Early this week I wrote that Notre Dame’s matchup against Michigan presented a major opportunity for the Irish. Not just the chance to enhance their College Football Playoff resume, but it was a chance to show that Notre Dame was no longer the program that could not win big games, especially big games on the road against quality opponents.
Notre Dame certainly made a statement tonight, but it wasn’t what Irish fans hoped for. The Irish once again went on the road against a quality opponent and failed to be competitive in an embarrassing 45-14 blowout loss.
Michigan was the better prepared team, the Wolverines were the more physical team and Jim Harbaugh’s squad certainly handled the elements much better than did Notre Dame. Simply put, the Irish showed little fight and were simply out-coached, out-played and out-classed against Michigan.
The troubling part of tonight’s performance is that many of Notre Dame’s “leaders” and “top players” were major parts of the problem tonight. That should force head coach Brian Kelly and his coordinators to do some serious soul searching over the next couple of days.
*** Notre Dame’s offensive game plan wasn’t as bad as the statistics show (see the quarterback review), but it certainly wasn’t one that put the Irish offense in position to do much, especially in the wet conditions. While Michigan built its game plan around running the ball in bad weather, the Irish threw the ball as much as it ran the ball its first 20 plays, and neither worked. Notre Dame’s over-reliance on the pass game during poor weather conditions, and its inability to find a way to run the football are major reasons why the Irish were blown out.
*** Run game, screen game, downfield throwing game … none of it worked for Notre Dame for a variety of reasons. Notre Dame started off well, picking up a third-down conversion early on, but a muffed snap and a false start got the Irish in a 3rd-and-15 situation, forcing it to punt. That’s pretty much how the night went.
*** Down 17-0 in the third quarter, Notre Dame went three-and-out on its first two possessions, despite getting good field position on both drives. A poor officiating call set up Notre Dame’s first touchdown, and on the next possession the Irish went three-and-out thanks to a dropped pass, a false start by a captain and a 3rd-and-15 screen that didn’t work. None of the screens against Michigan worked.
*** Notre Dame’s run game could not get much going. The Irish offensive line struggled to get any movement against a Michigan front that was loading the box. Even with the loaded box, the blockers did not show the push and fire that Michigan’s offensive line displayed, and the numbers support that. Schematically, Notre Dame tried to get the ball outside, but Michigan did a good job beating perimeter blockers and the backside pursuit by the Wolverine defense took away cutback lanes.
*** Quarterback Ian Book struggled all night long. He wasn’t comfortable in the pocket, he rarely went off his first read, he was late with far too many throws, and outside of a few outside one-on-one throws to Chase Claypool (when he was the primary read), Book was completely unwilling to throw the ball downfield unless a receiver was wide open. It’s hard to execute a pass attack when your quarterback isn’t showing good anticipation, isn’t going through his progressions and won’t attack the middle of the field.
*** Book didn’t handle Michigan’s variety of pressures very well and never looked comfortable in the pocket. The pass protection wasn’t very good, but Book made it worse at times by taking off too soon or just sprinting out instead of slide stepping, resetting his feet and throwing the football.
*** After a rough start to the game, sophomore QB Phil Jurkovec led Notre Dame on its only impressive drive of the night, completing three passes for 60 yards, including a 14-yard touchdown strike.
*** None of the Irish running backs did much in the game. Tony Jones Jr. had just 14 yards in eight carries before leaving with an injury, and Jafar Armstrong showed no burst when he got the ball. The pass protection was solid from the group, but it provided very little production in the game against a Wolverine defense that was geared to stopping the run.
*** Notre Dame’s wideouts played better than their production. Senior Chase Claypool made two outstanding grabs. He was the Notre Dame offense, and at one point in the fourth quarter he had almost half of the team’s total yards. He had a bad, bad drop late in the third quarter on a well-designed deep drag off a play-action, but outside of that he played well.
*** Although they played better than their numbers, the unit wasn’t great in the game by any stretch. The unit as a whole had trouble getting separation at times on a wet field, and Michigan schemed to take away the crossing routes, especially on third-down situations. But the reality is there were multiple snaps where Notre Dame had players open and the quarterback was simply unwilling to get them the ball.
*** The Irish blockers had a hard time handling Michigan’s line games for much of the night, but the issues were especially prevalent early in the game. The Wolverines were bringing just four rushers on most of the early third-downs, instead choosing to use its front four to run a variety of twists and stunts, and the Irish blockers looked unprepared to to pick those up. Even on straight rushes the Irish line was far too inconsistent at anchoring and holding their ground.
