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Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Michigan

Sep 11, 2011, 1:03 AM EDT

Harrison Smith Michigan

After a while, it begins to defy explanation.

That is the story of Michigan’s incredible 35-31 comeback victory versus Notre Dame. In front of a record 114,804 screaming fans, the Irish did everything they could to spring Denard Robinson‘s heroics, and Michigan’s quarterback happily obliged, throwing two touchdown passes in the final 1:12 of the game, including the winning  toss to Roy Roundtree with two seconds left, bringing the Wolverines back from the brink after Tommy Rees drove the Irish to a potential game-winning touchdown just 28 seconds earlier.

In a series marked by recent heroics by Michigan, Brady Hoke‘s troops pulled a rabbit out of their hat so incredible that even the last two editions of this game would bow in deference. While the Irish controlled the game for over 59 minutes, they were never able to put the Wolverines away, and thanks to five more Notre Dame turnovers, including three lost fumbles, the Irish kept Michigan hanging around.

Twenty-eight fourth quarter points helped the Wolverines pull out of a game they had been statistically dominated in, but like last week — or the previous two years in this series — Michigan had all the answers when they counted the most.

Let’s take a look at the five things we learned in Notre Dame’s 35-31 defeat to Michigan.

Notre Dame’s secondary is broken.

There is far too much talent playing in the back four of Notre Dame’s secondary to have a game like this. Gary Gray, who during the preseason could have been an All-American candidate, looked dismal, getting lost in coverage and beat on under thrown ball by Robinson throughout the night.

If the Irish’s game plan was to commit another defender to Robinson and leave Gray, Robert Blanton and Harrison Smith to cover, it certainly backfired, as Michigan’s touchdown passes exposed defensive backs that continually failed to look back for footballs that were underthrown and there for the taking.

For three quarters, Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges did Bob Diaco‘s job, keeping Robinson back to pass and having him try and beat the Irish from the pocket. When that stopped working, the Wolverines begrudgingly took advantage of their star player, who created offense when the play broke down and he gave his receivers 50/50 match-ups.

That the Irish lost because of breakdowns in a veteran unit that was one of Notre Dame’s most promising is an absolute shock. But the cornerbacks have taken a huge step back in Year Two of the Kelly regime and it’s hard not to look at blown coverage and bad ball skills as the number one culprit for the loss.

A running game is only as good as its short yardage unit

When the Irish ran out Steve Filer, Carlo Calabrese and Ethan Johnson on the first drive of the season opener against USF, many assumed it was an exotic package for the Irish in goal-line situations. It turns out it was Brian Kelly self-diagnosing a glaring deficiency for the Irish run game, which was terrific throughout the night, but stalled out when it was needed most.

Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray both had great evenings, with Wood carrying for 134 yards and a touchdown and Gray chipping in 66 yards on only six carries. But when the Irish offensive line needed to pick up a critical first down in the second half they just couldn’t do it.

In the second half, here’s the Irish running game in third and short:

At the Michigan 41 on 3rd and 1, Wood is stuffed for a loss of 2.
At the Irish 18 on 3rd and 3, Wood is stuffed for a loss of 3.
At the Irish 29 on 3rd and 1, Wood is stuffed for a loss of 2.

You can bark about the spread offense or bemoan the lack of power running in Kelly, offensive coordinator Charley Molnar, and run game coordinator Ed Warinner‘s zone blocking system. But when it comes down to it, the Irish knew they were a team without a capable lead blocker, and after Calabrese and Filer failed to do their job in week one, Kelly tried to get it done with just his offensive line, and failed when it mattered most.

Stats are for losers.

The Irish are well on their way to becoming paper champions. Racking up 513 yards of total offense, a quick look at the box score shows a game Notre Dame dominated. But first downs and rushing yards only tell a portion of the story, and Michigan’s 4th quarter rally erased any feather in the cap of the Irish coaching staff, who did a great job limiting Robinson until the game’s final minutes.

Once again, the Irish turned the ball over an egregious five times. Up 14 points and marching in the second quarter, Tommy Rees locked on to Michael Floyd and threw a bad interception to Michigan safety Jordan Kovacs. Two players later, Gray was beat long for a Junior Hemingway touchdown. The next drive, with the Irish in the red zone and marching, Rees threw a worst interception, trying to force a ball to Floyd that had no business of being thrown. The second interception didn’t kill the Irish, but Notre Dame has made a habit of taking points off the board early in games, a very costly habit.

In the second half, it only got worse. Wood fumbled off the back of freshman tight end Ben Koyack, turning the ball over deep in Michigan territory. But the back-breaking turnover came when Rees looked to the corner of the end zone from the two-yard line, throwing for a game-sealing touchdown, only leaving the ball behind him on the turf. Michigan recovered inside its own ten yard line, keeping the game within three points and alive in the game.

As we dissect this game throughout the week, we’ll once again point to a lot of good things the Irish did in a losing effort. For the most part, stats will support those arguments. But in the end, stats are for losers. The only one that mattered had Michigan winning 35-31.

The (bad) luck of the Irish.

