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Outside the Irish Huddle: Notre Dame Comes Up Short Against Michigan

For the second straight year Notre Dame was defeated by a last minute touchdown by Michigan as the Wolverines handed the Irish their first loss under new head coach Brian Kelly.

It was a heart breaking loss as Notre Dame was without starting quarterback Dayne Crist for most of the first half due to injury and the team had to endure one of the most dynamic performances from an opponent in school history.

It’s never easy losing close games (and the Irish have made a habit of it over the past two-plus seasons) and it’s especially gut-wrenching to lose to a rival in this fashion, but there were a lot of positives to take away from this game.

Let’s go Outside the Irish Huddle and take a look at this past Saturday’s loss to Michigan.

Weather & Turf

There were legitimate concerns that Saturday’s game would be played amidst heavy rain and thunderstorms, but the weather cooperated for most of the contest. There was a good amount of rain in the hours leading up to kickoff but it was gone by the time the teams ran out onto the field for battle.

I was impressed with the way the grass looked against Purdue and it looked beautifully maintained again before the start against Michigan. As someone who has been critical of the turf in the past I have to remind everyone that the grass always looks great early in the season.

However, by the end of the contest against Michigan the field looked in pretty rough shape. According to various reports before the season started, it was Brian Kelly’s decision to cut the grass a little lower than usual (normally thought to have been kept high by Weis) and we’ll see how the field responds after it was torn up on Saturday.

It has usually been the case in the past that the field has had a hard time recovering from such a sloppy game, even if the field held up generally well during the game to begin with. With the turf cut shorter there is a higher risk of a loss of grass in exchange for an abundance of dirt and mud.

Luckily, the grounds crew has two weeks to prepare as the Irish travel to Michigan State next weekend before coming home to host Stanford.

9-11 Commemoration

Saturday’s game was played on the ninth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks and each team had American flag themed apparel in tribute.

The coaches from each side had on their normal colors but with their team logos switched to red, white and blue. The players all had the same logos on the back of their helmets as well.

Questions Corner

Did Irish take advantage of UM secondary?

It depends on your viewpoint really because the numbers (381 passing yards) would suggest that the Irish did, although I would argue that it was far from a dominant performance.

Without Dayne Crist for all but one of the series in the first half the passing numbers were bound to be diminished, but even with Crist in there wasn’t a consistent abuse of the Michigan secondary like we expected.

Notre Dame got zero passing yards from freshman Tommy Rees during his two series of action, and Nate Montana only mustered 104 yards on 17 attempts with 37 of those yards coming on an ugly (from Michigan’s perspective) deep pass to Theo Riddick in the waning seconds of the first half.

Even when Crist was in the passing game didn’t feel particularly forceful as Crist only completed 13 balls with two of those completions totaling 148 yards (53 percent of Crist’s total passing yards on the day) coming on long touchdown passes.

So while the team ended up with a very respectable 381 passing yards the play of the backups and Crist’s two long touchdown passes made it feel a lot more like a 250 yard passing day. Yet, had Crist been healthy for the entire game I have no doubt he might have gone over 500 yards on the day.

Did the defense contain Denard Robinson?

It’s funny because even though Robinson ended up with 258 rushing yards the defense seemed to keep him in check for a good portion of the game. The 87 yard touchdown scamper late in the first half was really a back breaker and was the difference between Robinson having a very good day on the ground and ultimately coming through with a game for the ages.

Without that long touchdown run Robinson would have been held to 6.3 yards per carry or almost three full yards less than what he ended up with. Still, you can’t argue with his results and the fact is Notre Dame did not contain Denard Robinson this past weekend.

Good luck to the other ten defenses who will try to stop him.

Did the offense stay balanced like it did in the first game?

Notre Dame came out with a nice balanced effort during the first scoring drive, but after Crist left with an injury and the team fell behind by two touchdowns the running slowly stopped being called by Kelly.

With Rees and Montana in Kelly tried to pound it on the ground but it was obvious that Michigan did not respect the pass and loaded up the box to take away the Irish running attack. After such a promising first game at Notre Dame, Cierre Wood was the most damaged by this ending the day with 10 yards on six carries, with all of that lack of production coming with the backup quarterbacks in.

The most disappointing part was that in the second half after quickly getting to within one score of Michigan, Kelly still did not keep a balanced offense. On the one hand this may be deemed acceptable because of the Wolverines weak secondary, but Crist was not really torching Michigan through the air in the second half and it might have been more effective to put the ball in Armando Allen’s hands a little bit more.

