premature congrats. One thing we can be sure of: he'll take fewer asinine penalties than Abdelkader
Fee Fi Foe Film: Notre Dame
PREVIOUSLY: FFFF—Notre Dame vs. Purdue
Notre Dame enters their contest against Michigan with an unblemished record and one of the year's most impressive victories—a 20-3 thumping of Michigan State in East Lansing—to their credit. Despite breaking in a new starting quarterback, the Irish have impressed on both sides of the ball, meaning we get another September full of "Is Notre Dame Back?" headlines and, on a more positive note, another hyped up matchup with the Wolverines.
Before I get into the film breakdown, let's take a moment to enjoy this quote from the ND-MSU game. Kirk Herbstreit dropped this gem while discussing the answer to the game's trivia question (Brady Quinn holds the ND-MSU record for most passing yards in a game from the '05 MSU overtime victory):
"That was the 'Bush Push' year in '05. That was a great year for Notre Dame."
The new standard for a "great year" for the Irish: A 9-3 season most easily identified by a soul-crushing loss. Delightful.
Anyway, on to the breakdown.
Spread, Pro-Style, or Hybrid? Brian Kelly is one of the coaches most synonymous with the spread offense, though he's not as much of a pure system guy as Rich Rodriguez or Dana Holgorsen. Kelly adjusted his offense back when Cincinnati went from statuesque pocket passer Tony Pike to scrambler Zach Collaros, and he's done much the same with the transition to Tommy Rees and Everett Golson—ND throws in a fair amount of under-center plays and is more run-heavy than Kelly's Cinci outfits.
Basketball on Grass or MANBALL? Basketball on grass—the Irish running game almost entirely consists of inside and outside zone.
Hurry it up or grind it out? Right in the middle, actually. Notre Dame's adjusted pace last year was 47.9%, just a tick below the national average (50%, obvs).
Quarterback Dilithium Level (Scale: 1 [Navarre] to 10 [Denard]): Golson earned the starting nod in large part because of his mobility—he's at his best when throwing on the run or making plays with his feet. He showed off his wheels against MSU, escaping the pocket and getting the edge on a six-yard TD run in the second quarter. Brian Kelly doesn't give Golson much in the way of designed runs, but he's dangerous when he breaks the pocket—I'll give him a 7.
Dangerman: Tight end Tyler Eifert finished second to Michael Floyd in all three major receiving categories last year with 65 catches for 803 yards and five touchdowns, and he's started the year with eight receptions for 120 yards and a TD. As noted by The Only Colors, Eifert is basically a wide receiver now—he lines up on the outside or in the slot, and if he has his hand in the dirt—rarely, at this point—it's as an H-back. He gives Golson quite a security blanket at 6'6", 251 pounds, and is a tough matchup for defensive backs and linebackers alike.
Quite surprisingly, Eifert didn't record a catch against Michigan State, but I don't expect we'll see that replicated going forward.
Zook Factor: The Irish punted on 4th-and-7 from the MSU 48, which earns some Zook points, but with a first-year starter at QB against a great defense that's pretty understandable.
[The rest of the breakdown after THE JUMP.]
Notre Dame spreads the field a fair amount, going with a lot of four-receiver sets (with Eifert as a receiver, not a tight end—Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack split time there) run mostly out of the shotgun, though they'll also go under center, especially in short-yardage situations.
The offense thus far this year has largely been tailored for Golson; passing plays often involve a rollout to cut down the number of reads and add the threat of the scramble, and as mentioned above there's more running from under center to take the pressure off the quarterback. Golson looks far more comfortable throwing on the run—usually to his first read—than he does when standing in the pocket; he threw some pinpoint strikes when rolling out, but also sailed multiple bubble screens over his receivers' heads. Golson also overthrew a couple of deep passes down the seam, including a first-quarter throw that should've gone for a touchdown, and missed a couple open receivers—Notre Dame's first touchdown came when he rolled out and threw across his body to the opposite side of the field even though Robby Toma was wide open down the near sideline.
Kelly has tried to make things easier on his quarterback by calling for a lot of short crossing routes underneath—Toma and T.J. Jones do a good job of getting open and finding room for YAC. Deeper passes mostly went to the perimeter, usually when Golson rolled out. He did try to hit a few passes up the seam but didn't find much success, mostly due to inaccuracy.
Running backs Cierre Wood—fresh off a two-game suspension—and Theo Riddick found little room to operate in ND's zone running game, forcing the Irish to get creative to produce yards on the ground. They do this by utilizing speedsters Riddick and George Atkinson III on jet sweeps from the slot, hitting the edge in a hurry. Atkinson also caught a shovel pass after going in motion from the slot that picked up a decent gain. The Irish also found success with misdirection, which I'll detail in the play breakdown section.
The offensive line had its fair share of struggles against State. The right side of the line consistently gave up pressure off the edge on passing plays, exacerbating Golson's pocket presence issues—he's prone to scrambling too early and pulls the ball down even when there's room to step up, reset, and make a throw downfield. Starting guard Mike Golic Jr. is a bit undersized at 6'3", 295, and he got pushed around on the interior on a few inside zone runs. The offensive line does a solid job of getting to the second level, though center Braxton Cave foiled a potential touchdown by failing to block a soul on this perfectly drawn-up screen pass:
Good lord, man. Hit something.