Maybe we had the wrong Peanuts character. The Irish aren’t Charlie Brown, they’re Pig Pen. And that’s not a cloud of dust, that’s a rain cloud. In a game where the Irish looked like they were on pace for an easy victory, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Murphy very well could be an Irish fan, but his law is rule of the land.

Want to see a team that’s snakebit? Check out the Irish games that ended within four points:

2011: Michigan 35, Notre Dame 31 – L
2011: USF 23, Notre Dame 20 – L
2010: Notre Dame 20, USC 16 – W
2010: Tulsa 28, Notre Dame 27 – L
2010: Michigan State 34, Notre Dame 31 – L
2010: Michigan 34, Notre Dame 24 – L
2009: UConn 33, Notre Dame 30 – L
2009: Navy 23, Notre Dame 21 – L

If you excuse Ronald Johnson‘s drop last November, you have to go back to Brian Smith‘s interception of Dave Shinskie with 98 seconds against Boston College in 2009 to find a close football game that the Irish won. Brian Kelly said last week that you can’t start winning before you stop losing, but expecting bad things to happen has permeated the entire culture of Notre Dame.

Whether it’s panicked fans in a live-blog with the Irish leading by two touchdowns or veteran defenders getting lost in four-deep coverage with less than 30 seconds remaining, doubt continues to creep into the Irish psyche at the most unfortunate of times. It’s spelled disaster recently, and it won’t stop until Notre Dame can start winning games at the end.

It’s a season on the brink.

In an 0-2 hole, the Irish need to find answers quickly or this season will be up in smoke quickly. We saw last year that this coaching staff won’t change their message when they reach adversity, but Kelly and his staff will look very closely at their philosophical tenants to make sure they’re doing everything they can to make sure the Irish stop beating themselves.

There’s no rational explanation for good players like Gary Gray making very bad plays. For those that look to blame coaching, Chuck Martin and Kerry Cooks can’t go out there and cover themselves. It’s ultimately on a group of players that have seen plenty of dark times to fight through this to the light.

“We’re not good enough,” Kelly said after the game. “When we’re better as a football team, we’ll start winning.”

All the proof Notre Dame needs that they aren’t very good sits in the Win-Loss ledger. The offense is high-powered, the defense can play stout, but all the Irish are right now is a dangerous football team. Right now, they’re doing themselves more harm than good.

  1. NDfan1224 - Sep 12, 2011 at 7:56 AM

    Tough to be an ND fan right now

    http://ndandhuskers.wordpress.com

  2. irishinmichigan - Sep 12, 2011 at 9:13 AM

    Everyone needs to get a grip! ND played well and were winning 24-7 with 2:13 left in the 4th. If the Irish D would have held on for 60 minutes of football, we all would feel like fat cats today. I see the ND secondary needing help. ND did a good job containing DR, but put too much emphasis on him running. They wanted to force him into throwing, so he did. He is the best player in CF, and will
    Probably go on to win the H trophy. Kelly needs to work on the safety position. Diaco should have made some adjustments after being burned a few too many times. Diaco knew the D was trying to make him throw. Also, the D line was not pressuring the QB enough.

    Our “ducks are in a row”, they’re just not quaking! Let’s go ND!!!

    • cdjesse - Sep 12, 2011 at 11:08 AM

      Why year after year are we talking about ND’s secondary costing them the game?
      I have never played football, yet know that as a safety or cornerback you need to turn your head and play the ball.
      ND needs to scrap their secondary players and find players that understand this basic concept.
      I am done watching/rooting for ND. I’ve had it!

  3. paulbrownsrevenge - Sep 12, 2011 at 10:02 AM

    1. The Irish are cursed like the Cubs because they canned Holtz.
    2. If Notre Dame can play 4 complete quarters they are a top tier team.
    3. They need to recruit defensive backs who don’t faceguard 5’9” receivers.
    4. Don’t play man coverage when there’s only 11 seconds left and UM has a shot at the endzone before a FG attempt.
    5. Practice QB-center exchange until Tommy’s hands bleed.

  4. ndfan4ever - Sep 12, 2011 at 10:30 AM

    ND secondary make DR look great he threw up 4 ducks 3 get caught for td and 1 is intercepted in the end zone. None of those passes should have been caught they should have all been picked off or at least knocked down. Gary Grey needs to be benched. Why this guy can’t turn around in coverage is unbelieveable. 5th year senior and he can’t cover one on one without getting turned around or can’t turn around to pick off ducks floating in the air. How about 2 safties in coverage that can’t find the ball floating in the air. COME ON really. As far as the running game goes on 3rd and short and everyone knows you are going to run it a hand off 5 yards deep in the backfield? How about a quateback sneek or how about a pass to help or ow about a spread to open up running lanes like on 1st or 2nd down. Kelly shots himself in the foot more often than not with some very dumb play calling. You have the best reciever in college football in MF why not throw a short slant to him for a first down. you don’t have to get in a short yardage set when everyone knows that is what you are going to do wake up. Feel back for the guys should be 2 and 0 brings back memories of 2009 great offense and a defense that could not stop a pass. Good luck boys need a big win this weekend. GO Irish praying for you.

