Michigan-Notre Dame: A Familiar Feeling, A Phantom Limb

Matt Cashore-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

Notre Dame beat Michigan on Saturday, and after six turnovers in ten drives, it isn't quite easy to come to terms with the loss.

It seems that this becomes easier to say as the years go by, but as I write this on Sunday after a sufficient number of hours have disappeared into the back current of time, all I can say is that I'm not feeling too mad about what took place in South Bend on Saturday night. If you were talking to me after the 2003 Oregon game, or the 2006 Ohio State, or that game, or any number of difficult losses during the RR era, things would've been entirely different. I would've been angry, I would've been insufferable, I would've been a not very pleasant person to be around for the rest of that Saturday.

The prevailing sentiment, one that is perhaps even worse than the blunt, hamfistedly wielded sword of pure anger anger, is that of frustration, of a something that could be there but isn't, like a phantom limb. There is a locus where something once stood, and sometimes in your weakest moments you feel as if it is still there, that limb that once facilitated life's daily living. An arm, a leg, a turnover that resulted in points going the other way instead of an at worst neutral nothingness.

This is not to say that I think Michigan was the "better" team, although this is probably the first time since 2007 where you could confidently say that that is a realistic suggestion (sure, Michigan ended up 11-2 last year, but we do not get the benefit of hindsight here). Furthermore, and this goes without saying: teams trying to claim a certain level of quality absolutely do not turn the ball over six times on six straight possessions. This isn't a novel concept. You know this, I know this, Denard Robinson knows this.

"I want to say sorry to everybody who watches football, who watches Michigan football and whoever follows Michigan football. I want to say sorry and it won't happen no more. I'm going to be accountable for the rest of the season, I'll tell you that much."

The simple fact is that Michigan left Notre Dame Stadium with points floating around the South Bend night like so many autumn leaves caught in the ceaseless crosswinds, doing a trollish dance just beyond our reach. Instead of catching them in the air, we are forced to retire, waking up in the morning to a yard littered with this refuse of the sky. Our eyes, weary with oversleep, adjust to the light as the rake is grabbed, each leaf brought into a tidy corner of earth. The rustling of the rake against overgrown green--ah, Notre Dame--and the counting of each gathered leaf becomes a piano concerto in a despondent minor key.

One by one, leaf by leaf, inventory is taken and lost opportunity recognized until nothing is left but a tabula rasa of green.

Reset.

The Offense

Let us get the most obvious out of the way first: Denard Robinson had what was easily the worst game of his career. At this point, we know what we have with Denard, but even the most irrational sorts (e.g. the ones asking for Denard to be benched last season for Devin Garnder) have to admit that this was simply a confluence of every worst case scenario as far as Denard's quarterbacking goes. Denard was 13/24 for 138 yards (5.8 YPA), and pitched in, of course, four interceptions and a fumble.

Michigan had a mere ten offensive possessions on the day and managed to turn it over more times than it did not: 6 possessions ended in a turnover, good for a turnover percentage of 60%, six percentage points better than Denard's completion percentage.

I know that the following is a classic example of "Well Mrs. Lincoln, other than that...", but if you forget about the turnovers for just a second, Michigan actually moved the ball okay at times, and that includes through the air via Denard's ever erratic arm. Michigan edged out the Irish in first downs (19 to 14), total yards, rushing yards, third down efficiency, and time of possession (not that this last one matters unless you are a TV commentator, but just FWIW). If you had not watched the game and I had recounted all of these stats to you and then told you that Michigan had lost, you wouldn't need to be a football genius to know that something egregious would have been necessary to somehow take all of that and turn it into a loss. Of course, that's where the turnovers come in...getting Yakety Sax'd is just about as terrible as you would imagine it to be:

2012 Michigan - Notre Dame Highlights (via mgovideo)

Ignoring the last interception that capped the first half--since it was basically a glorified Hail Mary--Denard's other mistakes were simply manifestations of the Hyde side of Denard's game. On the first one, a few minutes into the second quarter, Denard rolls to his right; unfortunately, the pocket begins to show the signs of collapsing in on him, although the danger level is still far from imminent. At this initial sign of pressure, Denard did what he often does in these situations. Instead of attempting to extend the play or opting to simply throw the ball away, he essentially did what amounts to tossing it up and hoping. Prince Shembo, I believe, eventually gets around Kerridge's cut attempt en route to challenging Denard's passing attempt:

