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Five things we learned: Michigan 41, Notre Dame 30

Sep 8, 2013, 2:26 AM EST

Notre Dame v Michigan Getty Images

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — It turns out Notre Dame’s quarterback nightmares didn’t end when Denard Robinson graduated. With the shoelace-less wonder gone to the NFL, redshirt junior Devin Gardner took his turn terrorizing the Irish, with the quarterback putting on a performance for the ages in Michigan’s 41-30 victory.

Gardner passed for 294 yards and four touchdowns while running for 82 yards and another touchdown as the Wolverines offense was just too much for Notre Dame’s defense to handle. Teaming with Jeremy Gallon, who caught eight passes for 184 yards and three touchdowns, the Michigan offense hit the Irish for multiple big plays, doing to Bob Diaco’s unit what nobody but Nick Saban’s Alabama team could last year.

In the last match-up between the two teams in Michigan Stadium for the foreseeable future, Gardner sent the home crowd home happy while dropping the Irish to 1-1, their first regular season loss since losing to Stanford to close the 2011 regular season.

Let’s take a look at what we learned.

1. Even with the kitchen sink thrown at him, Devin Gardner made Notre Dame’s defense pay.

It’s not often a man wearing No. 98 is the most athletic and elusive player on the football field. But Gardner’s homage to Heisman winner Tom Harmon had the redshirt junior quarterback looking like another Michigan legend in training.

Early and often Gardner made the Irish pay, regardless of the tactics Bob Diaco threw his way. Gardner opened the game throwing with precision, putting together scoring drives on the team’s first two possessions.

“Devin Gardner played outstanding,” Kelly said after the game, an assertion that really didn’t require much explanation.

While the talk in Ann Arbor has long been about getting back to the pro-style offense that the Wolverines utilized with statuesque, strong-armed quarterbacks, the reality is that Al Borges’ offense is more difficult to defend with a dual-threat player like Gardner than any offense piloted by a traditional dropback passer that Michigan used to collect like baseball cards.

Gardner made the Irish pay in a variety of ways on Saturday night, keeping the ball on the zone read, buying time and making plays outside of the pocket, throwing deep over the top or in the precision-based short passing game. With a flair for the dramatic and the same riverboat gambling genes that Robinson possessed, Gardner almost brought the Irish back into the game in the fourth quarter, but nevertheless was the difference maker on Saturday night.

***

2. This isn’t last year’s Notre Dame defense.

Sure, eight starters return from a unit that was among the best in college football last season. But this sure isn’t the group that finished second in scoring defense last year. While it’s hard to quantify what Manti Te’o brought to the heart of the Irish defense last season, it’s clear that this unit is still trying to figure out what it is, and Michigan’s 460 yards confirmed that there are deficiencies in a group that was expected to be among the nation’s elite.

A season after a very green secondary still managed to finish in the top 25 against the pass, Notre Dame was beat early and often by Michigan through the air, with KeiVarae Russell looking like he was being picked on by Jeremy Gallon, who had a career day catching eight balls for 184 yards and three touchdowns. Bennett Jackson also gave up some throws when playing man-to-man, and too often the Irish were burnt when their secondary were forced to win an individual battle during an Irish blitz.

The Irish defense managed to make eight tackles behind the line of scrimmage, with Ishaq Williams notching the team’s lone sack. But even with Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix chasing after Gardner for most of the night, there were too many breakdowns, with the Wolverines putting together five plays of 15 yards or more, including two critical pick-ups in the fourth quarter after the Irish pulled within four points.

Add in three critical pass interference calls that extended Michigan drives and led to touchdowns, and there’s a lot of work to be done in the defensive meeting room.

***

3. While the defense gave up 41, the Irish offense couldn’t do its part to win this game.

When recapping the loss, you might have expected Brian Kelly to discuss his defense’s inability to stop the Wolverines offense. But interestingly enough, Kelly talked about the failures of the offense when trying to decipher how the Irish came up short.

“I felt that we missed some opportunities offensively that could’ve given us the opportunity to win this football game,” Kelly said. “I felt like we had two opportunities to score. We’ve gotta make those plays. This was one of those games that our offense needed to carry the day for us and we just came up short on a couple of key plays for us.”