  5. dennis31 - Sep 12, 2011 at 11:42 AM

    Well I think we will be ok. We need to clean up the mistakes. It hard to over come costly turnovers. I haven’t given up on this team. The cornerback do need to work on drills to find the ball in the air. I watched both games and if we don’t have a stupid turnover I don’t think that there are may teams that would beat us. I know its painful but I don’t plan on giving up on this team yet and nither should an Notre Dame fan. The kids need us to believe in them. I see Them bouncing back next week with a win over MSU!

  6. squalo66 - Sep 12, 2011 at 12:19 PM

    I’m from the Class of 66. We had three coaches and the worst season ever at Notre Dame….and we also had the national championship our senior year. So that’s the foundation for what I am about to say. If a coach can’t control his own emotions then he is a totally ineffective coach….Kelly says he has to watch his swearing because he’s on camera more. Wrong answer! Kelly is totally in effective….you don’t make kids do what you want….you teach them and screaming and swearing at them doesn’t work today. Kelly’s arrogance is disgusting! He alone is responsible for great team playing like chumps. And I don’t fault Kelly……it’s time the Notre Dame administration gets a grip on reality and hires someone for all the right reasons beside a win/loss record. The record will take care of itself if you hire the right person. I can’t believe the admin hasn’t learned anything from their past stupidity. You can believe in the kids all you want, but the same result will always be there as long as Kelly and coaches like him are there. His play calling on third down in the fourth quarter was beyond any comprehension. Now please….someone tell me where I am wrong!

  7. dickasman - Sep 12, 2011 at 12:29 PM

    This is how SMART our coach is guys.

    Q. Brian, I wondered if you could kind of assess where you feel you are with the punt returns and the punting right now.

    COACH KELLY: Well, obviously there’s inconsistency in both. Starting with Ben (Turk), he’s got to get us out of a jam. He doesn’t have to kick them 50 yards, but we can’t have short fields in the punt game. So he just simply has to be more consistent. He hasn’t been consistent this year.

    (John) Goodman fields the ball very well. A couple scenarios occurred out there that show a little bit of inexperience in fielding the ball. He’s just got to get north and south.

    We had a safe punt, and that generally means in most circumstances when you’re in a safe punt that you’re fair catching the ball because we don’t have a punt return team on the field. We leave our defense on the field.

    Having said that, there was so much separation, he’s got to use some judgment and field that ball and get us some more yardage.

    You know, obviously when you have to put another guy in there in game two, a little bit of inexperience. But I think he’s going to get better and better. We’ve got to get Turk to be more consistent.

    Q. You’re going to stick with Turk?

    COACH KELLY: Yeah, he’s our best guy.

    Basically says our punt return and punter both FOCKING SUCKS but he’s sticking w them…BK, move your fat belly rolls and open your eyes. We have another PUNTER…we have other available PUNT RETURN MAN you dumb fat fock!

  8. dickasman - Sep 12, 2011 at 12:29 PM

    Yeah right coach….next woman in, right coach???

  9. midnite479 - Sep 12, 2011 at 5:51 PM

    One thing that we have learned, The Irish Sucks!

  10. NDfan1224 - Sep 12, 2011 at 9:37 PM

    http://ndandhuskers.wordpress.com/

  11. northjerseyirish - Sep 12, 2011 at 9:58 PM

    Not a big post guy but will throw my two cents in here as far as what I have observed. The quarterbacks are terrified of Kelly. They are afraid to make mistakes for fear of being screamed and cursed at. Their production will always be erratic as a result. I am a HS coach, I know the look. Kelly needs to go on amazon, buy the book “season of life,” and start repairing the relationships with his players.

  12. toydomer - Sep 13, 2011 at 6:28 PM

    ND has a great chance at running the table with the rest of their games. How you ask!!! Let me explain ND faced 2 dual threat QB’s both from the Great State of Football (Florida). No more Dual Threats from FL on the schedule. The rest are just sitting ducks. So if Diaco can wrap his head around attacking the line of scrimmage instead of containing the line they should have a pretty good chance at winning.

    Their Defense isn’t bad its the offense. Remember the rules on having a great Defense… You must have a powerful running offense. Their is not one team in the SEC that has a great defense that doesn’t focus on rushing the ball. This is key to a great defense and ohhh also no turnovers…..

    Gary Gray: What can I say….. Gray isn’t a bad DB those balls were so terribly thrown ahhhh h#$# it is what it is….
    Tommy Reese: Easy fix here put in Hendrix or Golson.
    Punter: Another easy fix Brinsdfkea whatever his name is he can kick…..
    Punt Returner: Cam or George hek I think Roby Toma can do a better job than Riddick & Goodman

    Coach Kelly yelling: My take if you can take a collision from a 6’5 260 pound D.E., you should be able to take a little round coach yelling at you. Football is a aggressive game, it isn’t water polo.

  13. Huck Finn - Sep 13, 2011 at 10:43 PM

    idontmeantoramble.blogspot.com

    • Huck Finn - Sep 16, 2011 at 11:07 PM

      Sorry about this one. I was trying to learn the HTML process on here and there doesn’t seem to be an edit function or delete option. Won’t happen again.

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