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Michigan Game Review: Gardner Has His Way

Review of Notre Dame's first loss on the season, a 41-30 defeat in Ann Arbor.

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

The offense played pretty well for most of the game but the concerns from week one on defense continued as the Irish dealt with a tremendous performance from Michigan QB Devin Gardner. Here are my thoughts on the loss to the Wolverines.

Play Call of the Game: 18-yard Punt Return by TJ Jones

Okay, not really a play-call but it was nice to see another good return. Of course it helps when Michigan moved from a spread formation into a traditional formation before the snap. It's a lot easier to set up for a return when you have 4 defenders blocking 2 gunners. Also, I liked the slip screen pass to Troy Niklas in the second half.

Armchair Quarterback

There will be a lot of talk about the lack of rushing and poor play-calling by Brian Kelly. I agree with those criticisms to a point, but the one thing that bothered me in this game were a few play-calls (particularly the 4th and 4 on the drive that leaked into the beginning of the fourth quarter) where we ran unnecessary mid-to-deep routes when we didn't have to complete such difficult passes to move the chains and continue a drive. I really don't think it's so heretical to have Rees throwing the ball 50 times but trying to execute a perfectly placed 35-yard corner route on fourth down is not a wise decision.

The offense gained 53 rushing yards on 11 carries in the first half. That's okay but certainly not anywhere near amazing. I keep seeing in a lot of complaining in certain corners that the Irish were "blowing Michigan off the ball" in the run game but that certainly wasn't the case in the first half. True, things were better in the second half (52 yards on 7 carries) but is that increased production because the Irish were passing a lot and catching Michigan off guard at times with running? Yes, some more running could have helped but I don't know if more running would have continued at a 7.4 YPC pace and been more successful than what Rees was doing in the passing game. However, the running game almost always gets the benefit of the doubt in these circumstances versus the passing game. A few good running plays and all of a sudden we're "gashing the opponent" and it's just assumed that level of productivity would continue had we run the ball more.

I think what's frustrating about the lack of running and a lot of passing is that it seems like we're beating ourselves in a way. Rees gets great protection and misses a receiver by a foot or two and it's like Michigan doesn't have to do anything to stop us. At least if we're running the ball Notre Dame is forcing someone on Michigan to make a tackle. Add up all the other cliches about running the ball and wearing down the opponent and I think this is what makes losing to Michigan so frustrating. Not to take too much away from Michigan's defense but they really didn't make a ton of plays. Very frustrating, I know.

Turning Point(s)

There were several in this game so I made it plural this week.

  • 1) Rees' interception near the end of the first half.

Just a really bad throw in a very bad position at an incredibly bad time.

  • 2) Jaylon's Smith's dropped INT with 4 minutes to go in the first half.

The momentum was slowly starting to turn at this moment. The Irish had just scored a touchdown to get within 7 and Toussaint got stopped for 2 yards on first down. Then, Jaylon misses the easy interception, Notre Dame foolishly declines a holding penalty, Gardner runs away from Fox to pick up 10 yards for a first down, and Michigan goes on to score another touchdown.

  • 3) Ramon Taylor blows up a screen to Daniels on a key third down.

The Irish are down 14 and benefit from the return to midfield by Atkinson on the kickoff. Ramon Taylor sneaks by a block by Troy Niklas and blows up a screen pass to Daniels for a loss of 2 yards on 3rd and 2. Combined with the failed 4th down attempt trying to pass into the end zone this was probably the worst sequence of plays in the game.

  • 4) Near Rees INT on the drive to tie the game in 4th quarter.

See below.

  • 5) Farley's missed tackle on Michigan's second to last drive in a 4-point game.

It's late and only a 4-point game. Gardner finally misses on a first down throw. Toussaint appears stuffed at the line but Farley comes up in run support and gets beaten badly to the inside to give up a back-breaking 22-yard run. The start of this drive had Michigan punt written all over it and then this happened, plus Toussaint was wide open two plays later on a swing pass that went for 31 yards. Stuff like this is way more of a concern than not running the ball enough on offense.

