Five things we learned: Michigan 41, Notre Dame 30

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.