Denard_nd_int__1_medium

Michigan has the left side locked up fine, with three linemen taking on Tuitt. The middle is covered well enough as well, with Shembo the only one that has made it through (which is still frustrating, as ND is only rushing three here on 3rd & 12, but whatever). The options here are many. Denard could tuck it and head for the vast sea of green right up the middle, or he could attempt to take Shembo 1-on-1 on the edge, a proposition that I think Denard probably wins at least as often as he loses. Of course, Denard could also throw it away, but at this point there is still ample opportunity to make something happen against a three man rush. Unfortunately, Denard panics and decides to hit on 19, to the dealer's delight:

Denard_nd_2012_medium

Unless there was some sort of miscommunication here--which I doubt, because this just seems like a classic panicky Denard throw--there is nobody in the neighborhood. Jeremy Gallon is the intended target (I guess?), but even he is running away from the ball at the moment of its interception by Manti Te'o. Even if Te'o isn't there, OLB Danny Spond, #13, is right there to make the play as well. Simply put, this was just one of many examples of the bad side of the Denard coin. You remember the other mistakes, including the fumble, so it would be somewhat useless to go through them in any extensive detail.

This falls in line with coachspeak and plain common sense, but you are not going to beat anyone worth anything when you turn it over six times, let alone on six straight possessions. It all happened so fast while watching it live, but in retrospect, it is even more outrageous to think about, a series of examples of Murphy's Law set to the gridiron.

Michigan set the tone, in a bad way, early on in the proceedings, making two trips to the red zone that resulted in zero points both times. The first, a missed Gibbons field goal, was frustrating for the simple fact that Golson's INT was basically gifting Michigan points there; unfortunately, the biggest play of Raymon Taylor's career to date went to waste, as Michigan then went on to lose yards on each of its three offensive plays. A Toussaint loss of two, followed by Denard taking two sacks, led to a 43-yard miss, which, to be fair, is just about on the edge of Gibbons's admittedly limited range.

The next drive is the one that really stings. Michigan started on its own 12, but on the strength of Denard's arm (yes, you read that correctly), Michigan drove all the way down to the ND 25. Denard was 5/6 on the drive, completing passes of 18, 9, 11, 12, and 9 yards to three different receivers (Gardner, Roundtree, and Gallon). Things were looking good, everything was turning up Milhouse, and it seemed that Michigan would be able to execute the "pass to set up the run" gameplan that didn't work against Alabama because Alabama is, you know, Alabama.

It's hard to say that any one moment was a "turning point" in a nonsensical whirlwind of a game such as this, but the decision to have Vincent Smith throw the ball is certainly one that will be scrutinized well into the bye week and beyond. For the record, I don't think that Borges deserves any more blame for this loss than any other loss would call for, and I am still decidedly in his corner. Like the ill-fated 4th &1 call against Michigan State last season, this is one of those calls that serves as a sort of referendum on any given Michigan fan's support of Borges. Those who already think he isn't any good will criticize the call, and vice versa. Michigan had been moving the ball with ease, but Al Borges knows Michigan's personnel better than I do, and I feel comfortable with his ability to dial up an aggressive call when he feels it appropriate to do so. It seems somewhat hypocritical of folks to criticize these sorts of things when they go well, especially after years of those same fans complaining about the conservatism of past coordinators (Mike DeBord, lookin' at you), but that's being a sports fan, I suppose.

The play looked like it would have worked if it wasn't for Manti Te'o getting right in Smith's face as he was about to release the ball, forcing him to sort of jump toss it, leading to the ball coming up short and getting picked. Dileo looked relatively open, and you have to imagine that Michigan had practiced this play and felt pretty good about it, otherwise Borges wouldn't have called it. In the end, this one play did not torpedo Michigan's chances to win the game, but it is one of those plays that makes you wonder what could have been. Given Michigan's penchant for struggling to punch it in upon reaching the red zone at times, perhaps some chicanery was called for at that moment in the game, and maybe that's why Borges chose to tempt fate by abandoning the hot hand (which, again, was Denard at the time, believe it or not).

Michigan did not have another sustained drive until the first drive of the second half, a 10 play, 63-yard endeavor that ended in a gut punch of a Denard Robinson fumble. Michigan was not able to get on the scoreboard until it was halfway through the fourth quarter, which remarkably made it a one score game of 10-3.

This was an ugly, ugly offensive showing to say the least, albeit against a very strong front seven. Michigan's receivers did well enough against ND's vulnerable secondary when Denard wasn't throwing it to players in gold helmets. Michigan's offensive line didn't really open things up much, but the Wolverines did rush for 161 yards at a shade under four yards per carry, which is much more than any of ND's previous Big Ten opponents could say. Michigan did have some success, but when so regularly punctured by an all to generous predilection for turning it over, it's hard to get too excited about what success the Wolverines did have.

