Denard Robinson Manti Te'o

Opponent Preview: Michigan

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This is the second of twelve opponent previews, profiling Notre Dame’s 2011 opponents. The first installment was on South Florida.

The Overview:

When Michigan failed to woo favorite son Jim Harbaugh to Ann Arbor after waiting far too long to let go of Rich Rodriguez, athletic director Dave Brandon reached out to San Diego State head coach Brady Hoke, selling the former Michigan assistant’s work as a rebuilder to the Wolverine faithful that bristled at bringing in a coach with a record hovering just below .500.

But Hoke has struck the right chord with those that love the maize and blue, harkening on the days of yesteryear where the Wolverines were known for their smash-mouth football and blue-collar roots, all while scoffing at the idea of rebuilding at his first Big Ten media day. “I don’t think we’re rebuilding. Period. I mean, we’re Michigan.”

While a hot start recruiting has got Michigan fans at a fevered pitch, Hoke’s true test will come when he takes to the field with a team that struggled to stop anyone under Rich Rodriguez, even when a high octane offense powered by Denard Robinson. Hoke has brought in two coaching veterans, Al Borges with him from San Diego and Greg Mattison back from the NFL, to try and install systems that erase the memory of the Rodriguez era. How quickly those changes can take hold on a roster talented but thin will be the running theme of Brady Hoke’s first season.

Last time against the Irish:

In a game that featured three Irish interceptions, three Irish quarterbacks, and a heroic effort by Denard Robinson, the Wolverines withstood a second half comeback by the Irish to beat Notre Dame 28-24. After jumping out of the gates with a picture perfect opening drive, the Irish lost Dayne Crist to blurred vision, and were stuck in neutral on offense for the rest of the first half, save a 37 yard completion in the final seconds of the half. With a first and goal from inside the Michigan five and only three seconds left before halftime, head coach Brian Kelly gambled for the first time as an Irish head coach. His bet backfired, with Nate Montana airmailing his throw into the seats, and the Irish walked into halftime down 21-7, getting nothing from the scoring opportunity.

With Crist back in command after halftime, the Irish scored ten third quarter points to bring the game within a score and with under four minutes to go, Crist hit Kyle Rudolph for a thrilling 95 yard touchdown pass. With the Irish defense needing to get one more stop and escape with a win, they couldn’t do it. Robinson ran and threw the Wolverines down the field on a 12 play drive that ended with a two yard quarterback keeper for the game’s winning touchdown with just under thirty seconds remaining. For the second year in a row, the Irish gave up a game-winning touchdown to a Michigan quarterback.

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 games the Irish play this season, I rank Michigan as the third toughest opponent on the 2011 schedule.

7. South Florida
3. Michigan

The Match-up:

After being named the Big Ten’s offensive player of the year, Denard Robinson is capable of challenging a defense maybe better than any other player in college football. Robinson threw for over 2,500 yards last season while running for an additional 1,702, carrying the ball 256 times, an incredible amount of wear and tear on a quarterback that’s barely six-feet tall and weighs less than 200 pounds.

While Borges’ pro-style system will keep Robinson in the pocket more than in the past, he’ll likely still be the Wolverine’s most dangerous offensive player. The top three runners on the Michigan roster return and there’s depth along the offensive line as well, led by David Molk. In the passing game, Robinson won’t have Darryl Stonum, who is redshirting this season after the second DUI arrest of his college career, but will have Roy Roundtree, Martavious Odoms and Junior Hemingway returning.

If Hoke’s squad is successful, it’ll be because he and Greg Mattison turn around a defense that returns eight starters. The strength of that unit is along the defensive line, where seniors Mike Martin and Ryan van Bergen lead the front four. The Wolverines will have to replace Jonas Mouton, but they welcome back Kenny Demens at middle linebacker and converted wide receiver Cam Gordon hopes to infuse some athleticism into the linebacking corps.

The real key to the Michigan defense will be solidfying the secondary, a unit that was 112th nationally in 2010. The return of Troy Woolfolk will help, and J.T. Floyd can only play better this season. Anchoring the secondary is Jordan Kovacs, who made 116 tackles last season, not necessarily a good thing. There’s still not a lot of depth here, but at least there’s some experience returning.

How the Irish will win:

Watching this match-up last September, it was clear that Notre Dame’s Achilles heel came back to bite them as soon as Dayne Crist was injured at the end of the first drive. Without Crist, the Irish offense was lost. That doesn’t make up for the dreadful work the Irish did against Denard Robinson in the first half, but even with everything that went wrong, the Irish just needed to stop the Wolverines one last time to pull out a tremendous comeback victory.

