Notre Dame Loss To Michigan Renews Doubts

Mike MuratoreCorrespondent ISeptember 17, 2009

ANN ARBOR, MI - SEPTEMBER 12:  Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis talks to his players before the game against Michigan at Michigan Stadium on September 12, 2009 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  (Photo by Domenic Centofanti/Getty Images)

In big time college football, you learn to accept that your team will lose games. It will be beaten by better teams, and on occasion something truly absurd will occur to cost your beloved a game.

But for Irish fans, a disturbing trend is emerging.

The Notre Dame football team is making a bad habit of out-performing an opponent on the field and coming up short on the scoreboard.

Take nothing away from a tenacious and tough Michigan Wolverine football team. They played every bit the game they had to and they earned a great victory.

Tate Forcier is every bit the quarterback that Rich Rodriguez dreamed of and his play against Notre Dame cemented his role as a centerpiece for the Michigan rebuild.

Michigan ran well and exploited every Irish weakness to keep pace with Notre Dame and eventually pull ahead for the win.

The frustration for Notre Dame fans is that for the entirety of the game, Michigan had no answer for the Irish offense. It was often a penalty that killed an Irish drive, with three first downs and a long touchdown called back in the first half alone.

The Michigan defense was unable to pressure Clausen and a huge performance by the Irish signal caller was wasted. Armando Allen rushed for the highest single-game total by any Irish back since 2005. The Irish posted 34 points and held a three-point advantage with less than three minutes to play.

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With a confident offense that had been easily moving the football all day, and a hot running back that minutes before found pay dirt through gaping holes in the Michigan defense, how do you let this game slip away?

You throw the football.

Charlie Weis may indeed be a brilliant offensive strategist, but the general "do's and don'ts" of football often seem to escape him.

You don't go for a 4th-and-5 on your own side of the field in the first half. You always take the points in the red zone. You play two safeties on kick returns. You don't randomly sub players at key moments. You run the ball to close out games.

Weis is learning these lessons the hard way. The learning process, a full five years on, now is costing the Irish games.

The theme of the 2008 Notre Dame team was "unable to close." They lost four games in which they held a fourth quarter lead and nearly succumbed to Navy and Stanford down the stretch.

But most Notre Dame fans believed that their team was just young—that inexperience led to these erosions.

Now new doubt arrives.

Maybe Charlie Weis needs someone to tell him no.

Three plays cost Notre Dame this football game, and all three can be traced back to coaching decisions.

First was the kickoff return for a touchdown. Take nothing away from a great Michigan wedge and a returner with great down-field vision who hit the hole full stride and made the kicker look silly.

But why was the kicker the only safety? Not that many Irish attackers were blocked, and once the returner came through the initial blocking wedge, there was no one but the kicker between him and the end zone.

This was either a breakdown in coverage, a misplaced kickoff, or a poor design on kick coverage. At any rate, a failure in preparation.

Second, in the disastrous third quarter, following a Michigan missed field goal to open the half, the Irish switch running backs from the sure-handed Armando Allen to the inexperienced Jonas Gray. On the second play, with the Irish leading 20-17, Gray fumbles the handoff, giving Michigan the ball back inside the Irish 40 yard line.

Michigan quickly scores its second offensive touchdown and the Michigan offense that had been sluggish and confused in the first half finally gained traction. And Forcier gained confidence.

Quickly, Michigan jumped out to a 31-20 advantage.

Keeping your play-making back in the game on your first possession of the second half when you have a legitimate shot at burying your opponent makes more sense. Allen couldn't have needed a break as it was the first touch of the second half.

It was a seemingly innocent substitution at the time, but one with dire consequences in the end.

The third and final insult came following a Michigan punt with four minutes remaining in the game. Michigan, trailing by three and needing the ball back, gave up a quick rushing first down to start the drive that moved Notre Dame near midfield.

On the previous possession, Michael Floyd, who had been open at nearly every point all game, left the game after injuring his knee diving for a ball out of the end zone. He was replaced by true freshman Shaquille Evans.

After a first down run and subsequent Michigan time out, Charlie Weis decides to give Michigan a Christmas gift in September. He dials up a go route to Golden Tate which falls incomplete.

In the only play in Notre Dame history where a sack would have been the best thing that could happen, pass protection was perfect. But Clausen's pass fell hopelessly to the turf as Floyd's absence allowed the weak side safety to provide man over coverage, assist the cornerback, and break up the pass.

The play also stopped the clock and allowed Michigan to save a timeout.

On the third down play, Notre Dame again passed, but the freshman Evans cut off the route early and only slapped the ball with his outstretched left hand.

Had Floyd been in the game, it is a sure first down reception. Instead, it is a five-second incompletion that again saves the Wolverines a timeout.

Following the Notre Dame punt, the inevitable Michigan drive ensued. Using their timeouts on a pair of critical third downs, they drove the field and scored with only 11 seconds to play.

The scoreboard read Michigan 38, Notre Dame 34.

But the game felt much different.

Notre Dame was the more talented team and it felt all day that the talent on the field was working to overcome the problems on the sidelines.

For this team, or any for that matter, to live up to its potential and hype, it has to have a coach that doesn't act as if he's playing the latest edition of Madden.

In real football, if your stupid ideas don't pan out, you cannot hit reset.

On a day that Notre Dame played well enough to win, Weis coached to lose.

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