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Five things we’ve learned: Notre Dame 13, Michigan 6

Sep 23, 2012, 2:35 AM EDT

ND MICH

You never expected it to be easy. If Notre Dame was going to finally beat Michigan after three years of heart-stopping defeats, you didn’t think the Wolverines were going to lay down and go quietly into the night, did you?

That’s why in spite of six turnovers — four interceptions and a fumble by Denard Robinson — Michigan kept coming after the Irish, picking themselves off the ground like a villain you can’t kill in an action movie. But Notre Dame’s defense stood tall, pushing back the Wolverines’ attack until the Irish offense did just enough, and the No. 11 Fighting Irish escaped Notre Dame Stadium with a hard fought victory over No. 18 Michigan 13-6.

“I thought both football teams played awfully hard,” Michigan head coach Brady Hoke said after the game. “I think one played better when it came to execution and taking care of the football.”

Better was a relative term on Saturday night, as Notre Dame’s offense did the defense no favor. Everett Golson threw an interception deep in Notre Dame territory on his first snap of the evening. The Irish only managed 14 first downs on 239 yards of total offense. The running game the Irish hoped to rely on was shut down, running for just 94 yards on 31 carries.

But a win is a win, especially over Michigan. On another Saturday where two teams in the top ten lost (future Irish opponent Oklahoma being one of them) and LSU hung on for an ugly 12-10 victory over an Auburn team that was taken to overtime last week by Louisiana-Monroe, Notre Dame doesn’t need to compete in college football’s beauty pageant. They’ll be happy winning and moving on to a well deserved bye week.

After holding both Michigan and Michigan State without touchdowns for the first time since 1909, let’s find out what else we learned in No. 11 Notre Dame’s victory over Denard Robinson and No. 18 Michigan.

***

After letting Denard Robinson beat Notre Dame single-handedly for two straight years, the Irish defense shut down the heart of the Wolverines.

Denard Robinson has played football games that will be remembered forever in Michigan lore. Saturday night was not one of them.

After propelling Michigan to dramatic victories the Irish the past two seasons, the Irish absolutely shut down Michigan’s Heisman Trophy candidate, forcing five turnovers from Robinson as the Irish defense shut down the Michigan offense.

“Defensively, what can I say,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “Six turnovers. Limited who we felt is one of the most dynamic offensive players in the country to no touchdowns. Just an incredible performance by our defense.”

After giving up almost 1,000 yards of offense to Robinson the past two seasons, Notre Dame shut down the quarterback, holding him to 13 of 24 passing for just 138 with four interceptions. On the ground, the Irish limited Robinson to just one run of 20 yards, and he needed 26 carries to gain 90 yards, a pedestrian 3.5 yards a carry. In a match-up many thought favored Michigan, the Irish defense absolutely killed the Wolverines, at one point intercepting five straight Michigan passes, and the inexperienced Notre Dame secondary stood strong.

“I think the key to stopping such a dynamic player like denard is everybody has to get to him,” Manti Te’o said after the game. “Everybody has to get to the ball. You have to really emphasize eleven guys to the ball and I think our coaches have done a great job in stressing the importance of everybody getting the ball.”

The ball was certainly up for grabs Saturday night and the Irish capitalized. Notre Dame held Robinson to the lowest passer rating of his career as a starter, all while holding him below 100 yards rushing. While nobody is ready to put the Irish defense in the same class as Alabama’s, the numbers are worth comparing.

Robinson vs. Alabama
11 of 26 for 200 yards. 1 TD, 2 INT (104.2 QB Rating). 10 rushes for 27 yards, 1 TD.

Robinson vs. Notre Dame
13 of 24 for 138. 0 TD, 4 INT (69.1 QB Rating). 26 rushes for 90 yards, 0 TD, 1 fumble.

After crumbling at the end of two straight losses to Michigan, Robinson was unable to do anything against the Irish, and it was a crushing blow to the senior quarterback that’s had so much success against Notre Dame.