After scoring a touchdown and field goal in Crist’s first two series in the second half, the offense turned the ball over (interception) and punted three straight times all while sticking with a pass-heavy attack.

Notre Dame still finished with 154 yards on the ground, but this just goes to show how the spread offense benefits running the ball as Crist and Montana chipped in 42 yards at 5.25 per carry. Without those extra yards the running game would have looked a lot like it has in the past.

How did the Notre Dame linebackers fare?

As bad as Denard Robinson torched the team on the ground, I didn’t think the linebackers played all that terrible. In fact, I thought they actually played a pretty solid game.

There were a couple whiffs and at least one instance where Robinson escaped from a sure sack, but for the most part the linebackers stayed in position and took down the ball carriers with consistency and power.

In particularly, Manti Te’o and Carlo Calabrese had very strong afternoons patrolling the middle of the field and coming up to make tackles at the line of scrimmage and elsewhere.

Who won the special teams battle?

This was a perceived huge advantage for Notre Dame heading into the game and it turned out be only a small one.

Both teams punted the ball rather poorly and there was virtually nothing of substance in the return game for either squad.

Michigan did end up missing two field goals while David Ruffer converted his only attempt to continue his streak without a miss. This was the difference on special teams and was one aspect of the game that kept the score closer than it might have been while Dayne Crist was on the sidelines.

Unit Grades

Offensive Line: B+

I thought the offensive line was a little better than the previous game and held it together and gave the Irish a chance when Crist when down early. There was very little from the run game for long stretches and they missed a couple assignments, but the passing protection was very strong.

You still have to be happy with the line’s performance so far this year considering they were such a huge question mark coming into the season. There is still plenty of room for improvement (especially at right tackle) but there hasn’t been a complete meltdown or numerous sacks given up in key moments.

On several passing situations the line gave Crist all day to throw, allowing the quarterback to step up perfectly into the pocket and delivers a throw. The 95 yard touchdown pass is a good example of how well the offensive line is blocking this year.

Wide Receivers: C-

Seeing as how this position was supposed to be a team strength this season, their performance has been underwhelming and was again against Michigan.

Michael Floyd is struggling, Theo Riddick has been ineffective in the slot and there has been zero depth or contributions from outside the starting lineup.

It’s been great to see freshman TJ Jones step up and become a dependable target, but 10 total catches from your starters and zero from any back ups will not cut it in this offense.

Tight Ends: A

If not for Kyle Rudolph, the Notre Dame offense would be a lot less scary.

After almost scoring on the game’s first possession, Rudolph caught one of the longest touchdown passes in school history to give the Irish a lead late in the fourth quarter and generally dominated as a receiver.

Rudolph finished the day with eight catches and 164 yards, while Tyler Eifert also made a tough 17 yard grab to notch his first career reception.

Running Backs: B-

It was a tough day for Cierre Wood, but Armando Allen came through with one of his gutsiest performances of his career.

Allen showed toughness and poise while netting 89 yards on just 15 carries and single handily kept the running game afloat during the second and third quarters.

Jonas Gray rumbled for 10 yards on his only carry of the day and Robert Hughes was finally out on the field in some blocking situations.

It was kind of a rough day for the running game and they certainly were not dynamic, but Allen’s effort was really nice to see.

Quarterbacks: C-

Tommy Rees ended up 0-2 with an interception and was quickly pulled in favor of Nate Montana. The son of the former Irish legend made a couple nice throws but looked generally out of sync and uncomfortable on the field.

The Notre Dame offense cannot afford to have a quarterback who only makes a couple nice throws of nearly twenty attempts.

Crist threw a bone-headed and really stupid interception in the third quarter, but otherwise he was very good when he was in the game. He’s still a little raw and struggles with his decision making, but Crist has shown enough so far to conclude that he is going to be a great quarterback very soon.

Defensive Line: B

This was a tough game for the defensive line because of the nature of the Michigan offense, but they played pretty well nonetheless.

Linebacker Darius Fleming played with his hand on the ground for most of the game and the other three regulars combined to create a tough front four. It wasn’t a dominant performance, but the defensive line was not getting pushed around like the rushing numbers would suggest.

Michigan got virtually nothing out of their running backs which is a sign that the defensive line was at least semi-effective.

Linebackers: B

The linebackers were hitting hard and played a fundamentally sound game. Except for the long touchdown run near the end of the half (looked like great blocking by Michigan and not poor play from Notre Dame) the Irish linebackers kept Robinson in check about as well as you could expect.

With Fleming playing up front, Brian Smith and Kerry Neal got a lot of playing time at outside linebacker and their performance could be described as decent, but nothing spectacular.