As the team’s enter 2011, it feels like the teams are in opposite places. It’s Michigan that’s starting anew, learning new systems and transitioning styles on the fly. With the Irish winning the battle at the line of scrimmage, they’re able to keep Robinson at bay while limiting the Michigan offense’s ability to make big plays through the air.

Also unlike last season, Brian Kelly will get Michael Floyd involved early and often. After being nearly unstoppable against the Wolverines as a sophomore, the Irish failed to get Floyd involved in the game, as the Irish’s best offensive player only touched the ball five times, with two receptions and the bulk of his yards coming on the game’s final drive.

With a crowd that’ll be electric, Notre Dame will do their best to grab the momentum early, and after two years of coming up short, the Irish should have a relative easy time dispatching a Michigan team a year behind the Irish in their renaissance and far less talented. Don’t be surprised if the Irish keep their foot on the gas, taking advantage of a national spotlight to make a statement.

How the Irish will lose:

For all that Rich Rodriguez didn’t do in Ann Arbor, he still beat two Irish teams that were probably better on paper in soul-crushing fashion. In Al Borges and Greg Mattison, Brady Hoke is bringing in two coordinators that’ll take the finesse out of Michigan’s team, while still allowing the athletes they have to make plays. In front of a jacked-up crowd, Michigan will get a few big plays from Robinson early and mix a capable running and passing attack, keeping the Irish off balance and unable to get to Robinson without bringing pressure.

Behind an exotic mix of pressures from Mattison, the Irish offense is kept off balance, with the running game struggling to get on track and the Irish passing attack failing to find any secondary targets after Michigan decides to take away Michael Floyd. In a victory that’ll likely have Desmond Howard, in town for both ESPN’s Game Day and university honors, crowing, Brady Hoke will upset the Irish for his first “signature win.”

Gut Feeling:

I have a hard time seeing the Irish losing this game, even though they’ve managed to do it each of the last two seasons. While Michigan’s offense has some dangerous weapons, I just don’t think the Wolverines will be far enough along to beat Notre Dame, even if it is the first time under the lights in the Big House.

Only focus after Clemson loss is winning on Saturday

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The 2015 college football season has yet to showcase a truly great football team. With early title contenders like Ohio State and Michigan State looking less than stellar, Alabama losing a game already and the Pac-12 beating itself up, the chance that a one-loss Notre Dame team could still make it into the College Football Playoff is certainly a possibility.

But don’t expect Brian Kelly and his football team to start worrying about that now.

We saw a similar situation unfold last season, after the Irish lost a heartbreaker in the final seconds against Florida State. With many fans worried that Notre Dame wasn’t given credit for their performance in Tallahassee, the Irish’s playoff resume mattered very little as the team fell apart down the stretch.

As Notre Dame looks forward, their focus only extends to Saturday. That’s when Navy will test the Irish with their triple-option attack and better-than-usual defense, a team that Brian Kelly voted into his Top 25 this week.

Can this team make it to the Playoff? Kelly isn’t sure. But he knows what his team has to do.

“I don’t know,” Kelly said when asked about a one-loss entrance. “But we do know what we can control, and that is winning each week. So what we really talked about is we have no margin for error, and we have to pay attention to every detail.

“Each game is the biggest and most important game we play and really focusing on that. It isn’t concern yourself with big picture. You really have to focus on one week at a time.”

Kelly spread that message to his five captains after the game on Saturday night. He’s optimistic that message has set in over the weekend, and he’ll see how the team practices as they begin their on-field preparations for Navy this afternoon.

But when asked what type of response he wants to see from his team this week, it wasn’t about the minutiae of the week or a company line about daily improvement.

“The response is to win. That’s the response that we’re looking for,” Kelly said, before detailing four major factors to victory. “To win football games, you have to start fast, which we did not. There has to be an attention to detail, which certainly we were missing that at times. We got great effort, and we finished strong. So we were missing two of the four real key components that I’ll be looking for for this weekend. As long as we have those four key components, I’ll take a win by one. That would be fine with me. We need those four key components. That’s what I’ll be looking for.”

Go for two or not? Both sides of the highly-debated topic

during their game at Clemson Memorial Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina.

Notre Dame’s two failed two-point conversion tries against Clemson have been the source of much debate in the aftermath of the Irish’s 24-22 loss to the Tigers. Brian Kelly’s decision to go for two with just over 14 minutes left in the game forced the Irish into another two-point conversion attempt with just seconds left in regulation, with DeShone Kizer falling short as he attempted to push the game into overtime.