“I’m disappointed in myself,” Robinson said. “The 22 years I’ve been living, this is the most disappointed I’ve been in myself.”

***

Notre Dame’s secondary is proving that you’d rather have a lack of experience than a lack of talent.

Saturday night was the night Notre Dame’s green secondary was going to get exposed. A running back (KeiVarae Russell) and wide receiver (Bennett Jackson) were starting at cornerback. A safety (Matthias Farley) that redshirted last year as a wide receiver was filling in for one of the defense’s best players. And anchoring the unit was a guy (Zeke Motta) many thought should turn into a linebacker. On paper, this was a disaster waiting to happen. In reality? Well, it might be the most talented secondary Notre Dame’s had in quite some time.

“I think after tonight, we all feel that we’ve got some young guys back there that can play at a high level,” Kelly said after the game. “I think our coaches have done a great job of getting the back end of our defense to the point where there’s a lot of confidence.”

Notre Dame went into the season with a secondary that many believed needed to stay healthy just to play serviceable football. But that didn’t happen. Tee Shepard, who many expected to battle for a starting job, didn’t make it to spring ball in South Bend. Austin Collinsworth, Lo Wood and Jamoris Slaughter are all lost for the season. Yet Kerry Cooks and Bob Elliott have turned a talented but untested  group of players into a confident group, encapsulated by freshman Nicky Baratti, a high school quarterback learning defense on the fly, stepping in front of a halfback pass and making a huge interception in the end zone.

For the third straight week, the Irish secondary has held a Big Ten opponent under 200 yards passing. Notre Dame’s seven interceptions is one less than the Irish had all last season with first round draft pick Harrison Smith roaming centerfield and returning starters Gary Gray and Robert Blanton at cornerback.

The young group certainly needs to keep learning and get better. But this game should put an end to the belief that there’s no talent in the back-end of the Irish defense.

***

While Everett Golson remains Notre Dame’s starting quarterback, it’s time for the youngster to grow up in a hurry.

After impressing on the big stage with a calm and collected performance against Michigan State, Everett Golson took a huge step backwards on Saturday night, failing to recover from the interception he threw on his first passing attempt. The future of the Irish is still very much in Golson’s hands, but it’s hard to fault Kelly for pulling the young quarterback and relieving him with junior Tommy Rees.

Golson’s stat line was a scary one: Just 3 of 8 passing for 30 yards with two interceptions. Golson’s second pick got him pulled, after the sophomore rolled right on second and goal and threw a jump ball into the end zone when throwing it away was the play the Irish coaching staff drilled into the quarterbacks’ heads all offseason. From there, Kelly kept the offense in Rees’ hands, and the junior completed 8 of 11 throws for 115 yards while running for the team’s only touchdown.

“I think we saw that the defense is such that we want to make sure that we limit turnovers,” Kelly said. “Early on we turned the ball over and that’s ultimately why we made the change at quarterback.”

Golson watched the games final 38 minutes on the sideline, a fate that has many wondering if the young quarterback will suffer a crisis of confidence. Kelly isn’t one of them.

“I don’t really believe it’s a matter of confidence as much as he just has to settle down,” Kelly said of Golson. “He was not as comfortable as I would have liked after playing the Michigan State game where he was in an incredible environment. He needs to settle down a bit and he’s going to be just fine.”

Kelly quickly named Golson his starter for Miami but didn’t take away the option to play Rees if he feels like the offense needs him.

“I think we’re fairly comfortable if we need Tommy to come in and handle some of the offense for us, if we feel like it’s necessary, we will,” Kelly said. “He’s a great asset to have if you need him to close out a game, and we’ll continue to go that route. We’d like to continue to develop Everett so we don’t have to do that, but we’re still going to try to win football games anyway possible.”

Winning games cures a lot of ills, and it’s also the key to keeping a potential thorny quarterbacking situation contained.

***

Notre Dame’s relentless front seven took Michigan out of its game plan early.