Te’o and Calabrese played outstanding in the middle and put a bunch of big hits on Michigan players. Having smart and aggressive middle linebackers will be a huge advantage going into the rest of the season.

Secondary: D

For all of the talk about the front four and how the linebackers needed to contain Robinson, the triple option attack employed by Michigan really wreaks havoc on a team’s secondary and it did so against Notre Dame on Saturday.

For the majority of the afternoon, the corners were playing well off their receivers and that made Robinson’s day a little too easy through the air. Michigan continually threw short eight yard routes that were simple and effective and Robinson was never in danger of throwing a bad pass.

The safeties were needed to stop the run game, but didn’t really do much damage and made the corners playing off the receivers seem like a bad strategy. Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta didn’t make any major mistakes, but the play making ability from the back of the defense is completely non-existent.

Weekly Awards

The Xbox Award for Best Video Game-Like Performance in an Actual Football Game: Denard Robinson

Here at One Foot Down we discussed how it sucks that Notre Dame essentially lost to one player, but what an incredible performance Denard Robinson put on this past weekend!

Even my reverse jinx on Friday when I hyped Robinson through the roof didn’t work as he ended up exceeding probably everyone’s expectations, including those of the entire Michigan fan base.

What he accomplished on the field was unbelievable and really one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of college football. All the respect in the world should go to this kid as he has incredible speed and agility, but also a good throwing arm and decision making. His toughness is also undeniable and if he can stay healthy Michigan is in for a very big season.

Plus, he is a really down to earth and humble kid, or in other words, the exact opposite of Tate Forcier. Maybe that’s why this loss doesn’t hurt as much as it seems a few days later.

The Award of Great Expectations that May Have Been Too High: Theo Riddick

I knew Brian Kelly would get Riddick involved more in the second game of the season and the sophomore ended up taking the first play from scrimmage on a reverse. However, the play did not go for any gain.

Besides the long pass near the end of the half, Riddick had another forgettable afternoon and looks very uncomfortable as a receiver. I was skeptical that he would pick up his new position very quickly and found it rather shocking that he was announced as the starter in the slot before the season began.

If it were up to me, I would take Riddick out of the starting lineup and let Duval Kamara and some other guys get more reps. Riddick can still be a dangerous threat on bubble screens, reverses and plays of that nature, but I don’t think he’s ready to be a full-time receiver for 60 minutes.

The Foolish Freshman Mistake Award: TJ Jones

Boy did Notre Dame get away with one when Jones so clearly did not cross the goal line before letting go of the ball in celebration on his touchdown reception.

Had that been caught by the officials or the Michigan sideline it would have been a devastating turn of events for the Irish.

Hold on to the ball Mr. Jones.

On a positive note, TJ Jones became the first Notre Dame player in history to catch a touchdown in each of his first two games.

The Charlie Weis Award for Driving the Fan Base Crazy with On-Field Decisions: Brian Kelly

This one is a biggie, and clearly has a lot of people really upset. Or perhaps disappointed and depressed are better words to describe it.

I can’t deny that this was a very Weis-like coached game, at least from an offensive stand point. Had this been a Weis coached team for real, Michigan probably would have scored 55 points and racked up another 250 yards on offense.

So we have that to be thankful for.

Still, there were some decisions that left many scratching their head.

First, the flee flicker on freshman Tommy Rees’ first career pass attempt was absolutely the wrong choice. Kelly mentioned after the game that Rees was supposed to throw the ball to the go-route and it’s all the more puzzling because the young quarterback stared down the receiver coming across the middle and threw an untimely interception.

What bothered me about this decision was that it showed Kelly wanted to be aggressive and stretch the field (if the ball was thrown where it was supposed to), but then the offense went into a shell and didn’t throw the ball deep at all when the backups were in for Crist.

Secondly, Kelly should have kicked the field goal at the end of the first half. At least if you’re going to go for it in that situation keep the ball on the ground or run something out of the wildcat. You can’t expect someone in Nate Montana’s shoes to be able to have any success with a play like that in that particular situation.

Third, the disappearance of the run game due to pass-heavy play calling seemed awfully Weis-like. I understand that Michigan has a weak secondary but this felt like a bad idea combined with the fact that Notre Dame wasn’t throwing the ball deep enough anyway.

All in all it smelled of Charlie Weis in that Notre Dame fell back into that desperation mode far too early.

"We have to score a touchdown here, not a field goal!"

"There’s still 25 minutes left, but we’re behind, we need to throw the ball non-stop!"

On the other hand, Notre Dame was probably in a desperation mode without Crist at quarterback and needing those seven points heading into halftime. But the lack of running and the flee-flicker brought back too many bad memories of a coach trying to force the issue a little too early.

