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Tiki's Game Analysis: Notre Dame

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The Hoos had a chance to pull of a monumental upset over a top-10 team. The fans were ready to rush the field. The players were ready to party. But the Fighting Irish weren't ready to give up. And they were aided by the continuing follies of the UVA coaching staff.

Matt Johns played the game of his life, but it wasn't enough.
Matt Johns played the game of his life, but it wasn't enough.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

You can't get beat deep there. You CAN'T get beat deep there. YOU CANNOT GET BEAT DEEP THERE!

Let me get one thing out of the way. This was not a Hail Mary! I heard a lot of people call it that. You want to see a Hail Mary, watch the end of the BYU-Nebraska game from week 1. This was simply a go route that was poorly defended. There is absolutely no excuse for having one of the top WRs single covered on the outside with 20 seconds left. Jon Tenuta brought pressure, which forced his CBs into single coverage. Will Fuller ran a fly pattern and beat Maurice Canady. And beat him easily.

Canady had a very strong game. He got beat on this play. But the fault is not his, it is on Tenuta. A timely blitz now and then works. When you repeatedly blitz, and the opposition knows it's coming, it tends to backfire.

Mike London talked about a "bend-but-don't-break" defense. That is almost the opposite of what we saw. We saw a defense that got beat on 3 long TD plays and several other long plays. And they got beat on several long plays last week against UCLA. All of these long plays have come against a UVA blitz.

The blitz is a gamble. You're gambling that you can get to the QB before he can make his throw. You're hoping to get a sack. Or even better, a turnover. Well, through 2 games, the Hoos have totaled 3 sacks and 0 turnovers. And 2 of those sacks were coverage sacks when the Hoos didn't blitz.

Last year, the Hoos had Eli Harod, Max Valles and Henry Coley. All were among the nation's leaders in sacks. This year, those guys have been replaced by Trent Corney, Chris Peace and Micah Kiser. Not the same level of talent or experience. Last year, the Hoos averaged almost 3 sacks per game and almost 2.5 turnovers per game. When teams are forced to double-team Eli Harold and/or Max Valles, somebody is going to be free to rush the QB. That was often Henry Coley. This year, there are no double-teams. Not from UCLA and Notre Dame, both teams that have outstanding OLs.

Those of you who read my game preview may have seen that Will Fuller was noted as my "Player to Watch" for Notre Dame's offense. Even over Malik Zaire. He's their deep threat. With 20 seconds left, Notre Dame down to their final TO, facing an inexperienced QB and looking at a true freshman kicker, there is simply no reason to blitz there. The blitz had already backfired twice during that Notre Dame drive, as Deshone Kizer was able to extend plays and find open receivers in the middle of the field. Why were they so open in the middle of the field? Because the UVA linebackers were engaged with the Notre Dame OL, trying desperately to get pressure on Kizer.

On the final play, Kizer saw pressure. He knew there was single coverage on the outside. He threw it deep. It was an easy read, an easy throw and Fuller made a great play to beat Canady. Had we played a nice safe defense, keeping everything in front and double-teaming Fuller, Kizer would've had to go through his progressions. Do you know what inexperienced QBs tend to struggle with? Progressions. Oftentimes, they make mistakes. They get so focused on their primary option that they force throws.

Tenuta has to realize that he doesn't have last year's defense. The DBs are very good, the front 7 isn't. The strength of this defense is coverage. So play coverage. Don't force your CBs into unwinnable situations.

Last week, we complained about how Steve Fairchild was unable to put his players in a position to win. This week, we make the same complaint about Jon Tenuta. He is known as a guy who blitzes. But he needs to also be known as a guy who uses what he has.

Of course, the common thread here is Mike London. He's a defensive guy. He has to be able to see that bringing pressure over and over again, especially against an OL as good as Notre Dame's isn't working. On the game's final drive, he has to be able to (and willing to) overrule Tenuta and change the defensive call.

The Hoos didn't need a big play from the defense. And they couldn't afford a big play from the Notre Dame offense. How can the coaching staff not understand this?

As always some notes from the game:

  • There seems to be some debate on whether London should've accepted the penalty that lead to Notre Dame's fake FG. Of course, in hindsight, it's an easy decision. My theory is Notre Dame has a true freshman kicker who's making his first appearance on the road in front of 60k fans. You gotta push him back. From where I was sitting, behind the UVA bench, I couldn't tell what the angle was. Other's have said it was an awkward angle and that's why London declined the penalty. Anyway, prior to the fake FG, I thought that London make a bad decision and I remain convinced that I was right.
  • Along those same lines, what the heck was Brian Kelly thinking accepting a penalty just prior to the Hoos late TD? If you don't recall, the Hoos picked up 5 yards on 3rd and 10, leaving them with a 4th and 5. But they were called for ineligible man downfield, a 5 yard penalty. Kelly accepted the penalty, giving the Hoos 3rd and 15. In a late game situation, when a FG doesn't matter, you don't want to give us an extra play. On 4th and 5, you get a stop the game is over. Frankly, that was a worse decision than London's and almost cost the Irish the game.
  • On the 2 point conversion following the Hoos TD, Canaan Severin wasn't on the field. He was standing behind the UVA bench, pacing. He had 11 catches for 153 yards and he's off the field on what may be the most important play of the game? How does this make sense? Whose decision was that? Inexcusable.
  • Speaking of Severin, wow he was great. Time and time again, he caught passes in front of, or around, Notre Dame DBs. He was double covered at times. Didn't matter, he made the catch. His hands are amazing, but he uses his body to shield off defenders so well. Through the Hoos two toughest games of the season, he's on pace for the most receptions and yards in a single season of any UVA WR ever. And he's making a very strong case for the NFL Draft.
  • Is there any doubt that Matt Johns played the best game of his life this week? His QB rating this week was just under 150, slightly higher than Johns' rating in last year's UCLA game. A rating of 150 would've finished the season top 20 last year. Last week, he looked good in spurts, but spent so much time running for his life, he was unable to really be effective. This week, the Hoos OL did a better job of keeping him clean and he picked apart a pretty good Notre Dame defense. If that is a sign of things to come, we're in good shape at QB for the next 2 years.
  • Speaking of the OL, they really started to play well towards the end of this game. They started to gel. All of a sudden, they were pushing Notre Dame's defensive line around. They were keeping Johns safe in the pocket. Once again, if this is a sign of things to come, the Hoos are pretty well set at OL for the rest of this season. (Of note, the 5 that were out there towards the end was not the same 5 that started, as Jay Whitmire was in at RT for Eric Smith. Smith did come back in for the goalline play, lining up next to Whitmire as an extra OT.)
  • Something that I've thought about so many times over the years. When teams are on the goalline late in a game, looking to take a lead, why not take a knee once or twice, take some time off the clock and force your opposition to use a TO or two. The Hoos scored on first down, leaving 114 seconds for Notre Dame. No coach would ever do this, because then if you don't score, you get criticized. But even just one extra play there might've changed the outcome of the game.
  • Then again, with Coach Tenuta blitzing, maybe it wouldn't have.