It didn’t take long for Al Borges to throw the kitchen sink at Notre Dame. Setting up a trick play from the first snap, the Wolverines relied on gimmicks from the start, hoping to catch Notre Dame’s defense out of position. It earned an early pass interference call against Danny Spond when wide receiver Devin Gardner tried to complete a throw-back pass, but it bit the Wolverines later, with Michigan relying on running back Vincent Smith to throw a halfback pass after a 12 play drive marched Michigan down to the Irish ten yard line.

Michigan’s first two trips into the Irish red zone netted zero points, thanks to the ferocious play of Notre Dame’s defensive front and Michigan’s unwillingness to go toe-to-toe in the red zone. After Golson’s early pick set up Michigan 1st and Goal at the Irish 10, the Wolverines proceeded to go backwards. First the Irish stuffed Fitzgerald Toussaint for a loss of two. Then it wasa  Prince Shembo sack of Robinson for a loss of three more. On 3rd and 15, it was Stephon Tuitt that made another big play, dropping Robinson for a 10 yard loss. First and Goal was now a 43-yard field goal attempt that Brendan Gibbons pushed wide.

With three more sacks tonight, the Irish now have 14 sacks on the year, averaging 3.5 a game through their first four. That rate would have been good for second nationally in 2011 and has the Irish more than half way past their total of 25 last season. (It’s also a rate that’s likely to improve, considering Navy, Purdue, Michigan State and Michigan were four of the stingier teams in the country when it comes to sacks — giving up an average of just 1.48 a game last year.)

More importantly, the Irish front seven is powering this football team as it grows. With an offense seeking an identity and a secondary learning on the fly, the physical front of the defense is powering this team to historic levels. The Irish haven’t won a football game scoring less points since 1990. They haven’t allowed six points or less to top-20 opponents in consecutive weeks since 1943. That’s a total of 36 points the Irish have given up in the first third of the season. That’s better than any Lou Holtz defense, and the best since 1975.

Many laughed when Bob Diaco openly stated that his goal was to have the best defense in America. The Irish might not be there yet, but they’re on pace to have one of the best defenses Notre Dame has fielded in over 20 years.

***

It might just be time to throw Manti Te’o’s name into the Heisman Trophy race.

It’s been 15 years since Charles Woodson was the only defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy. But it might be time to give Manti Te’o serious consideration for college football’s most prestigious award. Notre Dame’s star middle linebacker filled up the stat sheet once again, making eight tackles, one tackle-for-loss, and intercepting Denard Robinson twice on Saturday night. In a stadium where thousands of fans wore Hawaiian leis in support of Te’o after a horrible week of personal hardship, the senior linebacker from Hawaii followed up a dominant performance against Michigan State with another one against the Wolverines.

“He’s the guy in there,” Kelly said of his senior captain. “I mean, it all evolves around him, his personality, his strength. He’s a special guy. Take advantage of him when you’ve got him now, because I’ve never been around a kid like that.”

After turning down the opportunity to head to the NFL after his junior season, Te’o has returned with a vengeance, cleaning up an all-around game that was already considered to be one of the strongest in college football. Always known as a strong sideline to sideline player, Te’o fought the one knock on his game of not forcing turnovers, having never recovered a fumble nor intercepted a pass. Through four games, he’s got three interceptions and two fumble recoveries.

But perhaps more important than anything he’s done on the field, Te’o has taken over at the undeniable face of the Fighting Irish. After a decade filled with mostly offensive stars, the Irish take their cues and play to the likeness of their Hawaiian leader. His quiet strength and forceful will powering Notre Dame to their best start in a decade.

With thousands of fans chanting his name after the Irish’s victory, Te’o has also worked his way into a more hallowed status: Irish legend.

“Man, I said it before. Four years ago when I decided to come here, I didn’t know why,” Te’o said. “It’s starting to unveil itself why, why I felt that I was told to come here. I can’t thank my team enough. I can’t thank the students and just the fan base around the world, Notre Dame and non-Notre Dame fans. They’ve just been great. It’s very humbling for me and my family.”