Was Kelly’s decision to go for two the right one at the beginning of the fourth quarter? That depends.

Take away the result—a pass that flew through the fingers of a wide open Corey Robinson. Had the Irish kicked their extra point, Justin Yoon would’ve trotted onto the field with a chance to send the game into overtime. (Then again, had Robinson caught the pass, Notre Dame would’ve been kicking for the win in the final seconds…)

This is the second time a two-point conversion decision has opened Kelly up to second guessing in the past eight games. Last last season, Kelly’s decision to go for two in the fourth-quarter with an 11-point lead against Northwestern, came back to bite the Irish and helped the Wildcats stun Notre Dame in overtime.

That choice was likely fueled by struggles in the kicking game, heightened by Kyle Brindza’s blocked extra-point attempt in the first half, a kick returned by Northwestern that turned a 14-7 game into a 13-9 lead. With a fourth-quarter, 11-point lead, the Irish failed to convert their two-point attempt that would’ve stretched their lead to 13 points. After Northwestern converted their own two-point play, they made a game-tying field goal after Cam McDaniel fumbled the ball as the Irish were running out the clock. Had the Irish gone for (and converted) a PAT, the Wildcats would’ve needed to score a touchdown.

Moving back to Saturday night, Kelly’s decision needs to be put into context. After being held to just three points for the first 45 minutes of the game, C.J. Prosise broke a long catch and run for a touchdown in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. Clemson would be doing their best to kill the clock. Notre Dame’s first touchdown of the game brought the score within 12 points when Kelly decided to try and push the score within 10—likely remembering the very way Northwestern forced overtime.

After the game, Kelly said it was the right decision, citing his two-point conversion card and the time left in the game. On his Sunday afternoon teleconference, he said the same, giving a bit more rationale for his decision.

“We were down and we got the chance to put that game into a two-score with a field goal. I don’t chase the points until the fourth quarter, and our mathematical chart, which I have on the sideline with me and we have a senior adviser who concurred with me, and we said go for two. It says on our chart to go for two.

“We usually don’t use the chart until the fourth quarter because, again, we don’t chase the points. We went for two to make it a 10-point game. So we felt we had the wind with us so we would have to score a touchdown and a field goal because we felt like we probably only had three more possessions.

“The way they were running the clock, we’d probably get three possessions maximum and we’re going to have to score in two out of the three. So it was the smart decision to make, it was the right one to make. Obviously, you know, if we catch the two-point conversion, which was wide open, then we just kick the extra point and we’ve got a different outcome.”

That logic and rationale is why I had no problem with the decision when it happened in real time. But not everybody agrees.

Perhaps the strongest rebuke of the decision came from Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister, who had this to say about the decision in his (somewhat appropriately-titled) weekly Point After column:

Hire another analyst or at least assign someone to the task of deciphering the Beautiful Mind-level math problem that seems to be vexing the Notre Dame brain-trust when a dweeb with half-inch thick glasses and a pocket protector full of pens could tell you that in the game of football, you can’t chase points before it is time… (moving ahead)

…The more astonishing thing is that no one in the ever-growing football organization that now adds analysts and advisors on a regular basis will offer the much-needed advice. Making such decisions in the heat of battle is not easy. What one thinks of in front of the TV or in a press box does not come as clearly when you’re the one pulling the trigger for millions to digest.

And yet with this ever-expanding entourage, Notre Dame still does not have anyone who can scream through the headphones to the head coach, “Coach, don’t go for two!”

If someone, anyone within the organization had the common sense and then the courage to do so, the Irish wouldn’t have lost every game in November of 2014 and would have had a chance to win in overtime against Clemson Saturday night.

My biggest gripe about the decision was the indecision that came along with the choice. Scoring on a big-play tends to stress your team as special teams players shuffle onto the field and the offense comes off. But Notre Dame’s use of a timeout was a painful one, and certainly should’ve been spared considering the replay review that gave Notre Dame’s coaching staff more time to make a decision.

For what it’s worth, Kelly’s decision was probably similar to the one many head coaches would make. And it stems from the original two-point conversion chart that Dick Vermeil developed back in the 1970s.

The original chart didn’t account for success rate or time left in the game. As Kelly mentioned before, Notre Dame uses one once it’s the fourth quarter.

It’s a debate that won’t end any time soon. And certainly one that will have hindsight on the side of the “kick the football” argument.