  • 6) Jackson's controversial pass interference penalty

See below.

Surprising Stat: 53% Third Down Conversions

The offense did well enough to win this game. It might not have felt like it while watching but Notre Dame's 3rd down conversion success rate was slightly better than Michigan's.

TV Call of the Game

Unheralded Star: Kyle Brindza

A week after some questions on special teams Brindza answered the bell against Michigan. He nailed all three field goal attempts, had two good punts, and did pretty well on kickoffs too.

Missed Opportunity: Rees' Near INT on the Second to Last Series

I'm not blaming Rees for the loss but this was a really bad read by Rees in a crucial moment with the offense driving late down by a touchdown. The ball was on the Michigan 23-yard line and instead of hitting a wide open TJ Jones on a crossing route for what looked like an easy first down Rees tried to fit a ball to Daniels in between three defenders and nearly had the linebacker jump and make an interception.

Bad Flag of the Game: Pass Interference on Bennett Jackson

It's the second straight week that Jackson gets a very questionable PI call and this one was a killer. The defense really didn't play well enough or make enough plays to win this game, but a non-call here forces a field goal attempt by Michigan with only a 4-point lead. Instead, the Wolverine's drive continued and they iced the game with a touchdown. Very brutal call.

Rees Reaction

Part of me feels like Rees will never get the correct amount of credit he's due. Last week he played at a very high level but 'missed on a couple throw's and after all it was just Temple.

Against Michigan there were a couple bad decisions---the first interception and that missed 3rd down conversion before the Wolverines last scoring drive mentioned above. I'll hold him accountable for those mistakes but he was just so close to some more big plays on a handful more throws that barely missed. Throw in 5 legit drops and Rees was darn close to pushing towards 400 yards passing and possibly having the Irish out-gaining Michigan in this game. Considering how well Gardner played that's no small feat for a Rees-led offense.

Is it Brian Kelly's fault that Rees had to play a near perfect game to win this one? I'd say no to that question mainly because Rees, on the whole, played pretty well.

Red Zone Success: 60%

Things were going well in the red zone to start the game as Rees tossed a pair of touchdowns and the Irish kicked a field goal. However, down the stretch on two more red zone attempts they turned it over on downs and then ended the game with a tipped-ball interception.

Special Teams Focus

Honestly, they played great. It will likely get lost in the pain of the loss. It was definitely one of the team's best all-around efforts in the Kelly era.

Trench Analysis

The sad part is that Notre Dame completely owned this aspect of the game. The Irish ground game was solid when it was called upon (108 yards at 6 yards per carry) and the pass protection was one of the best efforts I've seen in a very long time. Michigan had a couple quarterback hurries, 4 tackles for loss, and one sack in which Rees held on to the ball way too long.

On the other side of the ball the effort was very good as well. Twice as many tackles for loss as Michigan and innumerable quarterback hurries. In re-watching the game I counted 18 plays in which Notre Dame had intense pressure in the face of the quarterback. Sure, some of that is the product of well-timed blitzes but against a less mobile and athletic quarterback this could have been a 5 or 6 sack night for the defense.

Yes, the line lost contain a couple times (more on this later) but it was hardly epidemic and was more a case of Devin Gardner simply being faster and making plays in open space because he's more athletic. The traditional run defense was very strong limiting Toussaint to 71 yards on 22 carries---with 17 of those carries going for 3 yards or less. If Farley makes that tackle late in the game Toussaint would have averaged around 2.2 YPC on the game.

That's what is so weird about this loss. If we're Michigan and lost this game all we'd be talking about was how we lost the game in the trenches and couldn't match the opponent's physicality.

Freshmen Update

Corey Robinson picked up his first career reception early in the game so that was nice. We also saw Steve Elmer come in when Chris Watt had to leave the game after having his helmet knocked off. Cole Luke played sparingly at nickel corner, as did Isaac Rochell on the defensive line. Bryant and Butler are both listed in the participation report and that must have been on special teams.

