Michigan 41, Notre Dame 30: Start To Finish

Gregory Shamus

This isn't 2011 anymore; with a late score, Michigan defeats Notre Dame, 41-30, to move to 2-0 on the season. Unlike other recent victories in this series, Michigan never trailed, as Devin Gardner and Jeremy Gallon powered Michigan to a W while the defense did just enough.

For the first time since 2007, the Wolverines scored first against the Fighting Irish and held onto the lead for 60 minutes. Michigan jumped out to a 10-0 lead and then went into the half up 27-13, a significant narrative departure from the theatrics of previous victories (2009-11).

Unlike 2011, Michigan didn't require a tidal wave of good Fortune with a capital F; talent, a plan and execution were enough. This Michigan team has its flaws, but you really only need to watch the two UTL games to see how much things have changed since Brady Hoke's second game as Michigan's head coach.

This wasn't the 2011 Notre Dame or Virginia Tech games. Michigan didn't limp its way to victory like a discordant staggering march set to a minor key. Alabama this past January was the only squad to hang more points on Notre Dame during the Kelly era (42). No, this was an Irish team missing the space coverage of Manti Te'o and a talent on the defensive line in Kapron Lewis-Moore, but this was still a squad with a pretty good defense overall (and a top notch defensive line), in addition to a strong offensive line.

Like I said, it wasn't all perfect. Michigan's defense gave up some yardage and the secondary had its issues. Fortunately for Michigan, the Irish had to stop running the football due to the score. ND's offensive line had some success against Michigan's front. Lines like those of Nebraska, Northwestern and Ohio State will provide a different sort of challenge, but, either way, it's not great to see the front getting pushed around. Removing the Rees sack from the numbers, Notre Dame finished with 117 yards rushing on 6.5 yards per carry. Kelly called the ground game's number just six times in the second half.

Two cupcakes and a bye week await Michigan before the conference schedule begins. Not much will be learned during the next two weeks, and that's fine. For the first time in a while, Michigan beat Notre Dame without late-game comeback heroics.

In retrospect, the 2009-11 wins and this past Saturday's victory have their own set of merits. But, if we're talking heart health and overall program strength, I'll take Saturday's win every day of the week.

The Offense

The MGoBlue box score is here. Devin Gardner finished 21/33 for 294 yards, four touchdown passes, one rushing touchdown and one interception (yeah, a little bit on that later). As I said last week, watching Gardner is a different sort of fun than watching Denard entailed. With one burst, Denard could be seen galloping away from everyone, so quickly that you wouldn't even have time to process what happened. With Gardner, it's a beguiling combination of surgical passing and time-buying elusiveness, aided by his 6'4'', 210-pound frame. Watching Gardner elude/shrug off Stephon Tuitt right before firing a dart to Jake Butt in the second quarter reminded me of something you would've seen Terrelle Pryor or Vince Young do (not saying that Gardner is as good as either right now, of course). How many times did Pryor simply shrug off would-be tacklers (against Michigan or otherwise) as if they weren't even there? How many times did Vince Young make Michigan linemen and linebackers look silly in the 2005 Rose Bowl?

On the inside screen to Devin Funchess (on the same drive), Gardner once again flashed hid ability to throw from unconventional arm slots and/or without setting his feet. Yes, sometimes this gets him in trouble, but Gardner's ability to improvise is and will continue to be the biggest asset he has.

Just to get it out of the way, Gardner's interception was quite bad, and yes, luckily it didn't end up breaking Michigan's back. It's important to remember that this was just Gardner's sixth start; although it feels like he's been in Ann Arbor for quite a long time now, he's still a bit of a newbie. Okay, so now Gardner got the first CMU INT and now this one out of his system. However, it's hard to get too amped up about it, since it was Michigan's lone turnover and Gardner was otherwise brilliant. Still, Michigan can't have that against Northwestern, Nebraska, Ohio State, and especially against a defensively opportunistic squad like Michigan State.

