This really sucks.
And I mean, really sucks.
The Notre Dame-Michigan game under the lights in Ann Arbor may go down as the greatest game in the rivalry's history. Three lead changes in the final minute and a half attest to this fact. First, it was Vincent Smith running through arm tackles to give Michigan a 28-24 lead. Then, it was Tommy Rees leading a season-defining drive and capping it off with a cold-blooded touchdown throw to Theo Riddick with thirty seconds left. For the grand finale, a inexcusably blown coverage left Denard Robinson to throw a touchdown to Roy Roundtree with two seconds left.
This may be the most crushing loss for a Notre Dame team in modern history, This may be worse then the 2000 Nebraska overtime loss and the 2005 Bush Push. This was like ripping your heart out and then setting it on fire (cue Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.) This was disgusting.
However, we must make sense of what happened on 9/10/11. No matter how hard we want to block it out, no matter how much we hate the mention of it, no matter how badly we want to go out and smash mailboxes at the mere hint of it, this game must be discussed.
First and foremost, this team has a real turnover problem. This is a gigantic issue. One thing we were certain of was that this team would not turn the ball over five times after the South Florida debacle. However, when I go to the ESPN Box Score for this game, I will see five turnovers. This is unforgivable. This is the single biggest issue for this team in the long run. I don't know how Coach Kelly goes about fixing this issue, but it is simply killing this team right now.
Penalties. Ugh. Nine more penalties for 75 crucial yards. This team has a discipline issue and a giant one at that. The most frustrating part of this season so far has been untimely and completely mind-blowing mistakes. This team is so much more talented and all around stronger then last year's squad, but it has been mental lapses that have annihilated the Irish in their two losses. You've got Tommy Rees inexplicably dropping the ball inside the red zone, John Goodman running backwards on a punt return and complete breakdowns on the offensive line on 3rd-and-one. The Irish have more then shot themselves in the foot, it seems more like they are willing to cut their foot off at this stage.
Now to the defense, and is this really the same unit we saw the last four games of last year? Michigan's offense exploded for almost 300 yards of offense in the last 20 minutes alone, and most of it was caused by some no-name named Denard Robinson. The same man who torched the Irish last year did it again, this time he had 446 yards of total offense by himself. He accounted for 98 percent of the Wolverines offense and even scored on a bizarre play on the Notre Dame 1-yard line where the Irish defense did everything right and still gave up a score.
One of the keys coming into this game was to not let Robinson play his type of game. Whoops.
Gary Gray was absolutely abused. He was abysmal in pass coverage and got beat on seemingly every deep ball. Robinson was incredibly poor throwing downfield, but it seemed like every time he lofted the ball in Gray's direction, it was a big completion. He has to elevate his game if this defense wants to get back on track.
However, he was not the only one as others screwed up in covering the Wolverines' wide receivers. The one play that stands out the most is the completely blown coverage on Jeremy Gallon's 64 yard completion that put Denard Robinson into a position to complete his heroics. There is simply no excuse for this type of play to occur in a "Hail Mary" situation. The defense must account for every single receiver in this situation and if that receiver happens to catch the ball, he must be tackled immediately in bounds. Not a single one of those things happened on that play, and it will haunt this team for the entire offseason and perhaps forever. This play lost Notre Dame a chance to get back to 1-1.
So after all of that, there is still time for some positives and to be honest, there were a ton.
Let's start with all the players who redeemed themselves after last week and showed the nation that this team can bounce back. Theo Riddick came out and played like a man possessed. He caught two touchdowns and had a great return on the kickoff which set up Notre Dame's go-ahead drive. He capped that off with a catch and run into the end zone to give the Irish the lead and seemingly seal the game. It was great redemption for a player that received so much criticism during the week for his awful play against USF.
Jonas Gray impressed me the most out of any of the other players on this team tonight. He had 81 yards on seven touches and made the most out of when he was in the backfield. He finally showed us what we've been waiting for since he arrived on campus and was a dominating presence on the field. If he can build off this performance, then there is no reason to not expect him to contribute more often this year.
TJ Jones had a nice day with a gorgeous run-after-the-catch for his only touchdown. Ben Turk played much better then he did against the Bulls and even had a wonderful 52 yard punt that flipped the field. Unfortunately on defense, there were no real winners considering how terrible their play was in the second half. This is something that has to change.
Now on to more pressing topics, and we'll start with the play of Tommy Rees.
