Notre Dame football analysis: 'That's what you expect out of Isaiah Foskey'

Mike Berardino
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Isaiah Foskey, surprisingly muted through the first half of this disappointing Notre Dame football season, reminded everyone Saturday afternoon that he is still “Isaiah Foskey.”

A career-high three sacks in a 44-21 romp over visiting UNLV were only part of the senior captain’s contributions. Justin Tuck’s career program sacks record (24.5) suddenly seems vulnerable again with Foskey back in his edge-rushing groove.

“That’s what you expect out of Isaiah Foskey,” Irish coach Marcus Freeman said. “He can be a dominant football player, and we’re going to need him to be.”

Notre Dame defensive lineman Isaiah Foskey (7) blocks UNLV punter Marshall Nichols (90) during the Notre Dame vs. University of Nevada NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Even more jarring — and certainly more pivotal — were the two blocked punts Foskey recorded on consecutive series in the first quarter. No player in program history had ever blocked two punts in a game, much less a quarter, before Foskey raced up the middle and smothered Mississippi State transfer Marshall Nichols on consecutive punt attempts.

“Those are game-changers,” Freeman said after his first true home win in five weeks. “Those are momentum shifts. Those are huge.”

Foskey has four blocked punts in his college career. The others came in 2019 at Stanford and in 2020 at Pittsburgh.

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On Saturday Foskey’s heroics set up a struggling Irish offense at the plus-20 and the plus-14-yard-lines after the Rebels, 26 ½-point underdogs and notorious of late for their miserable starts, had pulled within 10-7.

In addition to directly leading to 10 quick points for an Irish team (4-3) that came in without a first-quarter touchdown this year, those two Foskey lightning bolts reminded everyone why special teams guru Brian Mason doesn’t have a “punt return” unit but a “punt block” crew.

This makes four blocked punts on the year for the Irish, all at Notre Dame Stadium. Senior captain Bo Bauer had the first one, late in the stunning loss to Marshall, and sophomore linebacker Prince Kollie got one early in the loss to Stanford on Oct. 15.

Bauer, watching the Stanford game on crutches after a season-ending knee injury, predicted Kollie would get his first career punt block after helping him with film study during the week. For UNLV, Bauer was still recuperating after surgery to repair tears to his ACL, MCL, PCL and meniscus — sort of like hitting for the cycle of knee destruction.

“It's hard to miss Bo in this game,” Foskey said. “He’s a great captain. He leads the special teams in the right way. He was coaching up everybody, especially me, to get a punt block.”

Foskey paused and smiled.

“He gets a couple punt blocks every year,” he said. “We’re going back and forth trying to get punt blocks, but I think I’m ahead right now.”

Seizing the opportunity

As for Mason, who turns 36 on Wednesday, there’s no need for his special teamers to get him a birthday gift now.

Not after Blake Grupe, the Arkansas State transfer, drilled three of four field-goal tries with his makes coming from 27, 43 and 46 yards.

Not after Zac Yoakam, the freshman walk-on kicker, kept the Rebels from attempting a single return of any of his nine kickoffs.  

Not after Deion Colzie, his snaps limited at receiver this year, recovered an onside kick after the Rebels drew within two scores with eight minutes left. Technically, Colzie was a member of the “hands team,” but he still secured possession with a creative use of the leg scissors.

Notre Dame punt returner Brandon Joseph (16) tries to elude UNLV defensive lineman Darius Johnson (8) during Notre Dame's 44-21 win over UNLV football on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind.

Freshman Ben Morrison muffed his return of the Rebels’ first punt of the day, but Foskey more than made up for that the next two times Nichols took the field. UNLV long snapper Rex Goosen, in his fourth season as the Rebels’ starter, was no match for the twitchy blur that went racing past him and the helpless upbacks.

“Special teams is something that Notre Dame always hypes on, always works on,” Foskey said. “Coach Mase put me in the right position to run around the long snapper to make a play. We’ve seen an opening for the last couple games that UNLV showed, and we just took an opportunity from it.”

Foskey noted he had a little extra time during fall break, so he was even more available as a Mason pupil than usual.

“That’s probably why I got a couple punt blocks,” Foskey said. “It just goes in my film study. This last week we had a fall break, so it was a little bit easier. A lot more film study with that (dual role). If that’s extra time I have to do, it’s just extra time I have to do.”

The Irish hadn’t blocked four punts in a season since 2017. That was under Mason’s predecessor, Brian Polian, who followed Brian Kelly to LSU in December.

Notre Dame special teams coordinator Brian Mason speaks during the media availability Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

At Cincinnati, Mason helped the Bearcats tie for the FBS lead last season with six combined blocked punts or kicks on their way to a College Football Playoff appearance. Three of those were blocked punts.

From 2018-21, Mason’s special teams had 14 total blocked kicks or punts, six more than Notre Dame managed in that same span under Polian.

“It’s not easy to block punts,” Mason said during the run-up to UNLV. “There’s one or two almost every game where we’ve been close. Every millisecond, every inch matters. You have to find and put the guys that you think can finish and make those plays in the right place at the right time.”

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According to Pro Football Focus, the Irish entered Saturday rated 35th in special teams efficiency out of 131 FBS teams. That rating should improve after this much-needed trouncing of UNLV.

“Coach Mase has done a great job with all phases of our special teams,” Freeman said. “Every week we’ve been an aggressive punt block unit. Every week we feel like we can take advantage of a punt team, and coach Mason does a great job of executing the game plan.”

Average starting field position for Notre Dame on Saturday was its 46. That was 19 yards better than the field position UNLV was dealt.

“Anything we can do on special teams to impact field position and create explosive plays and change the game is certainly our chief goal,” Mason said on Tuesday. “When one area maybe is struggling, I know coach Freeman has said that the other areas have to pick things up.”

Ever the perfectionist, Mason mentioned several times all the “coulda, woulda, shoulda” moments where his punt block emphasis nearly paid dividends. Saturday, thanks to Foskey and a renewed sense of urgency, the Irish pulled that lever and hit the jackpot.

Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.