Things did not quite go as well for our friend Fitzgerald Toussaint. Fitz' first three rushes of the game went for no gain, no gain and two yards. Toussaint finished with a net of 71 yards on carries, which includes carries of 22 (his long) and 14 yards. For the most part, it didn't seem as if there was much running room. Although ND's backers couldn't cover the space on passing downs that Te'o did, they seemed to do all right on traditional running plays, which I hear is when the quarterback turns around and hands it to the running back, who then follows his offensive linemen's "blocking" en route to a hopefully non-zero, non-negative number of "yards."

Although Jeremy Gallon reeled in eight of Gardner's 21 completions, Gardner did connect with eight different receivers on the night. Funchess and Drew Dileo had three catches apiece for almost identical yardage (19 and 18, respectively), with Dileo reeling in the Game Blouses touchdown to put Michigan up 41-30. Jehu Chesson is still catch-less on the season but continues to deliver some big time blocking on the outside, so it's hard to complain too much. Chesson should be able to get on the board against Akron this Saturday.

Whereas the run game was "inconsistent" last week (in the sense that the final numbers were buoyed up by big plays peppered throughout), it was mostly stifled in this one. Toussaint had a few nice runs, including a 10-yarder on Michigan's first drive of the second half. On that play, a 2nd & 3, the Irish had eight in the box, with three linemen with hands in the dirt, two end types standing up and the three linebackers bunched tight about three yards off the line of scrimmage.

It really was a nice play from start to finish, and shows that Michigan can run the ball with some authority from time to time. Jack Miller expertly seals the planet-sized Louis Nix right away. The WLB and MLB blitz to the right side of the Michigan OL, essentially taking themselves out of the play (the run is going left). Miller engages Nix just long enough for Toussaint to pass through the hole, made possible by a typically superb seal from Taylor Lewan and even a nice effort from Funchess (and Joe Kerridge stopping Dan Fox dead in his tracks). In the final calculus, it was a seal here and a seal here and Vince Lombardi is nodding approvingly.

Unfortunately, plays like this were quite rare, but given that Notre Dame has one of the best defensive lines in the country, it could have been worse.

In the grand scheme of things, 41 points in a rivalry game against a team that has been as defensively stout as ND is nothing to scoff at; for all their theatrics, neither Tate Forcier nor Denard Robinson put up 41 points on ND in their combined four starts.

The Defense

The numbers don't paint an impressive picture, but Michigan's defense did just enough on Saturday to gently push the Wolverines to their second victory on the season.

Michigan gave up 23 offense-generated points and 410 total yards. Tommy Rees finished with 314 yards passing, albeit on a whopping 51 attempts (he completed 29). Of course, mistakes hurt Rees again in the Big House, this time tossing a pair of interceptions to Blake Countess, the first at the end of the first half which resulted in seven more Michigan points shortly thereafter.

In any case, Michigan seemed content to bend but not break, which can be frustrating at times but was definitely the way to go. In the third quarter, Herbstreit noted that it was like Michigan was playing a prevent defense, and he was absolutely right. The play right before that comment was a prime example. On 2nd & 5, Michigan came out in a 4-2-5, rushing four and dropping everyone else back in a prevent-esque sea of defenders. Rees completed the short pass to TJ Jones for eight yards. On the bright side, YAC were hard to find for Irish receivers, which is the positive side of this sort of defensive gameplan: let the guy catch it but keep him in front and tackle immediately. It's not "fun" defense to watch, but it was what the doctor ordered this week.

The secondary was rolling out some soft coverages, which is fine when you have a quarterback like Rees, who will make a mistake eventually. For as much grief as Rees sometimes gets, the guy can actually play (as his numbers against Michigan in 2011 and this past Saturday show), but turnovers are perhaps why a guy like Everett Golson started in 2012 despite not lighting the world on fire.

Rees was going to get his yards, this much was understood. What was more concerning is the manner with which ND ran right through Michigan's front seven, an issue that can't even be blamed on Jake Ryan's absence. When ND did run the football, as infrequent as this occurred, Michigan's line got blown back and the linebackers were often slow to fill, including Desmond Morgan, who I'm not sure Brady Hoke really heard out there this week.

