Sometimes it's a lot easier to write a recap after bad losses. So while I wish a full Sunday's worth of writers block because of judicious Irish victories, these type of defeats give me plenty to talk about.
There is so much to talk about right now, yet I'm not sure if we'll learn anything from discussing this game and the start to this 2011 season.
There's so much confusion---so much that doesn't make sense.
I want to make sense of it all!!!!
Here is a breakdown of each unit, with some final thoughts to follow.
Offensive Line: A-
If you want to talk about frustrating, look no further than what has been going on with Notre Dame's offensive line. Through two games, this has been the best Irish O-line in ten or fifteen years---maybe even longer than that. And the team is still 0-2.
There were a couple dumb penalties and you would have liked for them to convert a couple of those third and one plays (more on that later), but Michigan was throwing the kitchen sink on some blitz' and the Irish line gave up zero sacks. Credit Rees' quick release for keeping that stat a goose egg, but the line has really played fantastic so far this season.
Tight End: B
One of the position groups with the most depth on the team was tested on Saturday. With Jake Golic out with a broken arm, Alex Welch out with a foot infection, and Mike Ragone eventually missing a good chunk of the game with a leg injury, the Irish were down to just Tyler Eifert and true freshman Ben Koyack.
The injury to Ragone seemed to affect this group as its never a great thing to have a true freshman out there trying to block. I really like Tyler Eifert and he made a couple clutch grabs in this game. The big Indiana native is off to a pretty good start this year.
Wide Receiver: B+
Michael Floyd has clearly taken his game to the next level with another double-digit catch and 150+ receiving day. I think 25 catches for 313 yards is okay after two weeks, don't you think? What more can this guy do...play defense? Actually maybe he might not be a bad option breaking up passes in the secondary after what we saw against Michigan.
I suppose we should be happy that Riddick and Jones caught the ball when it hit them in the hands, and they both scored big touchdowns in the game too. Neither guy made any huge mistakes, so overall the receiving corps receives a pretty high grade.
Question: Where are all the other receivers? I keep harping on this issue and I just don't understand it.
I know there's Floyd and then a pretty steep fall to the other starters. And from the other starters there's another relatively steep fall to the backups. But where is the "next man in" philosophy and player development? Where are we going to be sitting next year without Floyd owning every secondary he faces?
I know Kelly doesn't like the depth at receiver, but 706 yards on 88 attempts through two games and a backup doesn't even have a ball thrown his way, let alone a single reception??
Running Back: B+
Cierre Wood's fumble was disappointing, so was the inability to pick up a couple of those key third and shorts, but this was another very good game from the running backs. Wood and Jonas Gray almost rushed for 200 yards which has been rarefied air for the Irish in recent years.
Cierre Wood has been ballin' this year.
I simply love Cierre Wood and I think he's truly special. He's easily the best running back Notre Dame has had in 10 years and probably the third best pro prospect on the team behind Floyd and Te'o. Unless the defense totally sniffs out a play, Wood is nearly a lock for 5 yards---which is the type of playmaking ability Notre Dame hasn't had in the backfield in such a long time.
Jonas Gray also had an explosive game with a gaudy 66 yards on just 6 carries, including a tremendous 38 yard scamper. That was a great bounce back game for Gray.
Oh and by the way, Cierre Wood is on pace to break the single season Irish rushing record.
First the good part: Rees has been very accurate. 70% against USF and then 69% completions against Michigan is where he needs to be in order to move the ball in this offense.
Also, Rees' quick release really helps the offense, especially against a team like Michigan who brought a ton of defenders into the box and was rushing guys from every angle at certain times.
So, 300 yards with 3 touchdowns and great accuracy, then how could Rees get only C+?
You know why.
The funny thing is, I feel like Rees' decision making is improving and on the whole he has become more consistent than last year. Last year there seemed to be so many risky throws and (almost) turnovers on top of the actual turnovers. Now, Rees is pretty dialed in.
Still, he's making a couple horrible mistakes every game. Rees has played in about 6 full games and some change in his career, and he has thrown 12 interceptions. Maybe Rees is the best option we have right now, and maybe he will improve in the turnover department, but two picks a game is not going to get this team to the next level. And it certainly isn't going to help them win any games as this season has proven.
I'm a lot more comfortable with Rees this season, and he's improved in every area I thought he needed to....except turnovers.
I don't want to push the panic button yet, but here's something to think about: I generally think that this offense makes life pretty easy on the quarterback, or about as easy as it is going to be for someone at Notre Dame. That is to say, the QB isn't asked to make a lot of tough throws and he's generally put in a position to succeed without having to blow the opponent away with playmaking ability.
Rees made a few really tough throws against USF, but on Saturday it was a clinic on how you can gain 300 yards with a bunch of safe and short throws in the spread system.