131 Comments (Feed for Comments)
  1. packhawk04 - Sep 23, 2012 at 12:18 PM

    Great win for notre dame. I hope they dont get to close to a national title chance. LSU or alabama would destroy them. The other top 5 teams in the SEC would beat them soundly. Should be a great season, hopefully theyre selective with what bowl they play in and who they play.

    • c4evr - Sep 23, 2012 at 12:57 PM

      X2

    • fitz79 - Sep 23, 2012 at 1:10 PM

      BS! If our defense continues to play like this I wouldn’t assume a loss to Any team. Consider this. Notre Dame plays the toughest schedule in the country. Period! Bama and LSU, yes, they’re great teams, but they play a lot of cupcakes. At least a lot more than ND does. How many teams come out and play 3 solid Big Ten teams in the fdirst 4 weeks of the season? I know our offense needs to continue to improve, but If Notre Dame gets themselves into a position for a BCS bowl then they will deserve to be there as much, if not more, than any other team out there.

      You’re obviously not a Notre Dame fan, so why don’t you go post your uninformed opinions elsewhere…

    • ndfaithful - Sep 23, 2012 at 3:27 PM

      This is hysterical. I should start a blog titled “The dumbest things I read on the Irish website”.

      Here’s one:
      “I hope they dont get to close to a national title chance.”

      Would that be a bad thing hawk?
      Oh the horror.

      LOL

      • ndfaithful - Sep 23, 2012 at 3:28 PM

        On second thought – I’ll go more politically correct. I’ll call my blog:

        Unexpected things that Irish “Fans” write about their team.

      • ndfaithful - Sep 23, 2012 at 3:34 PM

        I’m adding c4evr’s comment to my list. He wrote this regarding Golsen:

        ““I’d prefer an early season loss or 2 to let this kid take his lumps and pick himself up off the ground.”

        You can keep the losses. I think most of us would prefer some wins.

      • c4evr - Sep 23, 2012 at 7:17 PM

        ndfaithful,

        Your mom asked me to not respond to your posts because you keep wetting the bed… It’ll be a pleasure watching the likes of you get all lathered up with talk of BCS and championships dancing in your dreams only to have BK’s bonehead schemes bring it all to a crashing halt. And speaking of idiotic posts, I can almost hear the gears of evolution grinding to a halt with every word you type.

    • padraig57 - Sep 24, 2012 at 12:19 AM

      pack it in — Did you even notice that LSU barely beat an awful Auburn team? LSU is not that good, and, outside of Alabama, neither is the SEC. ND is a very, very good defensive team — a little rhythm on offense and they’ll be a good team period.

    • Patrick Hannegan - Sep 26, 2012 at 10:40 AM

      The only team that I believe would be too much to handle is Bama. They could probably beat a pro team because that is what they are. They are full of NFL 1st round draft picks. Maybe we could pull the upset of the century but Bama is the only team I would say could beat us handily.

  2. bearcatirishfan - Sep 23, 2012 at 12:27 PM

    4-0 enough said

  3. bearcatirishfan - Sep 23, 2012 at 12:28 PM

    Nude #8 literally had me laughing out loud

    • nudeman - Sep 23, 2012 at 1:41 PM

      Just a little levity there Mr. Guy from the Queen City (I assume)
      Nice to be 4-0, ain’t it?

  4. bearcatirishfan - Sep 23, 2012 at 12:47 PM

    I think he’s not afraid to yank Rees he did last year against Stanford and FSU. Unfortunately, the back wasn’t that good.

  5. fitz79 - Sep 23, 2012 at 1:05 PM

    Manti T’eo for Heisman! If his stats continue to pile up at this rate, I honestly think he deserves to be on that stage in New York as a finalist. As a senior leader he represents the absolute best of Notre Dame tradition and college football as a whole. Defender or not, give the man his dues!

