Big day – good and bad – for Notre Dame special teams
SOUTH BEND – Moments before Notre Dame and Stanford kicked off Saturday afternoon at cold and windy ND Stadium, as Kyle Brindza placed the ball on the tee at the 35-yard line, a familiar/unfamiliar face lined up to Brindza’s right.
For the first time this season, Irish sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame’s best defensive player, got tapped on the shoulder to play special teams.
Brian Kelly’s reasoning? Quite simple actually. Stanford is really good on special teams and Kelly wanted his best players on the field to minimize the Cardinal.
“My job is … I’m for the team. I’m not above myself,” Smith said following ninth-ranked Notre Dame’s 17-14 win over the 14th-ranked Cardinal. “Coach came up to me Monday and told me I was going to be on kickoff duty this week, and I said, ‘Good.’ I’m willing to do that. Whatever helps the team win.”
Smith was on one of the special teams components that at least didn’t have a finger pointed at it in the aftermath of the pulsating victory.
The Cardinal entered the game ranked 14th in the country in kickoff returns with a 26-yard average, and Ty Montgomery’s 42-yard return set up Stanford’s go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter, but for the most part Montgomery was a non-factor.
The only other kick return yardage Stanford was able to muster were the three yards up-man Lee Ward had on a designed short kick, making it a pretty good day for a kickoff return coverage unit that entered ranked an unflattering No. 100 ranking.
Augmenting the kick return coverage was the job Kyle Brindza was able to do on his punting. The senior averaged 36.8 yards on six punts, but more important than the yardage was the hang time and direction he was able to provide.
The Cardinal entered averaging 21.2 yards, good for sixth in the country, and it looked to be a huge advantage considering ND brought into the game a No. 96 national ranking in punt return defense. The Cardinal exited with nary a punt return yard.
And not to be forgotten was a blocked first-half punt by freshman Drue Tranquill.
“I thought we managed the special teams very well,” said Kelly, his team 5-0. “I thought we did pretty good things in special teams. It gave us a chance to win today.”
But there were parts that gave the Irish a chance to lose.
The big bugaboo, and the thing Kelly would have been grilled on, was two botched holds by junior walk-on Hunter Smith, both of which resulted in badly-missed field goal attempts. The problem, it turned out, had a simple solution.
“We found a revolutionary idea that will probably be now the biggest thing in college football. We’re going to put gloves on the holder and that seemed to be the way to accomplish greatness in this game,” Kelly said. “Unbelievable. I’ve been in this thing for 25 years and we’re coming up with new things every day.
“I said 'How about we try gloves on the holder, has anybody figured that one out?'”
For Brindza’s third field-goal attempt, which came with 7:32 remaining in a 7-7 game, Smith did add to his outerwear, and Brindza banged home a 45-yarder that gave the Irish a temporary lead. Before that, though, Smith was in danger of losing his job, as Kelly pondered burning the redshirt year of freshman backup kicker/punter Tyler Newsome.
“That’s the last thing I wanted to do, really, in that situation and not know whether we were going to whip that thing through his hands, too,'' he said. "Then I’m standing in front of you guys and it’s not going to be pretty.
“So we said, 'Let’s try the gloves.' And we had him work on the sideline with them a little bit. He was taking snaps. And he’s a pretty mature kid, you know? And I looked at him and he didn’t look like he was in the tank, if you know what I mean. You know what I mean?
“It seemed like he obviously was disappointed, but I didn’t sense like, if I throw him out there, he’s going to miss another one, to answer your question.”
The Irish ultimately did answer some questions, mainly because they were able to overcome the blemishes.
“Perseverance. We really have to find a way to execute in conditions like this. It’s something we can work on,” said Jaylon Smith, who was pretty good at his day job as he finished with 14 total tackles. “That’s the scary thing. There’s so many ways that we can get better – offensively, defensively. And special teams.”