A season after the Irish slugged out a 13-6 victory, Kelly talked about the need for his offense to keep pace with Michigan’s tonight.

“We knew that Gardner was a very difficult quarterback to defend,” Kelly said. “We also knew that offensively that we were in a position where we needed to score more points. I didn’t think this was going to be like last year.”

If you’re looking for where things went wrong for the Irish, look no further than the difference in the teams’ red zone performances. Michigan went four-for-four inside the Irish twenty, cashing in all four drives for touchdowns. Notre Dame only converted two of their five appearances for seven points, getting nothing twice when they were in scoring position.

Forced to throw much of the second half trailing by 14 points, Tommy Rees threw for 314 yards and two touchdowns. But Rees also threw two interceptions in his 51 passing attempts, one at the end of the first half and the second on a deflected ball that sealed the game late. On a night when the offense needed to play with efficiency to hang in and win, they were unable to do it.

***

4. The Big House continues to be a house of horrors for the Irish. 

As 115,109 fans excited the stadium, the Michigan PA blared the Chicken Dance, a less than subtle dig at a Notre Dame team that Wolverines coach Brady Hoke said was “chickening” out of the spirited rivalry.

It was a glorious conclusion for Michigan fans, who celebrated another huge victory over the Irish under the lights, a showcase evening for a football program that’s still undefeated under Hoke playing at home.

Last season, Brian Kelly looked like a changed man from the one we had seen in ’11, a fiery sideline yeller that created headlines with the different hues his face turned during turnover plagued football games. That head coach returned for a bit this evening, a familiar look for the coach when playing Michigan, a program he has lost three of four to in his four seasons in South Bend.

The night looked as if it were going to take a turn for the better for Kelly, when Stephon Tuitt made a diving catch in the Michigan end zone capping one of Devin Gardner’s more inexplicable plays. But after kicking a field goal to pull within four points, the Wolverines were able to march down and score a game-icing touchdown, getting a major break when a Bennett Jackson interception was taken off the board by a suspect pass interference penalty.

***

5. With plenty still to play for, it’s back to the basics for Notre Dame. 

The message was clear after the football game. Regardless of missed calls or tough breaks, the focus was internal for the Irish, and Brian Kelly will spend the next week getting back to the basic fundamentals that turned Notre Dame into an unlikely twelve-game winner last season.

“We have to play smarter and more disciplined,” Kelly said after the game. “I told our football team, losing is losing. But we’re going to go back to work on Tuesday with the emphasis in practice on a more disciplined approach to everything. We have to tighten up everything. Seven days a week, 24 hours a day. And they understand what I mean.”

There will be time for breaking down tape and analyzing what exactly went wrong. But Kelly sees this loss as an opportunity to refocus a team that didn’t play particularly sharp against Temple and made plenty of mental mistakes in a game where execution was at a premium.

Nobody expected another undefeated regular season. But with a calendar that features a handful of Saturdays where the Irish will have to play their best football to win, refocusing a group that had everything go right last fall is the team’s biggest challenge.

129 Comments (Feed for Comments)
  1. harvupdyke - Sep 8, 2013 at 4:17 PM

    700 has the best post I’ve ever heard on this Rudy celebration page:

    Why is every ND homer a de facto head coach? With analysis of every facet of the game when they lose, as is they try to justify their decades of incompetence.. Maybe it makes them feel better.. This team loses 4 games this year, the defense is horrible… Stop with the NC or BCS game comments you delusional morons…

    Priceless. I got a cramp.

    Roll dam tide.

    • dillonbigred - Sep 8, 2013 at 4:39 PM

      Cramp? Must be that time of the month for you!

    • danirish - Sep 8, 2013 at 5:29 PM

      Your sister called, she’s pregnant again and wants to know what you want to name your new baby.

    • almoose - Sep 9, 2013 at 2:39 PM

      You know the truth hurts but you bring the facts. Defense is slow. Reese fair and backfield D so so. Can’t yet be with Alabama, Georgia. Texas A&M, LSU, Miami, Ohio State, Oregon< Stanford, USC,. Just not there yet. I know they are better then in the past and Kelly has done that. So you have gut wrenching truths and I hope to someday meet you on the field of play with the talent and then kick your ass!

