Five things we learned: Notre Dame 31, Michigan 0

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South Bend, Ind. — This might have to be it for Notre Dame and Michigan. Because in the 42nd and final scheduled meeting between the Irish and Wolverines, Notre Dame delivered a 31-0 knockout punch that could very well leave Brady Hoke’s program left for dead.

[VIDEO: Watch full replay of game ]

After spending much of the week talking about the rivalry dating back to 1887, the Irish went out in record-setting fashion. Brian Kelly’s team is the first Notre Dame squad to shut out Michigan. It’s the first time the Wolverines have been shut out since the Reagan administration, ending a NCAA record 365-game streak from 1984.

With the sellout home crowd of 80,795 singing goodbye to the Wolverines, the young Irish defense delivered the best performance of the Kelly era, blitzing and scheming Devin Gardner into a nightmare. With the Irish 2-0 and through the first significant hurdle of the 2014 schedule, let’s find out what else we learned in Notre Dame’s 31-0 victory over the Wolverines.

With young and athletic personnel, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder unleashed the perfect attack on Devin Gardner and the Wolverines. 

The last time Brian Kelly saw Doug Nussmeier’s offense, they buried the Irish defense in the BCS championship. The last time Brian VanGorder saw Nussmeier’s offense, he ran Auburn and Gene Chizik out of the Iron Bowl (and a job) 49-0.

But on Saturday night, the veteran assistant coach pitched a no-hitter, dialing up the perfect game plan against Nussmier and quarterback Devin Gardner.

“As you can imagine, we’re pleased with the victory,” Kelly said after the game. “Obviously, shutting out any opponent in college football is an enormous task with offenses today. A great performance by our defense. Great performance by our coaches. The preparation was outstanding.”

That preparation included a masterful job by VanGorder, who received a gigantic bear hug from athletic director Jack Swarbrick on the field after the game. It included shutting down a Michigan ground game after a record-setting performance against Appalachian State. And it turned a hot start by Gardner into an ice-cold finish, sacking and harassing him on the way to three interceptions and a lost fumble.

“Give Notre Dame credit for how they played,” Hoke said after the game. “It was a total butt-kicking all the way around that we all took.”

After showing a somewhat vanilla defense against Rice, the Irish dialed up the pressures against Gardner, knocking around the mobile thrower and eventually forcing him to make bad decisions. After locking down the Michigan ground game, the Irish dominated third down, holding the Wolverines to just four of 13 on conversions, a key to the game plan.

“Once we were able to really get a hold of the run game and getting it to third down, we felt like we were going to be in pretty good shape, because we were able to do a lot of things to confuse what they were seeing,” Kelly explained. “They weren’t getting the same looks. I think that had a lot to do with our success.”

Those looks included blitzes from everywhere and huge games from Notre Dame safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate. The young duo that struggled at times against Rice both intercepted Gardner, with cornerback Cody Riggs getting his first for Notre Dame. The Irish also made eight tackles for loss, constantly in the backfield and making series-changing plays.

With freshmen Daniel Cage, Andrew Trumbetti, Kolin Hill, Drue Tranquill and Grant Blankenship key parts of the scheme, the young Irish defense executed the game plan to perfection. But credit VanGorder for putting together a show-stopper.

After slicing and dicing Rice in the season opener, Everett Golson did more of the same against Greg Mattison’s Michigan defense. 

Two years ago, Everett Golson didn’t make it to halftime. He didn’t finish this year’s game either, passing the reins over to backup Malik Zaire with the game in hand and the crowd going crazy.

Golson played another great game, leading the Irish offense as he completed 23 of 34 throws for 226 yards and three touchdowns. More importantly, for the second straight week, the Irish didn’t turn the ball over and scored on every red zone opportunity they had. Forced to battle against one of college football’s best strategists, the senior quarterback called checkmate, essentially ending the game in the third quarter with the Irish miles ahead.

Standing quietly at a podium surrounded by media, Golson calmly talked about beating a team that made his life miserable two seasons ago. And begged to try and quantify how hot his start was, showed his ability as an escape artist one more time.

“Avoid the noise. Avoid the noise,” Golson said. “People are going to talk, that type of thing, whether it’s good or bad. But you’ve got to keep your head on what really matters is my guys around me.”

