Sunday, September 14, 2008

Odds & Sods - Bringing '88 Back Edition | by Mike

On a day when Lou Holtz and the 1988 National Champions were brought back to campus to be honored, the 2008 team offered a tribute of their own with a fun win over Michigan.

Saw red. Michigan's two early turnovers were obviously huge plays. Equally important, however, was the Irish offense's ability to turn those turnovers into touchdowns rather than field goal attempts. Against Utah and Miami (Ohio), Michigan's defense was quite strong in the red zone. In seven trips to the Michigan red zone, the Utes and the Redhawks combined for just two touchdowns. Utah's veteran offense frequently sputtered when the Wolverines only had to defend a short field, and the Utes needed four field goals from Louie Sakoda to win the game. Getting touchdowns against the previously stout Michigan defense on these possessions was an important confidence boost for the whole team and set the tone for the rest of the game. The Irish would also produce a touchdown on their trip to the Michigan red zone in the second quarter.

Protect ya neck. Michigan's defense entered the game with a talented defensive line and sitting second in the nation in sacks. So many people were expecting Michigan's defense to get to Clausen that a number of game previews went so far as to predict the number of sacks Michigan would get. I recall seeing predictions as high as nine sacks. Yet the Irish offense did not give up a single sack. The quick start meant that Notre Dame would not spend much of the game in obvious passing situations, but this is still an impressive statistic. The offensive line, tight end, running backs and Clausen have all come under fire for the number of sacks given up in 2007, so it's only fair to recognize their excellent performance yesterday.

What's Golden. Golden Tate was the most dangerous player on the field Saturday, hauling in four passes for 127 yards, including a 48-yard touchdown pass from Clausen that did most of its damage through the air and a 60-yard slant that including 50 yards after the catch. However Tate's most impressive performances of the day may have come as a kick returner. Michigan went with the squib kick on their kickoffs, and a couple such kicks took some pretty bad bounces right before getting to Tate. Tate displayed great hands, latching on to each kick and denying the Wolverines the opportunity at a momentum-swinging fumble.

This boy is exhausted. I mentioned last week how I was concerned that short offensive possessions against Michigan would lead to a tired defense that was more susceptible to Rodriguez's offense. That was the case in the first half, but not for the reasons I expected. Notre Dame's first drive covered 11 yards in 50 seconds, the second covered 14 yards in 52 seconds, and the third covered 63 yards in 15 seconds. As a result, first quarter time of possession was in Michigan's favor by 11:21 to 3:39. Even the first drive of the second quarter that covered 87 yards only lasted 3:06. Since all of these drives ended in touchdowns, I can't complain. However, the defense did look tired in the first half, and Michigan broke a number of tackles during this time. I still think the Irish offense will need to develop a ball-control offense to help the defense during those games where they aren't scoring touchdowns in rapid succession.

High price, small reward. The total yardage stats certainly don't look pretty, at least until you consider the game context. With the torrential rains arriving in time for the second half, the Irish coaches appear to have concluded at halftime that the only way Michigan could win would be with big plays from their defense and special teams. If the Michigan offense was forced to march the length of the field, the Irish coaches were confident the defense could get a stop on downs or create a turnover before the Wolverines crossed the goal line. Accordingly, the Irish offense went into a shell in the second half (aside from the decision to come out five wide, which mercifully lasted only one play). While I obviously would have preferred the offense to string together a few more first downs in the second half, I was happy that the Irish offensive coaches proved that they are not in fact constitutionally incapable of conservative playcalling. In certain circumstances (e.g., a double-digit lead in terrible weather against an ineffective offense), the correct answer actually is what Lloyd Carr would do. Meanwhile, the Michigan offense was forced to take risks - risks that would generate yardage, but also kill drives before they could put points on the board.

Get it together. It may seem churlish to complain after yesterday's win, but we saw a few areas yesterday that need improvement. Allowing Michigan to run the successful fake punt while up 21-0 in the first quarter was disappointing - particularly since it gave the Michigan players a needed confidence boost - and the blame falls on the coaches. Fortunately, this weakness in punt coverage did not emerge in a game where it could have affected the outcome. It was also disappointing that despite frequent blitzes, the Irish offense was unable to record a sack. Finally, I had hoped the defensive line would be able to control Michigan's patchwork offensive line. Michigan's starting left tackle was out for the game. The Wolverines starting center was David Molk, who came to Notre Dame's summer camp as a high school prospect but failed to garner a scholarship offer. The SDSU and UM offensive lines will likely prove to be two of the weaker OLs the Irish face all season, so this is cause for some concern. (Although it should be noted that Rich Rodriguez has more scholarship upperclassmen offensive linemen available than ND had in 2007.)

Heroes. A week ago, I mentioned how much fun Mike Anello was to watch on special teams. Against Michigan, his special teams play elevated him to full-blown folk hero status. Anello's fellow gunner David Bruton had a great game as well. The play of Anello and Bruton demonstrates the error of attributing the fumbled kickoff solely to a Michigan error. It's not that rare to see a kick returner bobble the ball before salvaging a decent return. The difference with Saturday's play was that Anello came flying into the play so quickly. When a team's gunners close on the ball as quickly as Anello and Bruton do, you can expect some big plays over the course of a season. Bruton also had quite the game at his safety spot, forcing another fumble, intercepting a pass and recording 15 tackles.

Back in the game. After coming in for criticism last week, Duval Kamara had a nice touchdown catch on ND's second drive. As mentioned above, getting seven points off of the early Michigan turnovers was key and Kamara helped make it happen. Another target of scrutiny, Asaph Schwapp, also played well.

The soph parade. Being thrust into the action as freshmen last year paid dividends for the sophomore class on Saturday, as all 35 Irish points were scored by sophomores. Robert Hughes had two touchdown runs, Jimmy Clausen completed touchdown passes to Duval Kamara and Golden Tate, Brian Smith had the fumble return, and Brandon Walker added the extra point to all five touchdowns.

Wearing and tearing. I expect Michigan State to provide a tough match-up next week. The Spartans have a great running back in Javon Ringer, and coach Mark Dantonio has the patience to give the ball to Ringer over and over and over again. There's no doubt about Dantonio's commitment to pounding the ball. Pay attention to whether the Irish DL can hold up against the Spartan running attack, particularly on the right side behind Roland Martin, or whether MSU will be able to wear down the Irish.

Fool in the rain. After the game, Michigan safety Steve Brown proudly proclaimed his membership in the Michael Taylor Memorial The Better Team Lost Club, declaring:

"We don't have our heads down because we know who the better team was," defensive back Steve Brown said, referring to Michigan. "They beat us today. It happens, but in our hearts we know we're the better team."
Is there a class at Michigan on this? Do they designate a guy in the locker room to say this after every loss? Where else would a three-score margin be considered the better team losing?