How did Notre Dame grade out against Michigan?
Posted: 09/08/2013 at 8:00 am
By: Rachel Terlep
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Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees (11) talks with head coach Brian Kelly on the sideline during a break in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game with Michigan, in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)
Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner (98) rushes on a break away run in the second quarter of an NCAA college football game with Notre Dame, in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)
PASS OFFENSE: B-
During the post-game press conference, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly kept repeating that the offense was “one or two” throws away from putting more points up on the board. Certainly he was referencing Tommy Rees’ interceptions at the end of the half and again at the end of the game. Keep in mind, though, that Rees threw 51 passes against Michigan compared to 23 against Temple. Despite his turnovers, he managed another 300-plus yard game and two more touchdowns. TJ Jones continues to be a crucial target, grabbing nine passes for 94 yards and playing through an apparent injury in the first half. Troy Niklas, who outsized every linebacker trying to match up against him, lit up the second half with six catches for 76 yards and a touchdown. Notre Dame’s struggle to score touchdowns in the red zone is one habit from 2012 the Irish need to drop.
RUN OFFENSE: C
George Atkinson averaged 7.4 yards per carry, but Saturday’s game may have been his worst overall in a Notre Dame uniform. If there was any doubt that the former track star cannot be Notre Dame’s bruising short-yardage back, the evidence was abundant in the Big House. Atkinson also dropped three passes on five targets from Rees, not exactly making him an appealing choice for Notre Dame’s hybrid receiver-tailback machine. Though the numbers don’t show it, Amir Carlisle ran hard every time he touched the ball. He racked up four first downs for a total of 64 yards (5.3 yards per carry). The 5-foot-10, 190-pound tailback probably isn’t the ideal candidate for third-and-short running scenarios, but Carlisle is emerging from this cloud of running back uncertainty as Notre Dame’s top option.
PASS DEFENSE: D
Devin Gardner threw for less than 300 yards on Notre Dame, but it somehow felt like 600. Ishaq Williams got a sack on Gardner in the second half but otherwise the junior quarterback out-ran every pursuing defender in his path and turned a would-be negative play into a sizeable gain. When Rees tried to throw on the run, all he got was an interception. Notre Dame broke through the Michigan interior line as expected, but that accomplishment is negated when Gardner can still find Jeremy Gallon downfield. The loss of Manti Te’o is starting to become fully realized with another average performance by Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox, who aren’t doing the secondary any favors. Compound Gardner’s elusiveness with three back-breaking pass interference penalties against Notre Dame, and it’s a recipe for how to beat the Irish in the air. To be fair, that was certainly a stingy penalty on Bennett Jackson in the fourth quarter. I doubt many other refs would have made that call.
RUN DEFENSE: C+
Michigan showed its apprehension for the Notre Dame run defense early, attempting instead to rely on reverses and misdirections to churn up early yards. With rare exceptions, every time Fitz Toussaint tried to power through the Irish line, Notre Dame stuffed him back and held him to 3.2 yards per carry. Gardner was another story. Notre Dame supporters should have known to be wary after the Irish gave up 65 rushing yards to Temple quarterback Connor Reilly in Week 1. Gardner scrambled 13 times against the Irish for 82 yards and a touchdown. Notre Dame won’t see many quarterbacks like Gardner, but allowing a quarterback to lead the opposing team in rushing yards for two weeks straight is a scary precedent to set.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A
Yes, that’s an A, as in this is the rare time that Notre Dame’s overall special teams play outshined every other unit. Jones returned a punt for 18 yards, which is a hair under half of what Notre Dame accumulated from punt returns all of last year. Seriously. Most impressively, Kyle Brindza bounced back from his miss against Temple to nail kicks from 24, 40 and 44 yards. Brindza’s scores kept Notre Dame competitive in a game that would have otherwise seen the Irish down 27-7 at the half instead of 27-13. Atkinson ran a kickoff return for 50 yards, giving the Irish excellent field position late in the third quarter. It’s not his fault they didn’t capitalize on it.
After the game, Kelly used the phrase “more disciplined” seven times in explaining where the team needs to go following the loss. Jones, a senior captain, mentioned “glimpses” of a loss of focus in the first few weeks of practice. Lack of discipline, lack of focus? That falls on the coaches. If Notre Dame can’t get its team laser-focused on an opponent like Michigan, how can this be a one- or two-loss team? Kelly’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-4 late in the third quarter instead of attempting the field goal was a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t ordeal. As he said, “Kicking three at that time was laying up when you needed a birdie.” His decision to waive a would-be holding penalty in the fourth quarter in favor of making Michigan sacrifice a down is less clear, though. The Wolverines kept rolling and extended a four-point lead to 11.
Rachel Terlep posts about Notre Dame football on Twitter at @eTruth_Irish.