  6. ihatemistate - Sep 23, 2012 at 2:09 PM

    We’re all complaining about how bad EG played. This is his first year starting and I clearly remember Kirt Cousins making the same mistakes when he started. Plus, you talk about stinkin, how would you like to be Denard Robinson today? Talk about having a bad day. Hats off to our defense for making him have a bad day, but he made some really bad decisions for a senior QB. He’s a great runner but greatly overrated as a QB.

  7. irish4me - Sep 23, 2012 at 2:37 PM

    Ok we’re 4-0 and to hear some on this site, ND is 0 for 2012. Some observations I’ve made.
    1) Kelly has calmed down this year and realizes his “D” can carry this team and he doesn’t have to play reckless football, sometimes a punt is a good strategy. Sometimes playing it safe is a pretty good game plan, especially with a “D as stout as we look to have.

    2) Golson being pulled was well deserved, his play wasn’t just inconsistent it was at a level of Pop Warner football. I’ve said before on this site that Golson throws BEHIND his receivers, he does it ALL Day long. I like the way he can extend the play and I think going forward (this year), he’s the guy, BUT I don’t want to LOSE a winnable game for him to get experience and shed his training wheels. In this game he looked lost and overwhelmed.

    3) The unfounded hatred of Tommy Rees baffles me, I, like most of you, wanted a new QB this year. We got one, but Golson has failed to dazzle except in occasional spots. He has a lot of potential and his running is a huge upside, but all Rees has done is come in two games and lead us to victory, by playing SMART football and throwing the football to spots where ONLY his receivers can catch it, look at the game films, it’s a fact. The Purdue game showed Golson to be a total mess with time management and the fumble wasn’t all that helpful either. So Kelly puts in Rees who obviously can read defenses better and manage a clock much better and he turns in a win. This weeks game has a ridiculous pass thrown up for grabs in the end zone like some street touch football game
    and his first play from scrimmage he throws a ball woefully short of receiver as he does so often this year and finally a defensive back steps up and intercepts. Kelly knows what he’s doing, Golson can get plenty of reps in the Miami game to hone his skill set, until then, I’m happy to win games and if that means poor little Everett has to learn from the bench while we play to win not to teach, I’m plenty OK with that. Thanks Tommy Rees for playing so much smarter than I ever thought you were capable of.

    4) Manti Teo is a beast this year, as is the entire defense. I still believe we can be torched by a USC team, but maybe by then our secondary will be better, it’s a work in progress, but at least they have speed and HEART.

    5) I’m enjoying the season so far, there’s been a lot of heroics and exciting games and we’ve won, and really that’s what it’s all about to me, playing hard up to our collective abilities for the most part and wining. Go Irish.

    • irish4006 - Sep 24, 2012 at 4:36 PM

      In case you didn’t notice, no one is hating TR now. You nailed it when you said, “Thanks Tommy Rees for playing so much smarter than I ever thought you were capable of.”. He did look like a different QB in UM.

      Even when I was calling for his head and put a different QB (at that point, I would be okay with putting nudeman) in for this season, I maintained that he would be a great backup option. We know that he understands the game and can manage the game without being flashy. He did a great job against UM and it is comforting to know that there is someone who can come in to help the new kid settle down and still win games.

      Big test for Everett coming up. I sincerely hope he grows up in a hurry. ND will be a great team if we can quickly learn to play some offense.

    • Patrick Hannegan - Sep 26, 2012 at 10:38 AM

      People have stopped hating Rees. How can you consider the boos undeserved? He was our quarterback and supposed to be our leader. He decided that he would ruin that by being immature and getting caught drinking and then ran. He disappointed us by putting alcohol ahead of leading the team. He deserved the boos at Purdue but now no one is hating.