As frustrating as this was, Michigan did enough on offense to threaten ND from time to time. If Denard doesn't have the worst game of his career, if Denard decides to take a sack or throw it away instead of tossing four interceptions, if Denard protects the ball better on that first drive of the second half...if, if, if.

The Defense

It's difficult to be optimistic about much of anything after a loss against a bitter rival in a game like that, but, if we are going to be optimistic about anything, it's the defense. In spite of all the doom and gloom detailed in the above section, the defense quietly held things together all game, keeping Michigan in it when it rightly should have been salted away before the beginning of the fourth quarter.

As bad as Denard was, Everett Golson was not exactly tremendous himself. On his first pass of the game, he was intercepted by sophomore corner Raymon Taylor, and was eventually pulled for "closer" Tommy Rees in the second quarter after going 3/8 for 30 yards and a pair of interceptions. Cover himself in glory he did not.

My primary worry coming into the game was that Michigan would get gashed on the ground by ND's veteran offensive line and deep group of backs, but that simply did not come to pass, as Michigan mostly held Notre Dame's zone-based rushing attack in check. The Irish carried the ball 30 times for 97 yards, good for a paltry 3.2 YPC. Theo Riddick was ND's leading ball carrier on the day, accumulating only 52 yards on 17 carries. ND's longest running play of the day was a 15-yarder by Cierre Wood, with the second longest one, an 8-yarder, coming from Riddick. In short, Michigan stuffed ND's rushing attack in spite of the many lingering questions about the interior of Michigan's line, as well as the linebackers.

Now, does this mean that ND's offensive attack is just not that good? I'm not too sure, as Notre Dame didn't exactly tear it up against Michigan State or even Purdue, either. Still, it was a strong defensive performance for a Michigan team that has struggled thus far this season, not to mention basically every season since 2006 (notwithstanding last season, of course).

If not for a rookie mistake by freshman safety Jarrod Wilson, who committed a pass interference penalty against Tyler Eifert--a mismatch, to say the least--on 3rd & goal during ND's only touchdown drive, Michigan very well could have held the Irish to 9 points on the day. Say what you will, but that is a strong day on the road when you're playing a lineup full of youngsters on the defensive side of the ball.

The only thing that you can point to as a significant defensive failing is the fact that Michigan managed zero sacks on the night, even after the decidedly less mobile Tommy Rees took the reins. This will likely improve as the year goes on, but the pass rush is still finding its way along. Michigan is essentially relying on Jake Ryan and Frank Clark to do just about all of their pass-rushing, so when they aren't doing it opposing quarterbacks are going to have some time and a half to zing the ball wherever they may please.

With that said, Jake Ryan had himself a game, with five solo tackles and a PBU en route to another game in which he was probably Michigan's most dynamic defensive player. Needless to say, I am very excited to see the rest of his season--and career--unfold. He already is a pretty good player, but he'll be even better by season's end.

One player that has come under fire thus far this season that also had a pretty encouraging day: Desmond Morgan. As Greg Mattison once said, "he'll hit you." That was definitely the case on Saturday, as he racked up 7 tackles and half of a TFL. We'll see if this level of play holds heading into the Big Ten schedule, but I for one would much rather see Morgan hold off the freshmen inside 'backers for the time being.

As disappointing as the offensive performance was, the defense was equally encouraging in the other direction. Time will tell whether this was all just a product of ND's offense being not that good, but for now we can take this as a positive sign of things to come. For the most part, none of the youngsters looked to be out of their element, save for the Jarrod Wilson pass interference penalty, and Michigan's

In spite of Michigan's catastrophic offensive failings, it was 13-6 with under three minutes to go. Notre Dame had the ball on its own 31 with a third and four situation, with Michigan having just used its second timeout. As strange as it is to think, a stop there would have given the Wolverines the ball with about four times as much time as it had during last season's comeback with 30 seconds left. Tell me that you wouldn't have felt good about being in that season in spite of all that had happened until that point.

Of course, ND then completed its biggest play of the day, a 38-yard pass to Tyler Eifert down the right sideline and right over J.T. Floyd's head. Naturally, it was Eifert's first reception of the day. It was just that kind of day. Game blouses.

Special Teams

At this point, I'm pretty sure I need to find a way to auto-complete this section to read DENNIS NOOOOOORFLEEETTTTT every single week. Speed, he has it. It was another good week on kick returns for the freshman, taking three kicks out for a total of 87 yards and a long of 33. People will need to be patient with respect to his inclusion in the offensive gameplan proper, but make no mistake, there's no way that Borges can leave him out of the offense as this season trudges along. I don't know what Norfleet's 40-time is, but he honestly cannot be that far behind Denard.

