Notre Dame v Michigan

Five things we learned: Michigan 41, Notre Dame 30


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.

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.