Now, if Rees continues turning the ball over 2 or 3 times a game...at what point does it become foolish to keep Hendrix (or Golson) on the sidelines? I'm not saying take Rees out and forget about Crist, but turnovers were the biggest reason Kelly gave for why the young players aren't seeing the field.
Even if someone like Hendrix comes in and throws for only 240 yards instead of 310, and still turns the ball over at the same rate as Rees, how much does that extra running ability help the offense? At what point does the big arm and good wheels (for both Hendrix and Golson) become too much to ignore if the other guys in front of them are turning the ball over and not putting up as many points as they should?
Go back to those 3rd and short plays in the second half again.
Was the playcalling a little too conservative? A little bit.
Should the offensive line that we're raving about open up a hole and prevent penetration from Michigan? Yeah, maybe.
But what if the quarterback could bootleg on that play? Michigan was loading up the box and blitzing damn near everybody, and all Notre Dame could do was try to run up the middle or audible to an equally low percentage short pass. What could things be like if Hendrix is in there and fakes a hand off, beats a blitzing defender who almost assuredly would lose contain, and has nothing but daylight ahead of him?
Having a mobile quarterback is so important in college. If you have one it makes everything so much easier for the offense and so much harder for the defense. Sometimes I wonder how much Brian Kelly thinks about that trade off between a little less passing and what a running QB could do for the entire offense as a whole.
Defensive Line: B+
Parts of the defense are going to be ripped to shreds, but I thought the defensive line played well and did their job against one of the toughest playmakers we've seen in recent college football history.
It became pretty clear early on that Michigan was not going to be able to run the ball up the middle or have much success with anyone carrying the rock other than Denard Robinson. That's all due to the defensive line owning the line of scrimmage and staying tough up front. They even jammed Michigan at the goal line and caused a fumble, although in keeping with the theme of the season, Robinson picked the ball up and went in for the score anyway.
Michigan's running backs gained 10 yards on 8 carries, and even Robinson gained a rather pedestrian (for him) 108 yards. This is all due in large part to the big bodies up front for the Irish making their presence known.
So yes, Notre Dame is getting great line play on both sides of the ball and is 0-2.
I don't really know how to grade the linebackers appropriately because Michigan didn't run a lot of plays and the linebackers didn't have many opportunities to make plays. Is a B- too high?
Te'o had a couple nice plays, so did Fox and Calabrese, but where are the outside linebackers?
Fleming has been pretty invisible (and had his ankles broken...again) while Shembo, Spond or anyone else on the outside haven't made a single memorable tackle through two games.
This was most likely one of the two or three worst performances by a Notre Dame secondary in school history. It truly was that bad.
I have a lot of respect for Denard Robinson and I think he's a wonderful kid and one of the game's great athletes. But he is not a good passer and had no business throwing for 338 yards and beating this team with his arm.
Robinson completed 11 passes...ELEVEN!!!
Yeah, pretty much sums it up.
Eleven completions for over 300 yards is absolutely disgusting. That few of completions at 30.7 yards a pop has to be historically bad for any BCS program.
Robinson had a couple nice strikes, and a couple drops that could have been brought in, but the vast majority of his completions were so hideously ugly, with such terrible ball skills from the Irish, that the a coaching video should be made on how not to take advantage of poor throws.
Everyone in the secondary played awful, except maybe Robert Blanton who actually showed good ball skills and made a key interception late in the game, while also not being picked on like Gary Gray was.
The aforementioned Gary Gray as well as Harrison Smith have played pretty terrible through two games. That's really not what this team needs from its two supposed stars in the secondary.
I have nothing more to say about this unit.
Special Teams: C
Theo Riddick had a couple decent returns on kickoffs, and at least John Goodman didn't fumble any punt returns. Ruffer hit his only field goal attempt, and Brindza had great length and hang time on his kickoffs.
Also, special teams coverage was very solid.
We know what we're going to get from punter Ben Turk at this point now, right?
Two good punts with great accuracy, one booming punt, and the obligatory shank. You are what you is, and Turk is maddeningly inconsistent and always will be.
An 0-2 start to the season has been a nightmare and both losses have been heart breaking and complete gut wrenching defeats.
I know a lot of people are down right now, and they have every right imaginable to be so.
Personally, I'm not as low as I was after Navy 2009, but there is that same sense of "We just can't get it together, nothing is going right, and we're losing games we should be winning."
This team is learning a hard lesson and that is you can't turn the ball over and let team's back into the game when you have a chance to stomp them out in the second quarter.
I am going to be honest and say that Brian Kelly deserves some blame for the way the team has played so far this season, but I am also extremely hesitant to lay too much at his feet.
Two big reasons why:
1. The team has showed too much high level execution on both sides of the ball.
Yes, there are still holes on this team and the turnovers, lack of focus, and disappearance of some players who were supposed to be great has a lot of people scratching their head and pointing the finger at Brian Kelly.
But how much blame should Kelly shoulder right now?