If Notre Dame is down by two scores and goes for the touchdown in that situation with Crist in at quarterback, then we might want to start worrying. As it is, I think we won’t be making too many comparisons with Kelly and Weis this year.

The All Hope is Lost Without You Award: Dayne Crist

ND Nation’s worst fears became a reality when Crist missed the majority of the first half against Michigan with a mysterious injury.

A lot of people are piling on Rees and Montana and it is kind of unfair given the skills of the guy ahead of them and it’s not their fault no one else is ahead of them.

Still, here’s my honest assessment of both players.

Tommy Rees never impressed me with his arm strength in high school, yet his interception throw had some nice zip on it and Kelly has remarked that he has a nice arm. Still, he seems like an underdeveloped, physically immature and terribly average young prospect, which is exactly what he is when you look at his scouting profile.

Maybe he turns things around and holds down the backup spot all year long and plays really well if Crist goes down again, but I don’t like the odds.

Nate Montana has the size and quite an underrated ability to move his feet both on bootlegs and pure running, but his throwing skills are well below average. After watching him during the spring game and against Michigan he is terribly inconsistent.

One snap he will make a nice hard throw and a good read, but then the next he’ll make a terrible decision and throw such a lame-duck ball.

Neither back up inspires much confidence and you can tell the team feels the same way. If they are thrown into the fire again sometime this year I would promote throwing the deep ball about once every 2.5 pass attempts, because the odds are in favor or Floyd or Rudolph coming down with a long ball then Montana and Rees trying to pick apart defenses.

I don’t agree with Kelly’s decision to not play Andrew Hendrix or Luke Massa this year. Long-term maybe it’s the smart thing to do, but we could have a hard time beating Tulsa without Dayne Crist in at quarterback.

Offense Recap

Statistically, the offense did a fine job against Michigan (minus the turnovers) but the performance of the receivers and the injury to Crist has a lot of people questioning the future.

Without Crist the offense will be doomed to mediocrity, I don’t think anyone can deny that. But with No. 10 this could be a very dangerous and explosive unit.

The biggest thing for me is to continue running the ball with fervor and get more receivers involved in the passing game. We’ve seen good use of depth at a number of positions, but not at receiver at all.

Floyd, Jones and Riddick have been on the field for nearly every snap and only Kamara has seen the field sparingly. If the offense wants to get to the next level, more receivers have to get involved and the playbook has to open up a little bit with more bubble screens and deep balls.

Hopefully, as the season goes on we will see more of these changes.

Defensive Recap

With the amount of yards the Irish gave up it’s really hard to say that the defense played well, but they really did.

Denard Robinson was nearly unstoppable for most of the game but Michigan kept punting and allowing only 28 points against one of the most electric performances in college history is something to hang their hat on.

Before the game I worried that Michigan’s third down success against Connecticut portended great disaster for the Irish defense, but they were able to hold the Wolverines to only three for 16 on the day.

It would have been amazing to stop Michigan on their final drive and if they had done so, the defense would have deserved a ton of credit for winning the game. As it is, they gave up the touchdown to Robinson and left us with many of the same feelings as last year.

But you can tell things are different this year on defense.

They’re hitting harder and making more plays in space. There aren’t as many missed tackles or egregious mistakes and blown coverage.

Now it’s time to shut down Michigan State.

Final Thoughts

Every Notre Dame fan is sick and tired of losing games like this, but there has to be some solace in the fact that the game didn’t get ugly while Crist was on the sidelines and Denard Robinson was taking the lead for the Heisman trophy.

There was a lot of desperate Charlie Weis-type of behavior from Brian Kelly in this game, but because of Crist’s injury and the hole that was dug, it was really a desperate situation for most of the game.

There were some flashbacks to the type of losses we saw last year, but it’s only one game and Notre Dame has shown improvement in a lot of areas.

With Crist at quarterback the offense will beat a lot of teams on its own. Yet the defense has really stepped up its game and I feel good about where this team is headed.

Through two games the team may only be 1-1 but there haven’t been any glaring issues yet this season. The punting has been somewhat spotty, but from special teams to defense and offense there has been a consistency that hasn’t been seen in years at Notre Dame.

With Robinson running the offense, Michigan is going to be a very good team even if their defense leaves a lot to be desired. Who knows what would have happened had Crist stayed in for the entire game, but all the team can do is re-focus and prepare to beat Michigan State.

After losses like this so early in the season it sometimes feels like the dream is over, yet there is plenty to look forward and many goals still to achieve in 2010.