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.