Stephon Tuitt, All-American defensive end and all-around terrifying human
Notre Dame opened the season with a 28-6 victory over Temple that could've either been much worse or much better, as both sides missed plenty of opportunities to put points on the board. To wit:
- The Irish scored 14 points on a pair of Davaris Daniels TD receptions in the first five minutes of the game, the failed to score a single point on their next three drives, all of which ended in Temple territory.
- Temple, meanwhile, mounted an impressive ten-play drive in the first quarter that ended with a missed 32-yard field goal. Their next drive covered 54 yards in 13 plays, with the final play being—you guessed it—another missed field goal, this one from 43 yards out.
- After finally breaking through and scoring a touchdown to cut ND's lead to 14-6, Temple's extra point was blocked.
- Notre Dame looked to have an easy touchdown when Daniels got behind the defense (again) on a third down play early in the second quarter; Rees put the throw right on the money, but Daniels pulled up lame with poorly-timed groin injury. He sat out the rest of the game, robbing ND of their best receiver; he'll be back this weekend, though, and could've returned to the game if needed.
- On the opening drive of the second half (score: 21-6 ND), Temple had a first down at the Irish six-yard line. That started this sequence: overthrow on wide-open corner route, dropped TD pass over the middle, high snap that ruined the third-down play, desperation chuck falls incomplete when ND brought huge pressure on fourth down.
That last drive effectively ended any chance of Temple making the game competitive, as Notre Dame drove 94 yards in seven plays to give the game its final margin. In the end, the Irish scored "just" 28 points on 543 yards of total offense—Kyle Brindza added another missed field goal in the fourth quarter—while the Owls managed just six points on 362 yards. This one could've been very competitive had Temple not attempted to play man coverage on Davaris Daniels for both of Notre Dame's early touchdowns; at the same time, this could've been even more of a blowout if the Irish could've converted on a few more of their long drives—each of their kickers missed a field goal, and Kelly called for one hell of a Zookian punt in the first half.
Anyway, on to the breakdown. If you're curious to see what's changed from last year, here's the Notre Dame FFFF, 2012 version.
TOMMY REES BACK
Spread, Pro-Style, or Hybrid? Spread. While ND was almost exclusively a shotgun team in years past under Brian Kelly, however, they're now running a whole bunch of pistol; it's the new hotness, apparently.
Basketball on Grass or MANBALL? Basketball on grass. Almost all of Notre Dame's runs feature some form of zone blocking.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the breakdown.]
Hurry it up or grind it out? Kelly's spread is not particularly high-tempo; last year ND was actually slightly below-average in adjusted pace (45%, per Football Study Hall). They weren't pushing the pace against Temple.
Quarterback Dilithium Level (Scale: 1 [Navarre] to 10 [Denard]): Tommy Rees didn't attempt a single scramble, nor are there any designed runs for him (at least that ND showed against Temple). He's never posted positive rushing yards over the course of a season in his career. I'll give him a 3, since he does have some mobility within the pocket.
Dangerman: Davaris Daniels scored two touchdowns and should've had a third; Temple's cornerbacks simply couldn't stay with him in man coverage, and they made the critical error of giving no safety help on either of his scores. The junior is the team's main—lone, as far as I can tell—pure deep threat, and he'll be a tough test for Michigan's still-young secondary.
Zook Factor: A punt on 4th-and-11 from just barely into opponent territory with an early lead is very understandable; after seeing first-time punter Kyle Brindza (a junior who's handled kicking duties so far in his career) blast that one through the back of the end zone, however, Brian Kelly's subsequent decision to boot it away on 4th-and-5 from the Temple 37 when the passing game was working full-bore was, well, very Zook-ian. Brindza, of course, also crushed that one past the back line for a touchback, netting all of 17 yards.
HenneChart: The caveat here is that Temple's secondary looked pretty awful and their defensive line couldn't generate any pressure. That said, these numbers are still quite impressive (charting stopped early in the fourth quarter when ND totally shut down their offense):
Rees strangely panicked on a first-half throw when facing a three-man rush and no pressure, showing off some happy feet and chucking a pass well over an open receiver's head. He also missed on a back-shoulder throw after completing a very similar throw on the previous play and forced one ball into coverage. Otherwise, he looked very good; if he's given time, he'll hit his target.
First, let's start with a chart of Notre Dame's formations and what they ran out of them:
Standard down were run almost entirely out of the pistol, and while Notre Dame didn't have great success with the run—take out an early 45-yard run by Amir Carlisle and the Irish averaged 4.2 ypc against a team that was 100th in rush D last year—they still went to it early and often; most of those runs were inside zone plays on first down. When it came time to throw, the Irish often went to an empty set with Carlisle split out. They went under center exactly twice in the plays that I charted.