Rees played like a schizophrenic in the first half, throwing some great balls but also throwing into triple coverage in the red zone. In the second half, he really stepped up his game. Coach Kelly basically took the ball mostly out of his hands after his fumble inside the Michigan 10-yard line, but once the game was on the line, Rees was an assassin, leading the Irish down the field and throwing a pretty pass to a wide open Theo Riddick to complete the comeback.
Rees made some egregious errors, including two turnovers in the red zone, but that final drive convinced me that he has to stay the starter. To be able to mount such an impressive drive in that situation in that atmosphere is uncanny. Rees played far from perfect, but he played well enough for the Irish to win and should have pulled it off.
Now to the man amongst boys, Michael Floyd. He was once again a total beast and shattered double teams time and time again. It's unbelievable to think that there were plays where Michigan actually put four defenders on him just so he wouldn't get the ball near him. Even when the ball hit the turf, Floyd was still able to able to draw countless defensive holding and pass-interference penalties. His play elevated the rest of the wide receivers and this was evident. He might just be the best wide receiver in the country in terms of taking over games.
The running game was overpowering... for the most part. I say this because there were unacceptable breakdowns in terms of the offensive line and running the football on third and short situations that really hurt the Irish in the fourth quarter. Other then that, it was pretty good. Cierre Wood was once again spectacular save for his untimely fumble in Michigan territory (we got the ball right back after a turnover so it's safe to say that it was a forgivable mistake). He must continue to get the ball and if the line keeps playing the way they have so far this year, Wood is going to be a great one.
Having already touched on Jonas Gray, I move on to special teams and ode to joy there was massive improvement. Ben Turk had one bad shank but was mostly solid, David Ruffer finally got back on track with a field goal, and the return game was unspectacular but we didn't see any circus juggling like last week. It was a decent bounce back performance.
Now let's talk intangibles and attitude.
Notre Dame is 0-2 with losses by a combined seven points. The team has piled up 1021 yards of offense in those two games, yet 10 turnovers and nine penalties have offset point production, especially in the red zone.
The defense put us in a position to to win the first game, however, in the second game, they were the biggest liability on the team.
Notre Dame has basically given away two games in which they could've easily won in blowout fashion. Instead of 0-2 and wondering whether God actually exists, we could easily be taking a top 15 ranking into a match-up with the Michigan State Spartans. It's been that close to being that type of season.
Where does this team go from here? Can we possibly recover from such gut-wrenching losses? Can this team put it together?
Notre Dame had two losing streaks last year that consisted of two games. The first was by a combined seven points to the Michigan schools in September and the second was to Navy and Tulsa. After the September woes, the Irish were blown out by Stanford before finally righting the ship and winning three straight. After the losses in October, the Irish put together the miraculous four-game winning streak that saved the season. It's safe to say that the Irish know how to bounce back.
However, does this team have that kind of mental toughness to slug it out with Michigan State next week and win? Last year in an eerily similar situation against #16 Stanford, the Irish were sluggish and got overpowered despite giving Andrew Luck his worst numbers of the season.
So will the Irish show up against perhaps the best Spartans team in almost 20 years? Here are three things that must happen.
- STOP THE MENTAL ERRORS. They are the single biggest reason for why this team is 0-2 right now. Even doing away with one turnover will help immensely.
- Find a solid pass rush. The Irish have been solid against the run so far this year except for some of Robinson's scrambles. Other then that, teams have not been able to run on this defense since Navy last year. However, the pass rush has been underwhelming. Only three sacks in two games for such a good-looking defensive front is not good. Having watched film on Kirk Cousins, he is woefully inadequate when being pressured and makes foolish mistakes. That is the key to beating him and Michigan State.
- Feed the running game. The offensive line is just enormous and has been blowing holes in the opponent's defensive front over and over again. In fact, Greg Mattison had to blitz nine to stop the Irish on third and short three times in the fourth quarter and for most of the game the Irish still ran all over them. Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray put on a clinic last night, and if the Irish can establish the run the way they did against USF and the Wolverines, we will be in excellent shape.
So there you have it, three keys to save our season. Brian Kelly can still get us to where we want to go and has an amazing track record to prove it, but he has to be the one to lead the charge this Saturday. This is the single most important game of his Notre Dame coaching career. A win, and things may seem to come easier for this team and the tsunami of negativity and criticism will slow to a trickle with a win over a perennial top 15 team.
A loss... well let's not think about it right now.