*** Notre Dame had two weeks to prepare for this game, which makes the apparent lack of preparation and execution from the offensive line a head-scratcher. Michigan wasn’t doing things in this game it hasn’t always done, but the Irish blockers didn’t handle it well until the game was out of hand, and even then they had issues. This was true in the run game and the pass game, and there is just no excuse for a line with Notre Dame’s talent not to be better in this kind of game. Again, soul searching is needed.
*** Notre Dame forced a three-and-out to start the game, but a major mistake on special teams put the Irish defense back on the field, and that’s when the struggles began. A poorly defended deep ball on third-down - by Alohi Gilman, a senior captain - converted a third-down. Three plays later the front blew gap assignments, opening up a crease for a 35-yard run. It was a sign of things to come.
*** Throughout the first half the Irish defense struggled with backside contain, which allowed Michigan to gash them with a number of cutback runs. Michigan had a lot of short runs in the game as well, but those cutback runs were costly, and they happened throughout the first half.
*** Michigan also used formations to out-leverage Notre Dame on the perimeter, which opened up several other big plays in the game. Notre Dame struggled to keep quarterback Shea Patterson in the pocket, and the inability to finish off the pressures they got played a major role in the outcome as well. Notre Dame never really adjusted effectively. They did a better job early in the third quarter at forcing stops, but Michigan was still able to rip off big runs, which is why they buried Notre Dame in the fourth quarter.
*** Notre Dame missed a lot of tackles in this game as well, including on crucial plays. Examples being a miss behind the line on 3rd-and-1 that allowed Michigan to move the chains, a missed tackle at the line by Donte Vaughn that opens up a huge run lane
*** The Irish defensive line did not play well in this loss. There were flash plays, but as a whole the unit struggled to handle Michigan’s size and power. The interior players got sealed inside throughout the night and could not get penetration. On the outside, the ends were much better in the second half, but in the first half their inability to set the edge on plays to them and to close down cutback lanes on plays away from them proved costly.
*** Notre Dame’s starting ends - Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara - combined for 6 tackles and 0.5 tackles for loss in the game, and their ability to get pressure on the quarterback was rare. The inability to get a pass rush against Michigan and the inability to create negatives in the run game with any consistency plagued the defense - and the line - all game long.
*** Notre Dame’s veteran safeties weren’t any better. Gilman’s pass interference was just a poor, poor play. It showed a lack of technique and focus, and instead of breaking up the pass or even picking it off, he simply ran into the receiver and earned a well-deserved flag. That’s a veteran and a captain making that kind of play. Senior Jalen Elliott was up-and-down as well, showing good coverage at times but then turning a receiver loose on other snaps, resulting in big plays.
*** When your “best players” are unable to step up and play well in this kind of game you won’t win. Notre Dame not only didn’t win, they got destroyed.
*** The interior of the defensive line was erratic, but it appears to be more scheme related. I will break down the film and try to get a better read on why that group was so ineffective.
*** The inside linebackers had a rough night. There were issues with pursuit, there were issues with holding up at the point of attack and the group made way too many mistakes. Fifth-year senior Asmar Bilal over-pursued on a number of run plays, which helped open up cutback lanes. Michigan seemed to bait the linebackers into those types of mistakes, and when they made them the blockers quickly sealed them out. The coverage from the backers was solid, but their production in the run game was abysmal.
*** Notre Dame’s cornerbacks weren’t tested much, and when they were they gave up big plays. Shaun Crawford’s pass interference penalty was flat out a bad call, but the call on Troy Pride Jr. was not a bad call. Like the safeties, Pride has regressed this season. Vaughn actually played well for much of the night, but he got beat for a touchdown (on a good throw) and his missed tackle set up Michigan’s first touchdown of the second half.
*** Notre Dame’s special teams attributed to the loss as well. After Bo Bauer blocked a punt, senior Jonathan Jones tried to recover it instead of just letting it roll. So instead of taking over possession in Michigan territory, the Wolverines got the ball back in better position, which set up a field goal drive.
*** The unwise decision to try to return kicks in the first half resulted in Notre Dame starting several drives in bad field position.
*** Freshman punter Jay Bramblett shanked one punt, but other than that he had an outstanding night in the weather conditions. He played with a lot of poise in the game.