As for everything else, Brendan Gibbons went 2/3 on the day, barely missing a 43-yarder to the right on Michigan's second drive (after Golson's first INT). He then sent two field goals through the uprights from 31 and 33 yards out in the fourth quarter, offering Michigan its only points on the day. As usual, anything greater than 40 yards is somewhat of an adventure, but think about Michigan's placekicking pre-2011 Gibbons and just be thankful that Michigan has a guy that can reliably convert even short to medium range kicks.

Matt Wile had another solid day on kickoffs, taking three kicks that each resulted in a touchback. He also punted once, forcing ND to fair catch at its own 9. Of course, this was Michigan's only punt on the day due to Turnoverpalooza, so Will Hagerup did not make it onto the stat sheet this week.

Miscellaneous Minutiae

  • MGoBlue is all "hey guys Denard is pretty awesome still." Thanks for the much needed bit of optimism, MGoBlue recap headline writer guy. Anyway, Denard passed Chad Henne on his way to Michigan's #1 spot for career total yardage. So, if you're looking for something to take your mind off of all those interceptions and the fact that that was a pretty horrible birthday for Denard, this is one way to do it.
  • Requisite Al Borges verbiage. I can only speak for myself, but this loss was not on Al Borges. No, stop it. People need to understand that you can't just run Denard 30 times a game or roll him out every single time, as if these things are the panacea for what ails this mismatched OC-QB tandem. As much as people will bristle when coaches say this, but this game was all about execution, and, more specifically, Denard's lack thereof. It pains me to say it, because Denard is the man and has done so much for Michigan football. I also understand that every loss will bring out the "Denard just isn't a quarterback" folks, which is to be expected. He certainly did not look like a quarterback on Saturday. I think that, just like the Alabama game, Borges called a reasonable game that was simply foiled by: a) a pretty good defense standing across the way and b) Denard having the worst game of his entire career. I mean, after Denard's second interception, Borges came out and ran Denard three straight times, and hey, it worked. Of course, people will point to Denard's interception on the next play as proof that Borges shouldn't have have putting Denard in so many pocket passing situations, but I just don't understand this. What is the alternative? Never passing, ever? Rolling out into a horde of expectant edge defenders, being coached to keep contain and keep Denard within the tackle box? I just don't know. My philosophy is and will continue to be to trust the coaches, especially Borges, who I would say has more than proven himself throughout his career.
  • I know that we're not supposed to say nice things about teams that have just beaten us, but...this picture is pretty cool. Manti Te'o, other than being a veritable force of nature, is a great football and seemingly a pretty good dude. I can't imagine how tough it would be to have to play after what he has recently had to go through. In any case, I'm glad that we don't have to go up against him ever again. Quite honestly, there may not be a defensive player on the rest of the schedule that is equal to Te'o.
  • Pictures to commemorate this completely wonderful day. Kidding aside, Chewer D over at MGoBlog has his weekly batch of in-game pictures up. Ignoring the result for a second, most of them are pretty cool, as you would imagine a bunch of pictures being taken from a Michigan-ND game at night in South Bend would be. I could really get used to this fancy "night game" thing.
  • Devin Gardner. I haven't heard anything yet re: Devin Gardner's injury status, but given the tumble he took into that giant metal stand (insert ARGHH WHY IS THAT THING THERE SO CLOSE TO THE FIELD complaint), I for one am bracing myself for some potentially bad news on this front. On the bright side, Roy Roundtree had a decent game on Saturday (3 receptions, 30 yards), so if Gardner is out for an extended period of time--knock on wood--then hopefully Roy can continue to improve and/or vaguely approach his 2010 form.
  • Bye week recalibration. This upcoming bye comes at a pretty good time for Michigan. This rings somewhat hollow right now, I'm sure, but Michigan's goals are still there for the taking. No, this was never a national championship team...we all knew this. Being 2-2 is no fun at all, but we all knew that this was a potential outcome with this non-conference slate, especially after Notre Dame handled the Spartans in East Lansing last week. Fortunately, the Big Ten is a festering stink upon the landscape of college football, and Michigan has the chance to be the class of that festering stink. That wouldn't be saying much, but since Michigan has not won the Big Ten since 2004, a conference title is a conference title at this point. Michigan takes on a Purdue team that is by no means great but will certainly be a formidable challenge, particularly on the road. Purdue has thus far handled Eastern Michigan and Eastern Kentucky and took a close 3-point loss in South Bend last week. The Boilermakers will be ready to play, and I imagine that Denard and Al Borges will be keeping in touch throughout these next couple weeks to see if they can't figure this thing out as we make the plunge into the Big Ten portion of the schedule.
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