Overall, I thought Jaylon Smith had a good game. He missed a couple opportunities to make a big play but he doesn't look lost and it's a good sign that he's making some plays right?

Hit of the Game

Ramon Taylor's tackle on the Daniels screen was just a great play.

Final Thoughts

Re-watching this game on Sunday morning I couldn't help but go back to the old adage, "They just made more plays than us." Shumate and Farley lost contain on two running plays giving Toussaint nearly half his total yards, Michigan's first touchdown was an exhibit in piss-poor tackling, and there were some frustrating penalties. The vast majority of the other plays Notre Dame was in the right place but just got beat by an opponent executing better, namely one Devin Gardner in cahoots with Jeremy Gallon.

An inexcusable turnover aside, Devin Gardner played absolutely phenomenal. We laughed and giggled about the comparisons to Vince Young but damn if he didn't play like the former Texas Longhorn. And yet, Michigan only gained 50 more yards and 0.7 yards more per play.

Here are some examples of how Gardner completely won this game:

  • On Michigan's first drive he is pressured and/or knocked down on EVERY SINGLE PASS ATTEMPT (excluding the tap pass) and he still went 3 for 4 on the drive with a pair of first down passes. Also, Notre Dame had him for a 15-yard sack and he deftly juked the defender and ended up throwing the ball away to fight another down.
  • On a drive in the second quarter Bennett Jackson has an opportunity for a big 15-yard sack, and again Gardner gets out the way to toss the ball out of bounds. On the same drive Tuitt looks to get a sack, can only get a hand on his shoulder, before Gardner runs away and throws a strike for a first down. Even with all that Notre Dame comes back and stuffs Michigan on first down, and Farley has a great pass breakup on second down. Then a third down PI call moves the ball near the goal line and even with a bunch of confusion with the play-call Gardner calmly finds a hole for a score.
  • Late second quarter and Jaylon Smith hesitates slightly on the edge and can't catch Gardner who rumbles for 35 yards. A couple of penalties later and Michigan is sitting on a 2nd and 23 with their drive about to stall out of field goal range. Scwhenke breaks through the line about to get a 10-yard sack, Gardner makes him miss and fires a 13-yard completion before Ishaq drills him. Michigan gets back into field goal range and picks up the 3 points.
  • Following Rees' first interception Michigan faces a third down and Notre Dame can limit the damage to just a field goal. Three defenders have Gardner in their sights but he still beats them to the corner for 4 yards and a first down. They score a touchdown on the next play.
  • On the opening drive of the second half the Irish play perfect contain defense and Gardner still gets the edge to pick up 7 yards.
  • Late in the third quarter just after Jaylon's dropped interception Gardner runs up the middle on third down and looks like he'll be stopped short of a first down. Except he cuts to his right, and runs away from Dan Fox for 10 yards and the first down. The very next play he is about to get slammed by Tuitt, Nix, and Shembo all at once but places a perfect pass 41 yards down field to Jeremy Gallon who is completely blanketed by Russell.

These are some of the major examples of Notre Dame doing the right things on defense, about to make big plays that could have changes the course of the game, and Gardner simply being better and turning them into positive outcomes for Michigan. Sometimes you just have to tip your cap to the opponent and it has nothing to do with being "out-coached."  Even when he was faced with pressure in his face---on damn near half of his pass attempts---Gardner put nearly every pass right on the money. On the re-watch even the Irish defensive backs are in good position, sometimes with a hand about to break up the pass, and the ball is just so on the money it's futile.

Michigan made some nice plays on defense, but hardly anything on a sustained basis. The Irish ground game was better than Michigan's and the Wolverines barely touched Rees all game. Conversely, Michigan's ground game was bottled up and the Irish were constantly harassing Gardner. Michigan didn't do a very good job run or pass blocking but Gardner made up for all of it. That makes the loss easier to swallow than if Michigan had won in a lot more phases of the game.

In 2013 if a crazy athletic dual-threat opposing quarterback plays out of his mind you're almost always going to lose. And Notre Dame lost. Gardner was the X-factor and made the Irish pay.