Detonating the big play


Right now the Irish defense is a mess. A 104th placed mess that is giving up a whopping 419 yards per game and 6.3 yards per play. Making those stats even worse is the fact that Notre Dame’s offense has been very good, including a Top-15 rating in total time of possession. Basically, the Irish are reaching historically bad levels of defensive ineptitude during this otherwise promising season, which is pretty mind-boggling when you think of the returning starters and skilled players on the ND defense.

Want a reason why Notre Dame’s defense is ranked so low? Exhibit A is their woeful performance against the Trojans. Notre Dame gave up 10 explosive plays, a staggering amount of big plays that help explain how the Irish defense gave up 501 total yards even as they clamped down for much of the 4th quarter.

Our video wizards took some time and cut up the passing plays, and I wanted to see if we could find out what exactly is ailing the Irish pass defense.     

Play #1

Tight end Anthony McCoy absolutely shredded the Irish defense for just over 30 yards per grab with 153 yards on only five catches. The Trojan offense did a nice job motioning McCoy out to the slot, but it looked as if he merely ran straight down the seam and was left wide open, with Darrin Walls lagging behind and Harrison Smith late to get to his deep half. (I don’t know if the Irish were in a Cover-2, but I’m assuming they were.)

Play #2

Another Barkley pass that looked way to easy. From the feed we got, it looks like a classic combination route, where the outside receiver runs a curl and the inside receiver runs a flag over the top of him. Barkley didn’t even make a great throw, forcing a wide open Damian Williams to dive for a ball that neither Gary Gray nor Kyle McCarthy was even close to getting.

Play #3

This put a cap on the most efficient of the Trojan drives when Barkley found Williams again for an easy touchdown. Again, an incredibly easy throw for a quarterback, and Gary Gray let Williams turn him around, attacking his outside shoulder before turning into the post. Harrison Smith was really late getting to this ball… a troubling dilemma to have with your free safety. Needless to say, Smith’s transition back to the secondary hasn’t been smooth.

Play #4

One of the more impressive throws that Barkley made all day. He threaded a tough throw between three defenders, converting a huge 3rd-and-long for 17 yards and a first down from deep inside Trojan territory. While the secondary has certainly deserved its share of criticism, the pass rush was nonexistent and Barkley had all day in the pocket to make a play.

Play #5

The definition of getting burned on a blitz. Credit USC for a perfect play call. With trips to the top of the screen, Sergio Brown came off the corner, Kyle McCarthy took himself out of the play by taking a bad route to the play, and Harrison Smith missed a critical tackle by not using the sideline to his advantage while Darrin Walls got stalk blocked for about 20 yards. Just a perfect play by the Trojans and a great example of how not to tackle in the open field by the Irish. Notre Dame has to know that they’ve been incredibly susceptible against the wide receiver screen game.

Play #6

An absolute killer. How the Irish allow McCoy a free release from the line of scrimmage on a 3rd-and-short play is beyond me. That’s short-yardage defense 101. Kyle McCarthy also got caught looking in the backfield, not keying on the guard pass-blocking, but buying Barkley’s play-action fake before dumping the throw off to McCoy just before getting hit. While this might not have actually been Harrison Smith’s fault, he didn’t do himself any favors by getting rodeo’ed for an extra 15 yards while he tried to punch the ball out, then held on for dear life why McCoy rumbled down the field.

Play #7

Almost a mirror image of play 2. Barkley actually had to wait for the flag, something he could afford to do with the great protection he was getting all day. Once again, this is pretty simple stuff — a combination route — that beats the man coverage. This looked like a read that was elementary, if you look at Kyle McCarthy, he’s down in the box because there’s no one for him to cover, yet the secondary still gets beat on a two-man route.

Play #8

A great play designed to catch the Irish over-playing the screen pass. With trips wide right, the Trojans show the quick throw to the wide-man, and two of the three cover men jump that route, leaving McCoy wide open on a easy throw on the slant. Making matters worse, is the mediocre tackling, allowing McCoy to get an extra ten yards before being chased down.


While we don’t have access to the play calls (or goal-line angles that could help us diagnose things better), it’s clear that communication and general IQ is just as big a problem as a lack of pass rush and poor tackling. It’s not as if these were exotic plays. The Irish have seen formations and schemes like this in their previous game, although not with skill players like Damian Williams and Anthony McCoy.

If the Irish want to run the table — a realistic goal with just a modest defensive improvement — they need to get down to the basics, and figure out a way to cut down on the huge defensive miscues.



Only focus after Clemson loss is winning on Saturday

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The 2015 college football season has yet to showcase a truly great football team. With early title contenders like Ohio State and Michigan State looking less than stellar, Alabama losing a game already and the Pac-12 beating itself up, the chance that a one-loss Notre Dame team could still make it into the College Football Playoff is certainly a possibility.

But don’t expect Brian Kelly and his football team to start worrying about that now.

We saw a similar situation unfold last season, after the Irish lost a heartbreaker in the final seconds against Florida State. With many fans worried that Notre Dame wasn’t given credit for their performance in Tallahassee, the Irish’s playoff resume mattered very little as the team fell apart down the stretch.

As Notre Dame looks forward, their focus only extends to Saturday. That’s when Navy will test the Irish with their triple-option attack and better-than-usual defense, a team that Brian Kelly voted into his Top 25 this week.

Can this team make it to the Playoff? Kelly isn’t sure. But he knows what his team has to do.

“I don’t know,” Kelly said when asked about a one-loss entrance. “But we do know what we can control, and that is winning each week. So what we really talked about is we have no margin for error, and we have to pay attention to every detail.

