Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Michigan

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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.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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You want complete honesty? The linebacker version of this series includes no revelations, no unexpected developments, no surprising spring performances. There is an allusion to a position switch, sure, but this piece became much simpler with the rover being discussed separately Thursday.

The idea was to capitalize on the NFL Draft for the morning and let the linebackers slip by in the afternoon, noticed only by those twiddling their thumbs through the last hours of the work week. Alas, former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was not drafted in the first round and a brief recap of his draft destination will need to await at least another day. Programming note: The NFL Draft reconvenes tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. ET. The Green Bay Packers are on the clock. They will not draft a quarterback.

But back to the linebackers. This piece may have been intended to slip by with little fanfare, but that is not indicative of the Irish linebackers. Where Notre Dame was is so similar to where Notre Dame is simply because two experienced senior captains lead the way at linebacker.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Aside from questions about defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s rover position, only one question stood out about this linebacker group: Who would start alongside senior Nyles Morgan: senior Greer Martini or junior Te’von Coney?

A year ago Coney recorded the fourth-most tackles on the team with 62. Martini finished fifth with 55, and his seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, dwarfed Coney’s 1.5. Yet Coney technically started nine games compared to Martini’s four.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

With the rover often lining up essentially as a linebacker, there would only be space for one of Martini or Coney in most formations.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
In his first season with the Irish, Elko will have quite a luxury in referring to Coney as a backup linebacker. In some respects, that designation was inevitable as soon as Martini was named a captain. Nonetheless, Coney will see plenty of playing time.

The two captains—along with fellow captain, senior Drue Tranquill at rover—will be counted on throughout the summer and fall camp to continue the defense’s growth in Elko’s system. Elko said he installed “close to 50 percent” of his entire defense throughout spring practice. The linebackers must deal with the most difficult aspects of that learning.

“There’s been a noticeable improvement in terms of this starting to look like the defense we want this to look like as spring has gone on,” Elko said a week ago. “… Linebacker probably more than any other position, linebacker and safety, where the scheme takes some time to get used to, how you see it, how you fit it, how you feel it. Those guys have gotten better with that which has then allowed them to play faster as the spring has moved on.”

Sophomore Jonathan Jones will likely provide any further depth that may be needed in 2017, unless either of the incoming freshmen, David Adams and Drew White, excel from the outset. Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated sophomore Jamir Jones (no relation to Jonathan, but is former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones’ brother) may be destined for time on the defensive line, in large part to Jones’s continued growth. Junior Josh Barajas let the spring come and go without mandating he be involved in these conversations, which may as well count as removing himself from the conversation in most regards.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame Was, Is & Could Be: Rover

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Rover

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Before spring practice, the rover position was lumped in with the linebackers in positional previews. Nearly two months later, that seems to have been the right placement—the rover will likely spend most of its time at the defense’s second level.

But since curiosity about the rover and its unknown place in Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme ran rampant—especially when compared to the rather solid understanding of the 2017 Irish linebackers—let’s take a look specifically at the rover.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:

“Who will start at [Elko’s] rover position,” this space asked. “What will his role entail?”

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

Senior safety Drue Tranquill was expected to see the most time at rover, perhaps with cameos from junior linebacker Asmar Bilal and sophomore safeties D.J. Morgan and Spencer Perry (since transferred).

More than anything, though, learning how Elko intended to deploy his defensive utility knife would answer the most questions about his defense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:

Tranquill will indeed lead the position, but not without much effort from Bilal.

“We’ve tried quite a few bodies out there,” Elko said Friday. “I think as spring has gone on, we’ve gotten a feel of what each of them can do, what parts of the package we can run with each of them. I think we’ve got a pretty good pulse now on how we want that thing to play out, who will be there doing what.”

Elko is excessively reluctant to discuss individual players, so asking him to expound on who will be at rover in particular situations was largely a fruitless exercise. Earlier this spring, Irish head coach Brian Kelly indicated Bilal would be featured against run-heavy offenses. That may well prove to be the case, but it is far more likely Tranquill sees the majority of the repetitions at the position.

RELATED READING: Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover positon, others likely to follow

“It’s been a good fit all spring [for Tranquill],” Kelly said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “He’s a plus player there for us. He really can impact what’s happening from snap to snap. He’s a physical player and playing low to the ball is really where he can do a lot of really good things for us.”

For his part, Tranquill enjoys the position and the unique number of duties innate to it. In theory, the rover aligns mostly with the linebackers but can be relied on to provide coverage when necessary. At other times, the rover will be asked to rush the passer. That flexibility allows Elko to keep the offense guessing.

“I love the rover position,” Tranquill said. “It’s a versatile position that allows you to come off the edge, allows you to play the run, play the pass, and do a lot of different things.”

Sometimes it allows you to pretend like you’re coming off the edge and then actually embarrass a potential first-round draft pick.

In senior left guard Quenton Nelson’s defense, Tranquill did add Nelson probably won more of their battles in spring practices than the defender did.

WHERE NOTRE DAME COULD BE:

Elko indicated there could be a third primary option in his tool kit. Notre Dame has a plethora of talented cornerbacks. Last week, Kelly indicated he might ask one of them to chip in at safety in obvious passing situations. Similarly, Elko predicted junior Shaun Crawford could play at rover against particular passing attacks, a la Bilal against certain rushing offenses.