  2. bernhtp - Sep 8, 2013 at 4:47 PM

    Losing a game certainly brings forth those with psychological issues and psychological issues in those that otherwise can keep them suppressed.

    • mtflsmitty - Sep 8, 2013 at 11:35 PM

      No doubt. With the anger and despair so quick to show itself, I have to assume many couldn’t have truly enjoyed last year too much.

  3. bigjdeezy - Sep 8, 2013 at 5:00 PM

    1. Tommy Rees is not a championship QB he is good stop gap QB but not one that would lead us to a BCS bowl game let alone a championship
    2. GAIII is not the back everyone thought he would become he’s to tall and runs to high therefore runs scared through the hole, play up on out side run and kick return and for the love of god stop throwing him the ball if he could catch he would be a WR
    3. AC is our best back he need to feed him the back more, also i’m excited to see more of these freshmen I was hoping Greg Bryant would have a dauris walker break out game but he never touched the field
    4. The D is not as good as everyone thought our team speed from inside out is lacking Te’o was a lot more then the heart of our D he missed few tackles(other then vs bama) and he made all the calls for the D
    5. This team is a 10 win team at best, im guessing 8 wins with a Loss to Oklahoma ASU and a team we shouldn’t loss to like USC or air force
    I.O.E (Irish Over Everything)

  4. danirish - Sep 8, 2013 at 5:37 PM

    My two cents so who cares right?

    1. I’ve seen it said many times – why stop running the ball?

    2. Why is GAIII playing? Sure he had a decent kick return but ….dang… I keep hearing mumbles about Bryant leaving – play him, feed him, make him run.

    3. Who in the heck is playing in the middle of the defense?

    4. Tuitt & Nix thinking NFL already?

    5. Glad the Michigan series is over and done!

    • tsombanj - Sep 8, 2013 at 9:23 PM

      Mumbles about Bryant leaving? What are you talking about?

  5. danirish - Sep 8, 2013 at 5:43 PM

    Oh, and Diaco – give back the award you won last year….

  6. upthera44 - Sep 8, 2013 at 7:02 PM

    There seem to be 2 main types of comments emerging on this thread. Thankfully, a fair number of even-handed comments about the positives and negatives of the game, and then a bunch of apocalyptic, melodramatic, infantile comments that are much more revolting than was the game itself.

    It was a disappointment, but was by no means so awful. A lot of pluses and some fairly big disappointments (like the LBs and defensive backfield, etc.). Diaco give his award back? So the heroic over-performances by the defense last year are nullified by the loss yesterday in your eyes? I think the Irish fan base should strive to reflect Notre Dame the university, i.e., classier than the common horde that throws its own team and coaches under the bus, and also just appreciative to have a top 25 team at a great academic institution. I’m also guilty of building these games up more than I should and losing sight of that fact. But I think we should all chill out a bit and look forward to the rest of an interesting year.

    • c4evr - Sep 8, 2013 at 7:07 PM

      Sorry, take your rational and sensible ideas back to the real world. This space is the rough equivalent to a lady’s hair salon. Nothing but rants and raves here, both pro and con, where very little resembles reality. And careful with the throwing our own team and coaches under the bus… we’re just following Kelly’s lead.

    • danirish - Sep 8, 2013 at 8:04 PM

      I guess I should have put the /sarcasm on my Diaco award post.

      When we talk about a loss we don’t focus on what we did right – those are not the reasons why we lost. The issues brought up are concerns that are totally legit – we miss T’eo and no one has stepped up yet.

      Why the abandonment of the run? Our first run play of the year was fantastic! Was a trick play?

      As for the University of Notre Dame – I love it! They do it right and half the reason why I want them to win it all is to show the college football world you don’t need to “cheat” like most of the SEC teams, you can have good grades and victories. If Notre Dame truly ever sacrifices its principles to win it all, it will be a sad day.

  7. footballnut85 - Sep 8, 2013 at 7:02 PM

    No clue why the Irish abandoned the run. Tommy was not the problem, it was Kelly not sticking with Amir and the running game. GAIII CANNOT catch. KOR man only. Secondary and tackling was putrid!

  8. fnc111 - Sep 8, 2013 at 8:09 PM

    It’s evident Kelly doesn’t care about beating scUM. Sucks for us Midwestern ND fans. I despise him even more today.

