USC's all-everything guy. They did so by angling kickoffs towards Juju Smith-Schuster and swarm coverage. In this case, Newsome tried to lob a short one at JSS but it backfired.

What it appears to have happened is that Nyles Morgan (#5) had outside contain. At the kickoff, Elijah Shumate is the wing on the kickoff, but after watching all of ND's kickoffs, he plays more of a safety valve role and hangs back, while Morgan envelops on the wing.

After Newsome's kickoff, Morgan closes off contain, but cuts it way too short. He should easily be 3-4 yards more downfield before he does so. As a result, JSS is able to get around him. This is made worse by the fact that Shumate is playing parallel to Morgan, and is also out of position. When Elijah gets into position to cut off JSS, Juju pitches the ball back to Jackson and becomes a lead blocker, kicking out Shumate and giving Jackson 10-15 yards more space.

It should be noted that ND corrected this though. Check out their 2nd to last kickoff:

USCKickoff2

Newsome again angles a kick, this time to the ND-side of the field and USC is prepared for it, obviously setting up a Left Return, which is why you don't see the two lead blockers for USC run upfield. They're waiting to wall off a lane for Jackson. They almost succeed, but for the discipline of ND's kickoff team this time around. Nick Coleman (#24) and Keivarae Russell (#6), who stay home and force the play back inside, allowing Max Redfield (#10) and Te'von Coney (#4) to make the stop before Jackson even gets to the 20. Also a fedora tip to Morgan for getting as close to the sideline  as possible to force USC's return left.

ND Kick Return

C.J. Sanders returned all 6 of USC's kickoffs for a total of 135 yards and a long of 33. That's roughly 22 yards a return which ordinarily wouldn't be that good. However, as USC's kickoffs tended to hang short, C.J. was able to get some yardage out of them. Wrinkles also help, as ND added the element of a fake reverse to their kickoff return which helped Sanders get some space. The funny thing is, Sanders' long return was a traditional middle return. Check it out:

sanderskickreturn

Sanders could've gotten this the distance but for two breakdowns. The first is that Josh Adams literally blocks nobody, and doesn't get through the wedge fast enough to take out the kicker (who makes the tackle). In fact, Sanders overruns Adams at the breakout point of the wedge. The second is that Te'von Coney couldn't hold his block long enough to spring Sanders, though I will excuse him because he released at the last possible second so as to avoid a costly holding penalty. Still...so close.

Hey! What about the fake reverse, Mr. NOT Punter Bro?

Sure, let's take a gander:

ReverseReturn

Here, the Irish set up two wedges which spreads out USC's kickoff team; one for Sanders and the other for Adams. On both occasions where the Irish ran the reverse, Sanders opted to keep the ball. On this play, he almost breaks it open but for one breakdown. In this case, Greer Martini (I think) fails to hold onto his block which forces Sanders to the outside and allows the rush to catch up to him. However, the tackle, in my opinion, was clearly out of bounds and should have drawn a flag. I think this was one of those scenarios where if this exact play occurred on the Irish sideline, you would've probably seen a flag.

ND Field Goals

FGC

Pretty much sums it up.

ND Field Goal Block

USC attempted two field goals. Alex Albarado made one of them, from 42 yards. He missed from 36, highlighted by the fact that Brian Kelly burned all three of the Irish's timeouts in succession to ice him.

It worked apparently.

ND Punt

The Irish punted 5 times. Tyler Newsome punted three of those, going for 109 total yards with an average of 36.5 yards a punt. The Irish utilized a "rugby style" punt where Newsome ran off to the right before punting it. Again, I think this was intended to neutralize any return by Jackson, and it worked. He didn't return any of the Irish punts.

Newsome's bros also downed a punt at the 1-yard line.

Observe!

PuntDown

This is a tremendous angle first of all because we get to see Newsome aim this punt right for the corner. While the gunner does get blocked out (correctly by the USC player), no one touches Devin Butler, who slaps the ball back to the 1 where Daly covers it up. Props to Matthias Farley as well for jumping over the ball and not kicking it into the end zone.

But wait! There's more!

It wouldn't be a special teams unit without another wrinkle! Again, to neutralize Jackson, the Irish added a pooch punt to their repertoire.

PoochPunt

Big fan of this. Granted, it harkens me back to when Michigan would have Tate Forcier pooch punt, which makes me laugh and cry at the same time.

ND Punt Return (no not the block yet, sit down and relax)

The Irish returned one of USC's 3 punts for 25 yards. Sanders should've been stopped immediately due to a couple breakdowns on the Irish return side, but was shifty enough to break out of the first wave and make some yards out of it.

Let's have a look:

SandersPuntReturn

I single out Chris Brown here because one of the first two guys to reach Sanders was his man. The other was the long snapper, which is understandable that there wasn't a hat over the top of him (because I believe that is a penalty). The third missed tackle was Nick Watkins' (#21) man, but kudos to C.J. for making something out of nothing. When Sanders is eventually tackled, the man who gets him was being blocked by Doug Randolph and rather well too. It was a nice tackle. Can't fault him for that. I like this return because it reminds me of how Tom Zbikowski would return punts: make the first man miss and run to space. It's a simple concept but can be hard to execute against a spread return and Sanders did a nice job.

The moment you've been waiting for...the PUNT BLOCK!

Wasn't that fun? Doug Flute getting cut off mid-sentence and the NBC camera getting almost-fooled by a rare Irish punt rush. Sigh. One of the best moments of the game and one that really put USC on their heels.

It was about as flawless execution on ND's part and as about the worst execution I've ever seen on a punt by USC. Add those together and you have what you have.

Got a GIF of this one. Let's dissect!

BlockPunt

As with any blocked punt, if you're on the receiving end of one, 99% of the time it is because someone missed an assignment. Given that USC had a spread formation here that would have given their punter more time, this is even more astounding that there was such a failure on their back end.

A lot of times, you can come close with a block, as USC almost nabbed one of Newsome's:

Newsomepunt

Looks close, huh. But the wall did their job. They blocked out enough so Newsome had a tunnel to punt the ball off.

When you get to USC's punt team, the 3-man wall is where the responsibility lies. Notre Dame effectively rushed five players (six if you add Devin Butler but he didn't get to the wall in time) and USC had a typical 3-man wall in front of their punter.

Jarrett Grace and Equanimeous St. Brown were the two middle rushers and because of a communications breakdown, USC's left and center wallmen blocked Grace, allowing St. Brown to run free for the block.

A reverse angle:

PuntREverse

ESB was literally untouched. Amir was the wide rusher around the Right Wall blocker and was in prime position to pick up the ball for a scoop and score.  Kind of crazy to think that one simple missed assignment here by USC resulted in the first Punt Block TD for the Irish since Utah 2010.

Summary

For their performance against USC, the Irish special teams unit received the game ball, with Brian Kelly noting that a blocked punt can change the feeling of the game. Notre Dame's special teams unit had many of those on Saturday night. A blocked punt. A crucial field goal. A clutched downed punt at the 1-yard line. Sound returns and minimal mistakes. As the Irish head into the Bye Week, they can look to their Special Teams unit as a model for the rest of the season.

And such is the nature of special teams. So special they are.

As always, I welcome your comments and critiques to this scroll of a review and look forward to more breakdowns!