Michigan's lack of a dominant interior D-line presence and Notre Dame's lack of interior push should offset. Given ND's tendency to go for quick hitters on the edge and rolling out Golson the key for the line will be contain, contain, contain. Frank Clark and Jake Ryan should be able to generate a pass rush against the Irish tackles, which is critical in limiting Golson. Having a sure-tackling safety in Jordan Kovacs eases a lot of concerns about ND taking a short pass and breaking it long.
With so many called rollouts for Golson, Brian Kelly has to find a way to prevent defenses from getting too aggressive and flooding one side of the field. He took advantage of MSU's overaggressive pursuit with a nifty sprint counter to Atkinson:
On the snap, the entire offense save the receivers sprints out to the right before Atkinson stops and heads back in the other direction, pulling the defense to the near side. Both receivers to the bottom of the screen go into routes, making this look very much like a rollout pass right until the moment Atkinson reverses field and takes the handoff. Michigan runs a similar play, though with a less exaggerated move by the running back, so the defense should be familiar with this look.
Notre Dame again utilized misdirection to catch MSU playing the rollout two plays later, this time with a throwback screen:
The defense has to make sure not to overpursue against this Irish offense, especially at linebacker. While Joe Bolden and James Ross have seen a lot of playing time the last two weeks, I'm not sure they'll see much action this weekend—both are very aggressive, but still learning, and this is not the game to go tearing off in the wrong direction.
Base Set? 3-4. A couple good primers on ND's base defense are over at Her Loyal Sons and One Foot Down. Short version: DC Bob Diaco will throw out a traditional 3-4 look, but quite often will take his "Cat" linebacker—essentially a rush end—and put his hand in the dirt.
Man or zone coverage? Rather surprisingly, considering the injury woes in the secondary, Notre Dame played a lot of man coverage against MSU. They usually run mostly Cover 2 and Cover 3, however.
Pressure: GERG or Greg? Much more Greg than GERG, Diaco brings heat from a variety of looks, and usually rushes at least four—if not five or six—on passing downs.
Dangerman: Superstar MLB Manti Te'o really needs no introduction; he's arguably the best linebacker in college football. Te'o is exceptional against the run, covers the field sideline-to-sideline, and also is very solid in coverage. There will be multiple plays on Saturday in which you expect to see a runner break free, instead watch him get mowed down for little gain, and after seeing who made the tackle state, "Oh, right, Te'o."
The strength of the Notre Dame defense is up front; Te'o is the headliner, but ND's defensive line is one of the best in the country, and they limited Le'Veon Bell to just 77 yards on 19 carries. In a 3-4, all the defensive linemen must be stout against the run, and the Irish have that in nose tackle Louis Nix III (more on him later) and ends Stephon Tuitt and Kapron Lewis-Moore.
Tuitt was a five-star in 2011 while Lewis-Moore has started for much of the last three seasons; both weigh in around 300 pounds and can play inside or rush from the edge. On passing downs, Diaco often takes Nix out of the game and puts Tuitt and Lewis-Moore on the interior, utilizing a variety of stunts to generate a pass rush.
Aside from Te'o, the linebacker to watch is Prince Shembo, the "Cat" linebacker who often plays down on the line. He had nine tackles (two TFL) and a sack against the Spartans and was a terror on the edge all night, routinely beating the MSU tackles to get in Andrew Maxwell's face. Taylor Lewan should hold up against him just fine, but he'll be a big test for Michael Schofield when lined up against the right side of the Wolverine line.
The linebackers do a great job of filling in the gaps left by the defensive line, helped by the ability of Nix and Tuitt to draw double-teams with regularity. Michigan hasn't been able to generate an interior running game so far this year, and frankly I don't see it happening against Notre Dame.
Where Michigan can take advantage of the Irish, however, is in the secondary. Notre Dame already was forced to start true freshman KeiVarae Russell and converted wideout Bennett Jackson at corner, and now safety Jamorris Slaughter is out for the season after going down against MSU—he'll be replaced by sophomore Matthias Farley, who moved to safety from wide receiver this spring.
Edge tackling was a huge issue for ND against Purdue, and while that improved against MSU there were still problems—safety Zeke Motta saved a couple of touchdowns with desparation tackles on the perimeter. Motta will have to do the same to keep Michigan from springing a couple of big plays on Saturday, and he's also tasked with making sure nothing goes over the top of the inexperienced Irish secondary. That won't be easy, as both Russell and Jackson got turned around when forced into man coverage against MSU—a consistent pass rush and the inexperience of Maxwell and MSU's receivers kept passing yards down, but the going gets tougher against Denard and Michigan's receivers.
My video editor is currently deciding to freeze when I load the MSU-ND game, so you'll have to settle for stills. The player I'd like to highlight is Louis Nix, the key to Notre Dame's success against the run. Watch him single-handedly blow up this running play when State decides to single-block him. Here's the look at the snap, with Nix lined up over MSU's center, Travis Jackson:
Nix gets a stellar jump off the snap, coming into contact with Jackson before Tuitt (end at the bottom of the screen) even gets his hand out of the dirt:
State is trying to run a simple dive play, but there's a big problem—Nix drives Jackson two yards back, directly where the play was intended to go, by the time Bell receives the handoff:
Bell is forced to stop his momentum and bounce it outside, where the play should be stopped for no gain:
Motta comes down when Bell bounces out, and sets up to make the tackle:
If Motta was Jordan Kovacs, the play would end right here, but he biffs the tackle—again, tackling on the edge is an issue for ND—and Bell is able to turn this into a five-yard gain. Still, Nix single-handedly blew up this play, and those nervous about the play of Michigan's interior line so far this season should not be optimistic about Fitz Toussaint finding room to maneuver in the middle.