ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Throughout his postgame press conference, one that bled into Sunday morning, Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly repeatedly stressed that his team needs to play smarter and more disciplined.
That may be the case, but following Saturday night's 41-30 loss to Michigan, the immediate concern wasn't smarts and discipline. Simplifying the blame game would involve saying that the Irish need to play better defense.
"We hold ourselves to a higher standard," fifth-year senior linebacker Dan Fox said, "than what we performed at tonight."
The loss was 14th-ranked Notre Dame's first regular-season loss since a 28-14 loss to Stanford in the final game of the 2011 regular season. That one was a game that Notre Dame was expected to lose.
This one, however, was one that the Irish could have (should have?) won. With that said, it's time for the good, the bad and the ugly from Saturday night's game.
Well, the offense scored 30 points, which would have been good enough to win all 12 regular-season games in 2012. The running game didn't exactly click, gaining a net 96 yards, which contributed to Michigan winning the time-of-possession battle 34:04-25:56.
Quarterback Tommy Rees threw a critical interception late in the first half that led to a Michigan touchdown. And seven of those 30 points came courtesy of Wolverine quarterback Devin Gardner, who gift-wrapped an Irish touchdown by throwing an interception in the end zone—his own end zone.
But still, Rees threw for 314 yards and two touchdowns, and two of his receivers—T.J. Jones and Troy Niklas (three if you count freshman Corey Robinson, who caught his first career pass)—set career highs for receptions.
"I felt that we missed some opportunities offensively that could have given us the opportunity to win this football game," Kelly said.
Still, 30 points. It's more than the Irish scored against Temple.
Does Notre Dame miss Manti Te'o this much?
There were other losses from last year on the defense, but the biggest was Te'o—ND's best player and emotional leader from a year ago. In the Week 1 victory over Temple, the Irish defense bent but didn't break, allowing just six points. Against Michigan, the Irish defense bent and broke.
"We didn't make plays," defensive lineman Sheldon Day said, "when we needed to make plays."
No, they didn't. Jeremy Gallon caught eight passes for 184 yards and three touchdowns. Fitzgerald Toussaint ran for 71 tough yards.
And then there was good ol' No. 98, quarterback Devin Gardner, who on Saturday night permanently switched to the number as a tribute to former Wolverine great Tom Harmon. Gardner ran for 82 yards and a touchdown and threw for 294 yards and four touchdowns.
The only real answer ND had for Gardner was Gardner himself, who looked like he may have committed a critical mistake in the fourth quarter when he: A. Ran backwards when under pressure. B. Ran into the end zone. And C. Threw the ball up for grabs and was intercepted by Stephon Tuitt, a play that brought ND to within a touchdown with 12:06 remaining.
The rest of the game, Gardner had one of those nights when he was fast enough to get four yards when he needed three and smart enough to know that Gallon wasn't a guy who ND could effectively cover.
"We were in position to make plays," Fox said, "and we didn't."
Irish fans can spin ugly any way they want, but Michigan's late fourth quarter flat-out hurt.
Here's the scenario: If Notre Dame could have limited Michigan to a field goal, it would have trailed by seven and kept alive the possibility of overtime. If it allowed a touchdown, the game would be essentially over.
Twice, Michigan faced a third down in Irish territory. Twice, Notre Dame—once Bennett Jackson and once Matthias Farley—was called for pass interference.
Kelly refused to bite on blaming the officials—same deal for Fox.
The second penalty occurred in the end zone, giving Michigan the ball at the 2. Gardner soon after threw his final touchdown pass.
The Bottom Line
This one's going to hurt because of the way the defense performed. There will be questions about whether or not the defense is a liability. Saturday night, it was.
Bob Wieneke covers Notre Dame for the South Bend Tribune and NDInsider.com.