“A lot of this is dictated by who that guy is lined up and what we’re trying to do,” Elko said. “We’re going to see a lot of really talented slot receivers. We’re going to have to match up and cover them well. There’s other names other than the big linebacker/safety bodies to put at that position. [Junior safety] Nick Coleman has done that some this spring. [Junior safety] Ashton White has done that some this spring. When Shaun gets healthy, I think he’ll do that some. That is all encompassing in that position.”

The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Crawford has since announced his return to full health, which should allow him plenty of time to readjust to contact before the start of fall practice.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line

Work in weight & film rooms has Hayes ready to meet five-star potential

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Common thinking might give four- and five-star recruits too much credit. They do not all arrive ready to play at the collegiate level on day one. It takes time, conditioning, learning. Perhaps it was that awareness that kept Daelin Hayes from letting his five-star ranking on rivals.com change his expectations. He knew he would have much work ahead of him when he arrived at Notre Dame as the only five-star prospect in the class of 2016.

Now finishing his freshman year, the defensive end notices the effects of his work as he puts in more.

“I remember my first time watching film, I was like, woah,” Hayes said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “I look quicker, like more twitch than I did. I was definitely—it’s hard to put into words—but to actually be able to go back and look at it and see how it affected the game was huge. [Director of football performance Matt] Balis has worked wonders for us.”

Hayes’ improved quickness showed in his three “sacks” in the intrasquad scrimmage. Going against future NFL prospect Mike McGlinchey at left tackle, Hayes faced a stiff challenge throughout spring’s 15 practices, not that he shied away from that task.

“I don’t think it was ever a point where it was overwhelming,” Hayes said. “I’ve always been a competitor. … But you guys know Mike, he’s huge, obviously a first-round talent and whatnot. I’m just grateful to be able to go against somebody like that each and every day. He makes me better. …

“I love competing with the guy. You go and do that with a guy in practice every day, then the game scenario comes, it’s like second nature. You can do this in practice, you can definitely do this against anybody.”

McGlinchey does not seem to mind the matchup, either.

“Daelin is a man who is blessed with a lot of size and athletic ability,” McGlinchey said Friday. “That presents a lot of problems for people in the game of football. He’s so young, and he has so much still to work on, it’s pretty cool to see what he’s capable of and then what he is going to do down the road.”

When Hayes arrived at Notre Dame, still recovering from a high school shoulder injury, he weighed 250 pounds with 18 percent body fat. Now, he said, he still weighs 250—the Irish roster lists him at 255—but is down to 10 percent body fat. It is that kind of change which has created more twitch and makes McGlinchey envision Hayes after more time spent improving in the weight room and the film room.

“I’m not the same athlete that I was when I first came in, not by any means,” Hayes said. “… Buying into that offseason program is going to be huge for our team.”

Per the Blue-Gold Game’s statistics, Hayes ended the scrimmage with seven tackles. Whether skeptical of the recordkeeping within a practice or not, seven tackles in one abbreviated afternoon compares favorably to Hayes’ total of 11 in 12 games last season. Some of that uptick is playing time, some of it is scheme, some of it is realization of the potential highlighted by a five-star ranking. For now, though, Hayes insists he intends to simply learn from last year’s 4-8 disappointment and embrace the changes brought by new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

“With last year being the year that we had, there definitely was a yearning for change,” Hayes said. “When you have basically a reboot of the program, the guys are hungry and they don’t want to have to experience the same season as last year.

“Just continue to trust in that process. We’re hungry for something to cling on and buy into. When coach Elko, coach Balis, everybody came in as part of that reboot, I think we welcomed with open arms. [We’ll] continue to buy into the system and become more comfortable within the system.”

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

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Heading into spring practice, a quick look was taken at each position group in order of “expected level of interest or question marks,” from least interesting to most, as dictated by an “Inside the Irish” reader. That series concluded with the defensive line.

Exiting spring practice, let’s reprise that premise and reverse the order. If the defensive line triggered the most questions, then answering them first seems to make some version of sense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
“Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front?” this space asked. “If so, who will those linemen be?”

RELATED READING: One day until spring practice: A look at the defensive line

Aside from senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26 tackles last season, 0.5 for loss), senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss amid a season lost largely to concussion) and junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37, 3), the Irish defensive line had little track record to cite or rely upon for confidence. Leading the unknowns and unprovens were sophomore ends Daelin Hayes, who recorded 11 tackles in 2016, and Julian Okwara (4).

The lack of depth and experience was apparent heading into the 15 spring practices.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Look past the 11 sacks in the Blue-Gold Game. Intrasquad scrimmages featuring red-jerseyed quarterbacks make for inexact and context-less statistics. There is some value, however, in noting the defensive line got within reach of the quarterback at least eight times in an abbreviated game. (Three “sacks” came from the linebacker corps.)

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, just buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

RELATED READING: What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

Hayes led the way with three sacks, and he will be expected to continue that in the fall, starting at the weakside/rush defensive end spot. Exiting spring, though, only he and Tillery solidified themselves as starters. Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Mike Elko claimed a successful spring for the front.

“I’m happy with our defensive line progress,” Elko said Friday. “Obviously there was a lot written about that group. I’m happy about the progress they’ve made this spring. I think [defensive line coach] Mike [Elston] has done a good job developing them. I think they are buying into the way we want to play defense. There’s probably four to five guys on the inside that are starting to get into a position where we feel comfortable that they can step in and help us.” (more…)