I know it's frustrating to lose these games and ultimately Kelly is responsible for that win-loss record. Sometimes it feels like the team is cursed, the same crap keeps happening, and the program isn't getting any better under Kelly.
But I truly feel that the program is moving in the right direction, even if it's happening too slowly.
Notre Dame has drives on both sides of the ball where they look very, very good. And ultimately, that is a major difference from all of the heart breaking losses in the past.
2. Kelly failing is the elephant in the room
We've talked about this from time to time here at One Foot Down, and it's something a lot of people don't want to discuss. Others, are more than happy to discuss it, especially at low times such as these right now.
It's going to take a lot more struggle and disappointment for me to even begin to think about Notre Dame without Brian Kelly. There's simply been far too many improvements since the day he was hired, and too much high level of play this season to even give one iota of thought of Kelly leaving or making big changes with this coaching staff.
8-7 might suck right now, but it's still way too early to tell what Brian Kelly will be able to achieve in South Bend. It's a tough pill to swallow with a team that appears to be so talented and STILL struggling to win, but there is still plenty of football to be played, and plenty left to prove.
With all of this said, let me give a few reasons why, even if it goes against all of your feelings right now, that this team has plenty of hope for the future.
1. Statistically a lot of good things are happening (minus the turnovers of course)
Defensively, this Irish team has shut down two straight opponents running backs, and the only touchdown given up on the ground was Robinson's freak fumble recovery. Notre Dame is sitting only at 51st nationally in run defense, but only 120 per game is pretty good against two BCS teams with two of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the country.
Offensively, the passing game is 10th in the country right now and is on pace to be one of the best in the country once other teams start playing the big boys too. The Irish are averaging over 150 yards per game on the ground which is a huge improvement from recent years, and the total offense stats are in the top 20 with back-to-back 500 yard performances this year.
Bright spot: Floyd has been putting on a receiver clinic in 2011.
I still see a lot of good things with this defense, and statistically I believe they will improve on last year's numbers. This will lead to wins down the road. With an offense that is back to being able to move the ball so swiftly, this gives me a lot of hope. Those 9 turnovers and other mental errors have been killer, but you and I know that this team is still very good.
2. Great line play
Is there anything more positive about this team than this?
Eventually these improvements are going to reap serious benefits for this team.
3. Running game looks great
Notre Dame has been lacking great line play and a good running game. Heck, the Irish have been lacking even a serviceable running game in the past.
Now, with Cierre Wood behind this line, it looks like Notre Dame might actually have a potent running game.
4. Dual-threat QB's
Notre Dame might not have gone up against any prolific offenses so far (no I don't think Michigan's offense is prolific anymore), but they have had to deal with two of the most athletic dual-threat quarterbacks in the country.
The Irish contained B.J. Daniels and played very well against USF. If I told you Denard Robison would be held to 108 yards, you would have taken it all day.
As bad as some of the secondary play was against Michigan, I don't think it's fair to just give up on them right now.
Moving forward, Notre Dame doesn't play a single true dual-threat quarterback and this no doubt will help the defense execute a little better.
5. Better to lose early, than late
It's little consolation right now, but it's still true.
Maybe this team won't win 10 games, but they might not be the first team to put a couple early season losses behind them and finish with a bang.
So where does this leave the team and the program?
They are in a tough situation, but the sky is hardly falling. As depressing as these losses have been I simply cannot act like this team is bad, there's no hope, Kelly is the second coming of Gerry Faust, and we might as well just give up and not watch or not root for the team because the season is irretrievably lost.
If you want to have an adjusted goal for this season, how about finishing with a better record than last year?
I thought this team could go 10-2 during the regular season, but as long as they finish with more wins than last year, isn't that progress of some sort?
I just think it's foolish to give up on the season already.
Other quick observations:
- Did it seem like Rees takes much too long to complete hand offs? I'm not sure if that's something the coaches are teaching, but it is dangerously slow as if normal running plays are almost draws. I thought this didn't help the 3rd and short situations where Wood had no chance to make a move once he got the ball.
- The uniforms looked absolutely amazing. Everyone knows I love the shamrock on the helmet, but shamrock or not, I wouldn't hesitate to switch to green full-time with a design similar to what the Irish wore on Saturday.
- I would like to see Michigan play a game or two against a quality opponent without Denard Robinson. I think he's far and away the MVP of college football if we take it to mean truly most valuable to one's team.
- Per Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune, Notre Dame has turned the ball over as many times in two games as Wisconsin did all of last season. Awesome.
- John Goodman's 3.3 punt return average is double his average from last year. Player development!
- One thing that really bothered me was the lack of contain and tackling on the play where Denard Robinson was flushed out of the pocket, seemingly surrounded, and still got the ball down to the 1-yard line. Ethan Johnson was made to look like a fool on that play.
- Ragone and Danny Spond were both due for MRI tests on their leg injuries.