“Each game is the biggest and most important game we play and really focusing on that. It isn’t concern yourself with big picture. You really have to focus on one week at a time.”

Kelly spread that message to his five captains after the game on Saturday night. He’s optimistic that message has set in over the weekend, and he’ll see how the team practices as they begin their on-field preparations for Navy this afternoon.

But when asked what type of response he wants to see from his team this week, it wasn’t about the minutiae of the week or a company line about daily improvement.

“The response is to win. That’s the response that we’re looking for,” Kelly said, before detailing four major factors to victory. “To win football games, you have to start fast, which we did not. There has to be an attention to detail, which certainly we were missing that at times. We got great effort, and we finished strong. So we were missing two of the four real key components that I’ll be looking for for this weekend. As long as we have those four key components, I’ll take a win by one. That would be fine with me. We need those four key components. That’s what I’ll be looking for.”

Go for two or not? Both sides of the highly-debated topic

during their game at Clemson Memorial Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina.

Notre Dame’s two failed two-point conversion tries against Clemson have been the source of much debate in the aftermath of the Irish’s 24-22 loss to the Tigers. Brian Kelly’s decision to go for two with just over 14 minutes left in the game forced the Irish into another two-point conversion attempt with just seconds left in regulation, with DeShone Kizer falling short as he attempted to push the game into overtime.

Was Kelly’s decision to go for two the right one at the beginning of the fourth quarter? That depends.

Take away the result—a pass that flew through the fingers of a wide open Corey Robinson. Had the Irish kicked their extra point, Justin Yoon would’ve trotted onto the field with a chance to send the game into overtime. (Then again, had Robinson caught the pass, Notre Dame would’ve been kicking for the win in the final seconds…)

This is the second time a two-point conversion decision has opened Kelly up to second guessing in the past eight games. Last last season, Kelly’s decision to go for two in the fourth-quarter with an 11-point lead against Northwestern, came back to bite the Irish and helped the Wildcats stun Notre Dame in overtime.

That choice was likely fueled by struggles in the kicking game, heightened by Kyle Brindza’s blocked extra-point attempt in the first half, a kick returned by Northwestern that turned a 14-7 game into a 13-9 lead. With a fourth-quarter, 11-point lead, the Irish failed to convert their two-point attempt that would’ve stretched their lead to 13 points. After Northwestern converted their own two-point play, they made a game-tying field goal after Cam McDaniel fumbled the ball as the Irish were running out the clock. Had the Irish gone for (and converted) a PAT, the Wildcats would’ve needed to score a touchdown.

Moving back to Saturday night, Kelly’s decision needs to be put into context. After being held to just three points for the first 45 minutes of the game, C.J. Prosise broke a long catch and run for a touchdown in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. Clemson would be doing their best to kill the clock. Notre Dame’s first touchdown of the game brought the score within 12 points when Kelly decided to try and push the score within 10—likely remembering the very way Northwestern forced overtime.

After the game, Kelly said it was the right decision, citing his two-point conversion card and the time left in the game. On his Sunday afternoon teleconference, he said the same, giving a bit more rationale for his decision.

“We were down and we got the chance to put that game into a two-score with a field goal. I don’t chase the points until the fourth quarter, and our mathematical chart, which I have on the sideline with me and we have a senior adviser who concurred with me, and we said go for two. It says on our chart to go for two.

“We usually don’t use the chart until the fourth quarter because, again, we don’t chase the points. We went for two to make it a 10-point game. So we felt we had the wind with us so we would have to score a touchdown and a field goal because we felt like we probably only had three more possessions.

“The way they were running the clock, we’d probably get three possessions maximum and we’re going to have to score in two out of the three. So it was the smart decision to make, it was the right one to make. Obviously, you know, if we catch the two-point conversion, which was wide open, then we just kick the extra point and we’ve got a different outcome.”

That logic and rationale is why I had no problem with the decision when it happened in real time. But not everybody agrees.

Perhaps the strongest rebuke of the decision came from Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister, who had this to say about the decision in his (somewhat appropriately-titled) weekly Point After column:

Hire another analyst or at least assign someone to the task of deciphering the Beautiful Mind-level math problem that seems to be vexing the Notre Dame brain-trust when a dweeb with half-inch thick glasses and a pocket protector full of pens could tell you that in the game of football, you can’t chase points before it is time… (moving ahead)

…The more astonishing thing is that no one in the ever-growing football organization that now adds analysts and advisors on a regular basis will offer the much-needed advice. Making such decisions in the heat of battle is not easy. What one thinks of in front of the TV or in a press box does not come as clearly when you’re the one pulling the trigger for millions to digest.

And yet with this ever-expanding entourage, Notre Dame still does not have anyone who can scream through the headphones to the head coach, “Coach, don’t go for two!”

If someone, anyone within the organization had the common sense and then the courage to do so, the Irish wouldn’t have lost every game in November of 2014 and would have had a chance to win in overtime against Clemson Saturday night.

My biggest gripe about the decision was the indecision that came along with the choice. Scoring on a big-play tends to stress your team as special teams players shuffle onto the field and the offense comes off. But Notre Dame’s use of a timeout was a painful one, and certainly should’ve been spared considering the replay review that gave Notre Dame’s coaching staff more time to make a decision.

For what it’s worth, Kelly’s decision was probably similar to the one many head coaches would make. And it stems from the original two-point conversion chart that Dick Vermeil developed back in the 1970s.

The original chart didn’t account for success rate or time left in the game. As Kelly mentioned before, Notre Dame uses one once it’s the fourth quarter.

It’s a debate that won’t end any time soon. And certainly one that will have hindsight on the side of the “kick the football” argument.