Notre Dame v Michigan

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Michigan


Last season, every Saturday ended with the Victory March. While it wasn’t always pretty, the Irish found a way to win, even when out-gained, and sometimes out-played. Breaking in a young quarterback, reinventing an offense, and relying on a defense that played historically stingy, it was a season to remember.

Saturday night reminded us that every year is different. The magic was coming from a team wearing a different jersey. Every loss requires inspection, and that’s likely happening in South Bend right now, as Brian Kelly and his staff examine what went into the Irish’s 41-30 defeat at the hands of Devin Gardner and the Michigan Wolverines.

Let’s do the same ourselves and take a look at the good, bad and ugly from Saturday night’s defeat in Ann Arbor.


Special Teams. So all those that were worried that the Irish special teams would cost Notre Dame a close game can breathe deep. Kyle Brindza was a veritable weapon out there on Saturday night, punting the football well on both his attempts while making all three of his field goals as well. Brindza also had four touchbacks on his seven kickoffs.

TJ Jones did a nice job on his lone punt return attempt while George Atkinson also returned a kick to midfield. After looking shaky last week, Kelly turned all the kicking duties over to Brindza and he returned the favor by playing flawlessly.

Amir Carlisle. Taking the lion’s share of carries, Carlisle ran hard both inside and out, carrying 12 times for 64 yards while chipping in two catches as well. The durability everybody worried about seems to be there, as the junior put together a nice game and appears to be the early leader for carrying the load.

TJ Jones. A gutty performance for the senior receiver, who banged up his shoulder early in the night but came back and still had nine catches for 94 yards and a touchdown.

Troy Niklas. The run of greatness at tight end looks to be continuing with Niklas, who played another excellent game, quickly becoming a weapon in the pass game with another touchdown among his six catches for 76 yards.

Running Back George Atkinson: After not looking all that explosive against Temple, Atkinson did some damage on the ground, averaging a mighty quiet 7.4 yards a carry while also making a big kickoff return.

We’ll talk about the other part of George’s game in the bad section.


The Defense. Brian Kelly can talk about the plays the offense could’ve made, but this one is on Bob Diaco’s guys. There’s no question that Devin Gardner does some things that make life hard, but the defense didn’t do themselves any favors, routinely blowing assignments and losing one-on-one battles.

You can’t expect to win a game when you give up 41 points. Period.

Coverage in the secondary. It was a tough day the office for the back-end of the Irish defense. KeiVarae Russell looked like he was being picked on at times, and Jeremy Gallon looked like Desmond Howard out there, racking up three touchdowns and 184 receiving yards.

The pass rush. They weren’t playing horseshoes or hand grenades, so one sack of Devin Gardner just isn’t going to cut it. While he made an incredibly acrobatic interception in the end zone for a touchdown, Stephon Tuitt didn’t make a tackle, given chase to Gardner often but not getting to him. Ishaq Williams tallied his first sack of his career, but Prince Shembo was kept in check again.

The Irish committed blitzers to stopping Gardner but it didn’t matter, and Gardner routinely made Notre Dame pay when it went one-on-one in coverage.

One-dimensional offense: People tend to forget that the Irish were essentially down two touchdowns for much of the second half, necessitating a passing attack, especially as time ticked away. But the Irish averaged 5.1 yards a carry on just 19 official rushing attempts, while Tommy Rees threw 53 passes. During the Irish’s final three possessions, they threw 13 times and ran it only twice, often from an empty formation.

Looked at as a whole, that kind of ratio isn’t good. It’s likely a product of a game that was on the verge of getting out of hand and forced Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin to abandon the ground game.

Pass catcher George Atkinson. Too often the football clanked out of Atkinson’s hands, with at least three drops on the ledger. Never know for his natural catching ability, Atkinson did have a nice gain out of the backfield on one pass. But if he’s going to be a guy that can play in a featured capacity, he’s got to make the plays… or let somebody else have a chance.

Slow Start. Not exactly how you want to get out of the gate. Two three and outs for the Irish, both with the Irish unable to convert running the ball. Compare that to Michigan putting up scores on their first two possessions, and that’s an easy way to get down 10-0.


Giving up big plays. It’s mystifying how this defense can give up some of the big plays that it did Saturday night. When it was time to make a big play, it just kept feeling like it was only Michigan that made it.

The Irish tried multiple things to keep Devin Gardner in check– spying linebackers, safeties, keeping contain — none of it worked. Last season was defined by the defense’s flair for the dramatic. There are still ten games left, but this group needs to make some steps forward quickly.

Leaving the Big House with a L. That’s a football game that everybody wanted. Players, coaches, fans. After listening to Big Blue and company crow all offseason about Notre Dame chickening out, that the Wolverines would back up the talk with a convincing victory can’t taste too good.

Pass Interference. Sooner or later, the Irish defensive backs will figure out that they can’t get sloppy in coverage on third down and around the goal line. While you could argue until you’re blue in the face that the call against Bennett Jackson was pretty iffy, the Irish need to play smarter and better in coverage, especially with a group that’s got plenty of experience.

College GameDay Signs: If there’s a benefit to taking a break in this series, it’s that ESPN won’t give three hours of national air time to idiots with signs. While the network allegedly filters the signs allowed to be in the background, the tasteless nature of a few defied logic.

Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”