The noise will certainly ramp up with Golson’s performance showcasing his ability to a national audience. With the running game taken away, the Irish decided to pick Michigan apart by air, with Golson’s accuracy and arm strength the key.

Don’t look now, but Notre Dame has a star quarterback.

That young and untested front seven? It just dominated the trenches against Michigan. 

Losing three starting linebackers and two-thirds of the defensive line, Notre Dame’s front seven was what looked — on paper — to be what was holding the Irish back as College Football Playoff contenders. Well that group just whipped the Wolverines, with the athletic Irish front manhandling Michigan at the line of scrimmage.

Jaylon Smith was everywhere, making ten tackles including a big play in the backfield. Joe Schmidt made seven stops, including a bone-crunching hit on Devin Gardner that forced loose a fumble. More impressive was the work done up front, with Jarron Jones dominating Michigan center Jack Miller, on his way to six tackles as Sheldon Day made five stops and freshman Andrew Trumbetti made four, after taking a wicked crack-back block that sent him briefly to the locker room.

The youthful backups funneled onto the field, with freshmen everywhere, all being productive. And with Gardner running for his life as the game wore on, it was the front seven that dictated the terms to Michigan, putting together one of the most unlikely shutouts you can imagine.

With exotic stunts and blitz packages, Smith attributed the victory not to the play on the field, but the work in the classroom.

“Coach Kelly says it all the time. It’s not about rising to the opposition, we had to sink to the level of our preparation,” Smith said after the game. “So it was done during the week. Our preparation was incredible. Rushing for the ball and really just keeping the tempo up.”

 

After being one of the worst special teams units in the country, Notre Dame dominated another game in the all important third phase. 

This offseason, Notre Dame’s coaching staff went out with their hat in hand, seeking answers from other coaching staffs for their putrid special teams.

Well it worked.

Two straight games, Notre Dame has dictated terms in the field position battle while getting elite special teams play in all units.

Kicker Kyle Brindza has become a touchback machine, surrendering just one kickoff return while booting five touchbacks. As a punter, Brindza’s garbage time 23-yarder sunk his average down to 38.3, but he pinned Michigan inside their twenty twice, including one at the Michigan two.

Cody Riggs moved the Irish past their entire 2013 punt return total by the middle of the game. And James Onwualu came up with another clutch play, recovering Riggs’ muff after a hard bounce rattled off Riggs’ arms.

Notre Dame’s transition to frontline and athletic players on special teams has been one of the most dramatic changes to Scott Booker’s unit. And when Cam McDaniel and Matthias Farley, your senior captain running back and starting nickel back, are the guys downing a punt inside the two, that type of great effort gets contagious.

Brindza made his only field goal attempt, putting the 43-yarder straight through. And after Michigan missed two early kicks, Notre Dame’s dominance on special teams did its part in the team shutout.

 

FieldTurf, smoke machines and a whole lot of swagger. Things in South Bend are changing. And as Brian Kelly said, “Get used to it.” 

While Notre Dame’s fans groaned about a university academic process that drags on, Kelly and his football team put together a win for the ages. And in front of an electric crowd and dozens of elite recruits, it’s pretty clear that Brian Kelly has things rolling in South Bend, ripping a program out of the past as he reshapes the Irish both on and off the field.

After torrential rains hit South Bend last night, the Irish still blazed on the FieldTurf, the faster, more athletic team by just about any measure, allowed to show their ability even though Knute Rockne’s teams played on a natural surface.

And while running out of the tunnel with a smoke machine billowing likely had some of the folks in the gold seats rolling their eyes, the Irish took advantage of their primetime appearance and showed the gulf between college football’s two winningest programs looked the size of Lake Michigan.

Kelly does things his way. As the CEO of one of college football’s true blue-chip institutions, he’s made changes at just about every level of his program, embracing the differences Notre Dame cherishes while also not letting them get in the way of the ultimate goal.

So while Kelly’s “Get used to it” crack had the chance to be his “Decided schematic advantage” after passing up a field goal to win against Tulsa to throw for the end zone in his first season, it’s a rallying cry that leads Notre Dame into a era of seismic change.

Not just on the field, where the university has gladly replaced Michigan with games against Texas, Georgia and now Ohio State and a five-game commitment to the ACC. But into a new Notre Dame Stadium, with the Campus Crossroads program reshaping the crown jewel of campus over the coming years.

That takes a certain type of head coach. And Brian Kelly is proving to be that man.