Friday, September 16, 2011

That is Gonna Leave a Mark

I'm a little late getting in here with reaction to the Michigan game.  But today is the first day I have been able to walk upright since taking that kick to the groin last Saturday, and I'm still feeling a little queasy.  There is obviously plenty of blame to go around for the loss, but for some reason I have been fixated on figuring out whether it was more the fault of the offense or the defense that we once again snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.  It is a really close call, but I have decided that while nobody is blameless, the defense gets tagged with this loss just a tiny bit more than the offense.

The "O" has to take the heat yet again for its turnovers.  How many times have we heard the yapping heads on the TV tell us that the team that wins the turnover battle wins the game 350% of the time?  The stat sheet says the Irish had five turnovers, but I don't really count the fumble on the final kickoff with time expiring.  That was inconsequential.  That fumble aside, we still have to deal with two interceptions thrown and two fumbles lost. 

1.  With the Irish up 14-0 early in the 2nd Quarter (do you even remember the Irish being up 14-0?) Tommy Rees threw an INT on 3rd-and-9 which gave Michigan the ball at the ND 45.  That's a bad thing, giving the opponent the ball with a short field.  Bad Tommy.  But the defense, which had been bottling UM pretty well, gave up a 43-yard TD pass on the second play of the UM drive.  Big chunk of yards, fast score.  We'll develop that theme.

2.  On the very next possession, still up 14-7, Rees and Irish march down the field but the drive ends on another Rees INT, caught at the UM 2-yard line and returned out to the 18.  It was a Red Zone scoring opportunity wasted (awful), but at least the Wolverines were backed up inside their own 20-yard line.  Michigan goes 3 & out and the Irish get the ball back at the 50 after a short punt.  Good job by the "D", and the turnover doesn't cost us additional points.

3.  In the 3rd Quarter, leading 17-7, Notre Dame's Cierre Wood fumbled the ball at the UM 29-yard line, recovered my Michigan.  Probably the only obvious mistake Wood made all game.  But we're still up by 10 points, and Michigan doesn't get great field position out of it.  Michigan gets one first down, but then Zeke Motta hauls in an Irish INT, and we're back in business at the ND 29.  Good work again by the "D", and the turnover doesn't cost us any points.  Rees and the offense then mount a beautiful 7-play, 71-yard touchdown drive that puts ND up 24-7.  Do you remember being up 24-7?

4.  Fast forward a bit to later in the 4th Quarter and the final (meaningful) Irish turnover.  It is probably the one everyone remembers.  With ND still ahead 24-21, they are driving and get to 1st-and-Goal at the Wolverine 7-Yard line.  Rees has a HORRIBLE, BUMBLING fumble and Michigan recovers at their own 9-yard line.  This is the second Red Zone opportunity wasted, and at this point the game is very tight.  Yet disaster did not ensue.  Michigan was pinned deep, and they went on a long drive that only ended when Robert Blanton intercepted a Denard Robinson pass in the Irish end zone.  Phew!  Bullet dodged.  Irish still lead, 24-21.  

Four turnovers, but miraculously only one of them led directly to a Michigan score.  Of course, two Red Zone opportunities were wasted and the team certainly could have used those points.  But when all is said and done, the offense once again amassed over 500 yards (out-gaining UM 513 to 452). The "O" did put 31 points on the board, staked the team to a 24-7 lead, converted 8 of 14 3rd downs, and possessed the ball for just over 37 minutes (37:01 to 22:59). The team averaged 6.0 yards per rush, and 7.1 yards per offensive play.  But for the inexcusable turnovers, that's a pretty impressive display of offense.  It should have been good enough to win.

The story of this loss has to be the collapse of the Irish defense.  From the start of the game until about midway through the 3rd quarter, the defense stymied the Michigan "O" pretty well.  Here are the numbers on the first nine Michigan drives:

3 plays, -1 yard, Punt
3 plays, 8 yards, Punt
4 plays, 15 yards, INT
4 plays, 21 yards, Punt
2 plays, 45 yards, TD
3 plays, -1 yard, End of Half
4 plays, 42 yards, Punt
4 plays, 14 yards, INT

That's actually some really good football.  One gaffe led to a quick TD, otherwise very, very solid. 

