Sep 14, 2009, 8:00 AM EDT
The loss to Michigan was crushing. Something felt off from the start, and for much of the game, the score didn’t seem to correlate with what we were seeing. The Irish ran and threw the ball at will, yet the scoreboard didn’t seem to notice.
All the goodwill the Irish built after their impressive showing against Nevada is gone, and the Irish find themselves in a must-win game Saturday against nemesis Michigan State. Charlie Weis and his veteran leadership are saying all the right things, but we will find out very soon whether this game is the lynchpin for the Irish’s season.
We knew that the season wouldn’t be all good. But now we’ll find out if the Irish can pick themselves up off the mat. Here’s the good, bad, and ugly from a heartbreaking Saturday in Ann Arbor.
The offensive attack.
I mentioned in my live blog during the game Saturday that it didn’t feel like Jimmy Clausen was playing a great game, yet you look at his numbers and they are once again exceptional. 25 of 42, 336 yards, 3 TDs 0 INTs. Those numbers should have an extra 100 or so yards if Golden Tate doesn’t drop a straight go for 6 and Armando Allen’s screen pass touchdown isn’t overturned, not to mention the throws Clausen inexplicably threw out of bounds.
For all the venom being spewed at Tate for his drops, he still managed to have 9 catches for 115 yards. And I’m trying to think of appropriate adjectives for what Mister Michael Floyd has been doing in these first two games. Obviously, he can’t continue to put up numbers like this, but Floyd has pushed his name into the conversation about elite wideouts in the country. He is an All-American in just his 12th game in a Notre Dame uniform.
The running game was exceptional, with Armando Allen proving to us why Weis and the coaching staff have such belief in his abilities. While people will talk about the two plays where the Irish didn’t tote the rock, a competent running game will be one of the key factors in the rest of the season.
The special teams and defense.
Let’s start with the special teams. Nick Tausch probably wants a mulligan off the first tee, pushing a chip shot wide on the first FG attempt of his Notre Dame career. To Tausch’s credit he did rally and make his next two kicks, but you’ve got to convert all your field goals under 30 yards. The kickoff return by Daryl Stonum that put Michigan ahead 14-3 wasn’t pretty, and Leonard Gordon’s matador on Stonum when he had a chance to stop him 62 yards earlier put the early momentum in Michigan’s favor. Finally, the punting of Eric Maust has been mediocre. While 40 yards a punt isn’t terrible, it seems like Maust has struggled when the Irish needed him the most. It’s easy to forget his shaky performance against Nevada, but Maust’s inability to fire a rocket deep on his final punt was a dooming factor in the ballgame.
As for the defense, once again the Irish were gashed by runners. Brandon Minor returned to action after sitting out the opener with a balky ankle and ran for 106 yards, with the majority of those yards coming in the second half. And the image of Tate Forcier running away from the Irish defense for a 31 yard touchdown is one that will be seared into many Irish fans brains. The Irish were unable to get any heat on Forcier in the second half, and looked to almost give up on disguising where the pressure was coming from. One of the keys to Jon Tenuta’s defense is deception, and it was as if the Irish didn’t care to hide their intent, and simply decided to flood the box. Lastly, Darrin Walls might have played his worst game in a Notre Dame uniform. Irish faithful were quietly confident that Walls would become the lock-down corner that many projected, but he was beat early and late for huge plays by Wolverine receivers.
It’s too early to say what the ramifications will be from this devastating loss. The Irish can use the defeat as motivation, a la Tim Tebow and the Florida Gators last year, or they can just as easily crumble under the pressure that will surely be applied.
The heat will be turned up, and the self-created hysteria that is already spreading like wild fire among Irish “fans” could turn into a nightmarish media scenario like the one at the end of last season. There is no doubt that this loss stings, especially after every single break in the game seemed to go against the Irish. (I am not a referee basher, but the officiating in the game was criminal.)
In the end, the Irish will need to find a way to learn from the defeat. The script for this game could’ve just as easily been the story of a resilient Irish team, lead by a burgeoning star quarterback and his wide receivers. Rallying from a 14-3 and 31-20 deficit, the Irish just wouldn’t accept defeat.
That finish is just a fantasy of course, but sometimes a team needs to believe in something before it can actually happen.