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Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s identity? More also-ran than Playoff contender

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Notre Dame planned. Michigan laughed.

For two weeks the Irish plotted for their biggest win of the season, and the very first of those plans fell flat, just as the rest would.

“We had talked about getting off to a fast start for about two weeks and we didn’t get off to a fast start,” head coach Brian Kelly said following the 45-14 loss that will stain Notre Dame far beyond the weekend. “That was concerning.”

While the first Irish drive did manage to gain 34 yards, it only got past midfield thanks to a roughing the punter penalty. Notre Dame then moved further backward than forward. The next Irish drive also gained a first down, but then Notre Dame went six full drives without moving the chains. Not so much a fast start as a lack of one entirely.

The offense intended to lean on its ground game again, not solely because of the expected rain, but also because that has been its best recipe for success. When the Irish broke both Virginia and USC, it came via pounding their defensive fronts into submission.

“Run the football to set up the opportunities to throw the ball downfield, which has been the case pretty much every week with this offense,” Kelly said. “… We just weren’t effective in doing so. When we had chances, we weren’t able to execute.”

In Saturday’s soaked first quarter, Notre Dame took seven carries for 12 yards. Suffice it to say, nothing had been set up.

The Wolverines had no such trouble. Their opening drive, the one kept alive by an Irish special teams faux pas, included nine rushes for 56 yards, a harbinger of the onslaught to come even if the possession ended with only a field goal.

“We got beat,” Irish senior safety and captain Alohi Gilman said. “They were a better team than us. It’s not a good feeling, but we’re going to learn from this. Guys like me and [junior right tackle Robert Hainsey, sitting next to Gilman] are going to take accountability of what we have to do to be a better team and to play to our standard and our true identity.”

In moments after humbling losses, a word or two will be repeated so often, it was clearly the theme to any locker room message following the letdown. Saturday night, “identity” was that word. Both Gilman and Hainsey offered it, as did Kelly at length.

“Our identity was not on display tonight. We’re a physical team, we weren’t physical. … That’s not our identity, but that’s what we showed tonight, and we own what we showed this evening.”

What Notre Dame showed is its current peak, not that of a Playoff contender. That may seem harsh only seven games removed from a Playoff appearance, but a harsh critique can also be accurate after getting out-gained by 257 yards, after giving up a Kelly Era-high in rushing yards to a traditional offense, after failing to consider competing against a neighboring rival.

Aside from a few service academies running the triple-option, Notre Dame had not given up 300 rushing yards to an opponent since at least 1998 (when box scores become tougher to track down). That is, until Michigan gashed the Irish for 303 yards Saturday. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Maybe the Irish ceiling being below that of a Playoff contender should have been clear when they struggled against not only Ball State last year, but also against Vanderbilt and then Pittsburgh. One such malaise-filled afternoon is typical of every Playoff contender outside of Tuscaloosa, but three of them may have signaled an inability to wake up from those snooze alarms. Notre Dame certainly never woke up Saturday night.

The Cotton Bowl loss to Clemson remains defined by its injuries and the excellence of the eventual national champion, to be clear. Oddly enough, the Playoff appearance not defining if the Irish are Playoff contenders.

That definition came against a top-20 rival in primetime. Playoff contenders show up. A Clemson, a Georgia, a LSU, an Oklahoma, the list goes on, they would all at least have a chance in the fourth quarter. A win is not assured — just see Georgia and Oklahoma in the last month, decidedly not even against rivals — but competition is.

The Irish remained in Playoff consideration after losing at Georgia because they were competitive in Athens, a play or player away from upsetting the Bulldogs. It was difficult to sincerely diminish that showing.

There was no showing in Ann Arbor. One can argue Notre Dame would have been less embarrassed if it had seen the coming rain and asked Michigan to pause the series a game early. Instead, the Irish spent the 24 hours after kickoff lamenting a lack of physicality, once again questioning its preparedness, checking their figurative wallets for their IDs.

In those respects, this public shaming was more difficult to explain than the 41-8 drubbing at Miami in 2017. There was an undeniable adverse atmosphere in Hard Rock Stadium that Notre Dame was not ready for, whether it should have been or not. It was not a Playoff contender then, a point underscored by a turnover-laden missed opportunity at Stanford two weeks later, but the Irish were also not masquerading as Playoff contenders then. They were also-rans and may have known it.

They certainly know it again now.

That is how deep Saturday night cut. The Big House Horror Show went beyond fixing anything.

“We felt like this was a game where our team was not who they were,” Kelly said. “We have to find out why they weren’t playing at the level they have played for the last two-and-a-half years.

The fault for that does not land on Notre Dame’s ground game, which looked as overmatched against the Wolverines as it did against Georgia, when the Irish coaching staff knew not to pound its head against the wall in the name of establishing the rushing attack.

In the same tone, the fault does not land at offensive coordinator Chip Long’s feet for calling 31 passing plays despite the conditions. If Notre Dame was going to move the ball, it was going to be in the air. The failure to do so does not entirely land at senior quarterback Ian Book’s feet, his inability to make his progressions a baffling regression after seemingly showing progress the last month. Book was nonetheless the best Irish option. When sophomore quarterback Phil Jurkovec couldn’t keep his feet on his first snap, he ended any public faction’s hopes of a quarterback controversy.

And the failure to play to the recent standard does not trace to the momentum lost from senior linebacker Jonathan Jones’ misguided attempt to jump on a deflected punt. It was a mistake and one Kelly said the Irish coach against, but one can be forgiven for instinctively attempting to recover a loose ball.

Notre Dame’s Ann Arbor ineptness was not a reflection of its play calling, its preparedness or its execution. It was all the above.

A Playoff contender does not lose 45-14 in a game expected to be a toss-up. An also-ran does.