Now here are Michigan's next 5 possessions:

4 plays, 83 yards, TD
5 plays, 40 yards, TD
3 plays, 61 yards, INT (Whew!)
5 plays, 58 yards, TD
3 plays, 80 yards, TD

That was 28 points in the last 17 minutes and 13 seconds of the game.  Touchdown drives of 83 yards, 40 yards, 58 yards, and 80 yards - all of them like a hot knife through butter.  If the "D" had been able to just slow down Denard Robinson and the Michigan offense (never mind actually stopping them) ND would still have won the game.

I don't know the "why" of the defensive collapse.  Irish tacklers had pretty well contained Robinson the whole game, but in the 4th Quarter they were suddenly unable to catch him and bring him down.  Was it just fatigue?  Clearly the Michigan coaches decided that Gary Gray was the defensive back to pick on, and it paid off handsomely.  The whole planet sees that Gary needs to work on getting his head around sooner to find the ball when it is in the air.  And he better figure it out soon, because he is going to see a lot of jump balls in the end zone in the near future.

So at least I have settled the "who is to blame" question in my own mind.

Some quicker impressions of the Michigan game:

  • Night game in Michigan Stadium, under the lights, was pretty cool.  Amazing atmosphere.  It would have been cool to have been there.  Except that I would have been surrounded by 100,000 drunk and obnoxious Michigan fans.  I was glad my daughter stayed back at ND for the game, rather than being in Ann Arbor in the middle of the night when that game let out.
  • The Michigan throwback uniforms with the big "M" on the chest were awesome.  I didn't think the Irish uniforms were that great.  It'll be okay if I never see the green shamrock on the golden helmet again.   
  • The Notre Dame cheerleaders throwback Catholic schoolgirl uniforms were awesome.  But probably I better say no more on that because it would make all of us uncomfortable.
  • Glad to see Theo Riddick get back up on the horse and have a good game.  Apparently Coach Kelly agreed with me that having Theo work offense, kick returns and punt returns was too much.  
  • Also glad to see TJ Jones make a nifty TD catch & run.  Nice bounce-back for him.
  • Cierre Wood is the real deal.  Did you know he had 134 net rushing yards?
  • Jonas Gray had a very nice game.  We need him to be solid.
  • I really wish Ben Turk would show some consistency.  He had a better week but still shanked a 25-yarder early in the 4th Quarter that set UM up at the Irish 40-yard line.  Michigan was in the end zone 5 plays later.  We need to be able to control field position better in special teams overall. 
  • Despite the painful turnovers, Tommy Rees is the right quarterback to lead this team.  That drive and TD pass to Riddick with 30 seconds remaining to put the Irish back on top 31-28 was cold blooded (even the TV announcers agreed) and I don't think Dayne Crist has shown that kind of moxie in tough spots. 

Just two weeks ago I picked the Irish to win 10 games and get to a BCS bowl game.  The 0-2 start has removed all the margin for error and this team has to be perfect for my prediction to come true.  I am not sure I see ten games' worth of perfection in this team which has coughed up ten turnovers in two games.  But that doesn't mean I'm not open to the possibility.

Sparty comes to town this week ranked #15 in both the AP and USA Today polls.  Clearly they deserve such praise, having dispatched of Youngstown State of the Missouri Valley Football Conference (an FCS school) and Florida Atlantic of the Sun Belt Conference.  According to the Sagarin rankings at USA Today, Sparty has played the 177th toughest schedule in the country so far this season.  Impressive!  But MSU must go on the road for the first time this year and take on a hungry and (hopefully) pissed-off Notre Dame squad that would like nothing better than a nationally televised win over a ranked opponent.  Notre Dame's schedule-to-date is ranked #20 by Sagarin.

Of course the Irish lost to Sparty on a fake field goal in OT last year.  The desire to atone for that bitter disappointment, in addition to playing in our house this year should make for a nice Irish win despite MSU's spot in the rankings.   

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