While the formation often tipped run vs. pass, the down did not; the Irish had a pretty balanced attack while the game was still somewhat competitive. They could afford to be predictable with their sets because they were playing Temple; I expect them to mix in more shotgun runs and pistol play-actions when facing Michigan.
The Irish boast a very experienced offensive line featuring three seniors, a junior, and redshirt sophomore right tackle Noah Stanley, a consensus four-star out of high school. They were just about perfect in pass protection, allowing one sack and almost no pressure otherwise. The lone sack they did allow, however, gives me hope that Michigan's quickness up front could pose problems for the Irish—the right guard, Christian Lombard, gets beat clean with a quick swim (a Jibreel Black specialty) while the left guard and center are split by the other defensive tackle:
In the run game, however, they failed to get much push up front. Running backs George Atkinson III and Amir Carlisle are very fast runners who can do major damage when they get to the edge; that really only happened once, on Carlisle's early 45-yard scamper. Otherwise, they and the more North-South of ND's backs, Cam McDaniel, mostly took inside zone runs and got what they could out of them, which was usually around four yards. They did have success using a funky O-line split out of the pistol that I'll cover in the play breakdown.
Rees put up a final stat line of 16-for-23 for 326 yards and three touchdowns (plus a should've-been fourth TD if Daniels hadn't pulled up lame). There's no way around it—that's very good. You can sense a "but..." coming, though, and it's "but... Temple." Notre Dame's SBNation blog, One Foot Down, has a very detailed post on the first touchdown pass. Let's just say it was open:
Temple is in man coverage, and if their free safety (red circle) was supposed to be playing one-high coverage, he missed the memo; for some reason, he jumps a relatively well-covered curl route while Daniels is left alone against a cornerback on a post route.
Rees sidesteps what little pressure Temple provides and has a very easy throw to a wide-open Daniels for six points. The second touchdown was scored with similar ease; this time, Daniels ran a post-corner, which completely fooled the Temple corner, who again had no safety help:
Rees puts a very nice throw out there, but again, Daniels is open by yards:
Temple apparently decided that they hadn't put their defenders in enough horrible mismatch situations, as Notre Dame's third touchdown came when relatively fleet-footed tight end Troy Niklas faced man-to-man coverage against a not-so-fleet linebacker while Temple's safeties were both tasked with helping over the top of the outside receivers:
Niklas would elude the pursuit from the safeties and take this 66 yards for a touchdown. TJ Jones, who led the team with 138 yards on six receptions, got 51 of those on a screen pass and most of the rest on wide open deep hitches—as the game went on, Temple was (justifiably) terrified of playing up close against ND's receivers. Yes, Rees hit his targets, and in a game like this there wasn't much more he could do. Those targets were, however, wide the hell open a very large percentage of the time. That isn't to say he didn't make some tough throws; this is impressive:
That's quite the throw between zones. Michigan is going to need to generate pressure on Rees or he'll produce. This gave gave us zero information as to how he'll handle pressure if it comes. (Past indicators say... not well.)
Brian pointed out to me that Notre Dame utilized an unusual offensive line split from the pistol, which the NBC crew helpfully pointed out on replay:
The right tackle is about a yard further outside than normal, and the above wasn't the only time Notre Dame showed this look. You see the setup above, now let's look at how the play went down. Stanley, the right tackle, is able to kick out the defensive end by virtue of his wide split, while right guard Christian Lombard (#74) blocks down, creating a large hole before Cam McDaniel even gets the handoff:
The tight end lined up to the inside on the original formation (#85, Troy Niklas) is pulling across the line to act as a lead blocker—the wide split by Stanley theoretically gives him more space to get across and lead through the hole. He ends up mashing into a mass of bodies...
...and despite Niklas not really getting an effective block on anyone, the block of center Nick Martin holds the point of attack just enough to keep the hole open for McDaniel to bounce it outside for a 16-yard gain:
Temple later run-blitzed into the gap between the RG and RT and had success doing so; this was when ND had the game in hand, however, and I assume Notre Dame has a counter waiting for Michigan.
Nose tackle Louis Nix also has this intimidating point thing down
Base Set? 3-4. Bob Diaco's 3-4 actually functions much like Greg Mattison's 4-3. Last year's FFFF works for this year's FFFF:
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.
That "Cat" linebacker is Prince Shembo, a very solid pass-rusher who also gets his fair share of TFLs by knifing into the backfield on interior runs. He's a tough guy to block.