  9. seadomer - Sep 8, 2013 at 9:20 PM

    Never Played the game or consider myself as hard core but can somebody who has seen lots of football tell me if it was our D’s strategy (Diaco) or execution (some players missing or half a step too slow) or opponent (They were just on point … that night) or if a combination how many percent ….??

    The Diaco joke earlier was funny … maybe the strategy was sound but need the right players to execute them??? move them around, Oh … I respected Captain TJ since the 1st game of 2012 till I heard him say yesterday was a wake up call?………………………………WHHHHAAAAAT?

  10. frankb51 - Sep 9, 2013 at 1:39 AM

    buffalomike;

    sorry it took so long to get back; unless “slutburger” and the ken doll made a mistake; crew was announced as an ACC crew. I have never seen that ref in any big ten game vs. ND before. I was also suprised that a veteran Big 10 crew was not assigned to this game. They were probably doing the Penn St E Michigan thriller!

    also I have seen many many comments regarding the middle of the defense; Diaco will live and die with his North Jersey relative, the slowest linebacker on earth, Carlos the Prodder Calabrese; and when all else fails Bennett Jackson will figure out a way to throw the game away; they both belong on the bench! I am impressed with Jarrett Grace, great speed and will be formidable when he learns his position.

  11. irishbias - Sep 9, 2013 at 11:01 AM

    This game was lost by ND’s inability to contain #98. Plain and simple. ND got pressure on him all night that he just plain and simple escaped. Other than the awesome play in the endzone and one other sack. After great pressure (on what seemed to me to be every other play) he took off for a 1st down run or through to a rcvr who had and extra 2-5 seconds to get open.

    Comments on the Game and Oppurtunities for the future:

    1.) Run the ball w/Amir and fill in w/anyone besides GAIII (let him return kicks) he is terrible if there isn’t an immediate hole to run through. His speed is gamebreaking if there is a seam. Someone mentioned no agility… Couldn’t agree more. Kick return duty PERIOD.

    2.) Tommy played pretty well, but abandoning the run when you could demoralize other teams defenses (i.e. the NC game) is a horrible decision. Let alone puts too much on Rees. MASH’em then go over the top to the playmakers pretty please with a cherry on top.

    3.) ND did move the ball fairly well all night, thanks to Tommy Rees. Who wasn’t perfect, but played well enough to win. And other than midding the pick in the first half read the d fairly well, ecsprcially pre snap. Niklas is a beast and was utilized well towards the end of the game. TJ came back too quick after being shaken up, but other than that was excellent. Davarius wasn’t bad either besides getting gator arms on the sideline for fear of getting smashed by the incoming safety.

    3.) lots of good things too build on, but as I said last week a mobile scares me considering whst the redshirt frosh from temple was able too do. And boy did Gardner surpass that performance.

  12. almoose - Sep 9, 2013 at 2:34 PM

    T Reese OK not great. Time to bring in the next QB who can pass and run. Team him with Tom and win. Just have to have a guy that can run as well as pass. Johnny Football an example and the kid at Michigan. Have to have that mobility. T Reese interception at the half cost the game!!

    Defense cost the game. Kelly wrong. 40 points scored against the Defense. The guys are not fast as with the SEC teams. Alabama, LSU, Georgia all much faster lines. I think they have a chance to win 8 this year. Don’t think Perdue will be a walk in the park. P/S Kelly lose your belly. No example of being in shape for the kids! Too much early Oktoberfest. Kelly is going to explode with his temper! He thinks he has a Defense and denies those he chose can’t cut it.

    • fighting69th - Sep 9, 2013 at 4:26 PM

      I agree. Too many people are not realizing how deadly that INT was.

  13. irishdodger - Sep 9, 2013 at 6:04 PM

    YOU HAVE A STOUT OL W/ A BEVY OF 4-5 STAR RBs….RUN THE FREAKING BALL BEFORE YOU’RE DOWN BY TWO SCORES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    I HATE CBK’s PASS FIRST TO SET UP THE RUN PHILOSOPHY. THIS AIN’T THE MAC NOR THE BIG EAST WHERE YOU HAVE TO OVERCOME LACK OF TALENT W/ A FINESSE OFFENSE.

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