      • irish4me - Sep 26, 2012 at 4:23 PM

        Where to begin? I wasn’t talking about any boos – he didn’t get any this week, that was 2 weeks ago against Purdue. I was referring to the knee-jerk reaction on the first article after the game where a lot of people where “disappointed” that Kelly didn’t stick with Golson so he could learn in the trenches. Yes “learn” while the team goes up in flames. As far as his drinking goes, his being a team leader and drinking at a party on the last day of school, they are mutually exclusive, he’s 19 years old for crying out loud (or was at the time), it wasn’t a mature thing to do of course but it’s what kids do with the possible exception of you Patrick. He ran and again that was dumb but it has been well reported here and elsewhere that the ND Football team members are a favorite target of the South Bend Police in these circumstances. To make it clear I am NOT a Tommy Rees fan nor do I excuse his behavior but to act like he’s a middle-aged bum doing these things and not take into account that he’s just a kid without life’s experiences to draw upon the wisdom to act in a more mature responsible way is pretty rigid to me.

  8. seamus0317 - Sep 23, 2012 at 5:45 PM

    Manti has taken the Irish on his back! What a leader!

  9. irish2011 - Sep 23, 2012 at 8:17 PM

    C’mon nude I’m dying to hear you bash TR again!

  10. getsome99 - Sep 23, 2012 at 9:31 PM

    Hey Nudeman. Glad to see you finally coming around with all that QB talk. I’ve said all along that QB play is not the issue at Notre Dame and hasn’t been since Lou was HC.

    Shut down defense, consistent running game, and turnover margin are the keys to success in college football. See the SEC. NFL QB’s come out of the PAC 10 and Big 12. But those teams don’t win BCS championships. The SEC does.

    Also, I like the 2 QB system as it creates daily competition as well as forces opponents to prepare for 2 different QB’s. The future is bright in South Bend.

  11. norcalirish - Sep 24, 2012 at 1:00 AM

    9irish: what would a NorCal Irish post be without complaining about fashion? Lol

    Man, I’m just happy that BK didn’t Tulsa it up and find a way to lose this one! I’m over the moon :D

    NO FIELD TURF!!!!!!

    Have a great week everybody!

  12. nchdomer - Sep 24, 2012 at 6:18 AM

    Miscellaneous observations in no particular order. Great game and wonderful atmosphere at game. Better mix between live band music and pre-recorded music. First time I stood for an entire game since the ’73 USC game – a lot of fun. Another great article by Keith. Happy to see Ara on the field being honored. Mark May and Lou Holtz are great for Notre Dame. May is the perfect counterpoint to Holtz and expresses the anti-ND view. But make no mistake, it is all for television. I have been to charity events at ND attended by May, Holtz, Ara and Reese Davis. May is very respectful and supportive of ND and people that make personal attacks on him are off base. I am fine with the helmets and think our mustard yellow pants are an effort to duplicate the color of the pants worn when Ara was coach. Would rather see them closer to matching the helmets but this is a minor quibble. Kellly has grown as a coach at ND and I now think he will be the coach for a long time. Fine with the qb situation. Hope we don’t lose Diaco next year to another school. Manti should be in the Heisman conversation. GO IRISH!

    • 9irish - Sep 24, 2012 at 8:12 AM

      I’ve been saying that about May for awhile, he says annoying things, but it is part of a “schtick” with Lou. He is the foil. Doubt that he believes half of what he says, so I don’t hate him personally.

      I’m always talking about ESPN being anti-ND biased, but that just has to do with us playing on NBC, so they can’t deal directly. In reality, you’ve got Golic on there for at least 4 hrs a day, Lou and Mark May always arguing about the Notre Dame game, Hannah Storm has written books about her time at Notre Dame. ESPN is full of Domers.

  13. jackm79 - Sep 24, 2012 at 11:59 AM

    What happens next year when Malik Zaire is on campus? He is better than Golson right now.

    • irish4006 - Sep 24, 2012 at 4:40 PM

      Yes, I hear Luke Skywalker is also coming to ND and bringing the force with him.

      What would this board be without a few trolls like you?

  14. footballleprechaun - Sep 28, 2012 at 1:38 AM

    LOVE YA IRISH!!!!!!!!! PLUS YOU GOT THE COVER IN VEGAS!!!!!!! Lol

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