Man or zone coverage? Notre Dame was mostly able to stick to man against Temple; they'll throw out their fair share of Cover 2 and Cover 3, as well.
Pressure: GERG or Greg? Diaco tends to send four on standard downs, then dial it up in passing situations; on nine third-down passes I charted of Temple's, he send three rushers twice (both in third-and-10+ situations), never rushed four, blitzed a fifth man three times, and sent six or more rushers on four occasions. He likes to bring heat, then occasionally mess with the QB by dropping eight guys and daring him to find an open window. It helps to have Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix when doing this.
Dangerman: Defensive end Stephon Tuitt. Listed at 6'6.5", 312 pounds as a 3-4 DE, he's got more than enough strength to hold up against the run and led the team last year with 11 sacks. Michigan did a very good job blocking him last year and he still came away with a sack and a QB hurry. Expect the Wolverines to run away from him or option him off.
Notre Dame's defensive performance against Temple surprised me. The vaunted D-line didn't produce as expected; Tuitt had their lone sack, which was one of just two TFLs for ND on the game, and behemoth nose tackle Louis Nix had more offsides penalties (2) than tackles (1). Nix was constantly double-teamed and appeared to get frustrated as the game went on; since this is Temple we're talking about, there's hope that Michigan's interior line can do the same—he only had three assisted tackles in last year's game, and this is a better line for the Wolverines. Shembo (technically a linebacker but covered here) came very close to a monster game against Temple—he was credited with five(!) QB hurries—and overall was their best defensive lineman in the game. Sheldon Day, the starter across from Tuitt, had an up-and-down performance. The fourth lineman who rotates in, Ishaq Williams, had a pretty poor performance, getting washed out easily on several run plays and failing to produce a pass rush.
The linebackers, meanwhile, sorely miss the presence of Manti Te'o in the middle. Te'o may have been a touch overrated last year; his ability to cover huge amounts of space in the middle of the field, however, clearly covered for a lot of woes among the rest of the LBs. They were repeatedly victimized by play-action or caught not being in the right zone. Freshman Jaylon Smith makes this too easy:
Smith again, not getting deep enough in his drop (it's tough to tell, but that is a catch:
This play-action throw would've gone for major yardage had Temple's receiver not flat-out dropped it:
Here's ILB Dan Fox getting sucked up on play-action and giving up an easy first down:
I'm honestly not sure how I posted four of these and didn't have one victimizing the other ILB, Carlo Calabrese, who repeatedly got caught out of position against both the run and the pass. Devin Funchess should be licking his chops; so should Devin Gardner, as the linebackers gave up several easy scrambles up the middle when the pass rush didn't hit home—Temple's quarterback is no Devin Gardner. Evaluating their run defense was difficult because Temple (1) didn't have much of a run game and (2) played from behind all day; Calabrese overran a couple of plays, Fox looked solid, and Smith looked like a freshman who's very talented and still figuring things out.
With so much available over the middle, Temple didn't test Notre Dame's secondary too often. They tried a few deep shots at cornerback Bennett Jackson, who was on the wrong end of a horrible pass interference call and otherwise shut down everything going his way. Fellow corner KeiVarae Russell wasn't tested much at all. Elijah Shumate, a sophomore safety who played some at nickel, got beat on a couple of short inside routes. The safeties didn't see any action whatsoever. I did notice that Notre Dame gave up a few easy completions to the flats when they weren't coming up in press coverage. There was another reason for that, as well, which we're going to get to... now.
Maybe they're just hoping to set up Michigan, but Notre Dame tipped off their blitzes on a regular basis, to the point where Temple's first-time starter at quarterback picked them apart by recognizing the blitz, calling an audible, and making a one-read throw to the sideline. This is way too easy:
That happened on multiple occasions, often in critical situations. Michigan may want to speed up their tempo a little bit, as getting to the line with time on the clock allowed Temple to read blitz, check out of their play, and exploit whatever gap was left by the extra rusher.
Overall, I think as long as Michigan's offensive line can hold up against Nix and Tuitt—no easy task, of course, but Temple just handled Nix and the Owls didn't have Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield to block Tuitt and Shembo—then the combination of Gardner, Gallon, Dileo, and Funchess should be able to exploit the large holes the Irish leave over the middle. Despite the improved passing of Rees, I wasn't overly impressed with Notre Dame's skill players—especially their running backs—and after watching this game I believe Michigan will come away with a win. Thomas Gordon (and potentially Courtney Avery, though Jarrod Wilson had a fine game against CMU) returning should really help keep the lid on Notre Dame's offense, and without big plays over the top I don't think they can hang with Michigan's offensive firepower.