After two weeks of football, as strange as this is to write, it seems as if Brennen Beyer is Michigan's best pass rusher. Yes, Beyer, the guy who had developed a reputation as a run-stopping plugger sort, pitched in Michigan's only sack of the evening (and was a similarly disruptive force against CMU as well). In fact, Mario Ojemudia might even be Michigan's second-most effective pass rusher, leaving Frank Clark with the bronze here. I'm trying to avoid busting out the Jump to Conclusion mat, but Clark hasn't exactly been the unstoppable force that the offseason rumblings predicted. At the same time, it's not as if he's been truly bad, per se; he just hasn't made those big plays just yet.

As with several other players, the next two weeks will be a good way for Clark to get some confidence via statistics.

Special Teams

In case you missed it during the broadcast, Brendan Gibbons set the record for consecutively converted field goals by a Michigan kicker in this one. He went 2/2, converting from 38 and 44 yards, both in the first half. I could say something about how weird it is to have competent placekicking, but this is no longer a new sensation.

Matt Wile punted three times for a total of 94 yards with a long of 42 and a 31-yarder that ND fair caught at its own 10 yard line. He did shank one in the fourth quarter for a mere 21 yards, though.

In the return game, Dennis Norfleet fumbled a punt for the second time in as many weeks. Once is a chance, twice is a coincidence...

On kicks, Norfleet returned three for 78 yards (long of 32). One of these days he's going to pop one for six, and yes, I realize I said this after every game last season.

Anyway, special teams continue to be non-coronary-inducing save Norfleet's punt returning misadventures, but hopefully that's just some early season jitters.

Miscellaneous Minutiae

  • As usual, MGoBlue "notes." Michigan is still undefeated at home since Brady Hoke took the job.
  • James Ross. Does anyone have any thoughts on his season to date? He's been somewhat quiet, although he did have six total tackles (two solo) and a pass break-up (I'm not sure if this was the almost interception or not?) against Notre Dame. On the bright side, his second half was better than his first, and, as with Clark, it's not as if he's necessarily playing poorly.
  • It was nice to see Jake Butt get some playing time out there, because if A.J. Williams's injury proves to be serious, he'll be out there even more. Word post-game indicated that Williams injury was ankle-related. It would be a shame if he missed serious time, as it seemed like he was starting to make some strides as he tries to become a fixture in Michigan's run blocking game.
  • Among many other throw and catches between Gardner and Gallon, the 41-yarder on the drive after ND cut it to 27-20 was simply a thing of beauty. With the ND defensive back draped over Gallon, Gardner confidently stepped up and delivered a strike (in what was admittedly a pocket the size of the U.P.), a spiraling orb set against the lights and the night sky. The Gardner-Gallon connection has very quickly made its case for being one of the most exciting Wolverine pairings of all time.
  • ICYMI, Michigan moves to No. 11 in the AP poll.
  • Notre Dame tight ends. Fasano, Carlson, Rudolph, Eifert...and now Troy Niklas. Where does ND find these guys? Let's hope Michigan can join schools like ND and Stanford in the NFL tight end-producing category. Hopefully Jake Butt (or Ian Bunting when he gets to Ann Arbor next year) can develop into one of those types of players.
  • Watching Toussaint's late 22-yarder, I get the feeling that he could have had a touchdown if he simply cuts it up in the hole between Glasgow and Miller. ND safety, No. 41 Matthias Farley, came crashing down on the play a few yards outside the hash marks. ND lined up in the aforementioned 5-2 look, with the other safety well out of the picture. Lewan does his thing, Glasgow pancakes his man and Miller/Kalis do enough to keep Nix out of the picture long enough to let Toussaint get to the second level. Toussaint makes this a tougher looking run but cutting back behind Glasgow's seal--which then forces him to juke Farley out of his shoes, which he does--but anyway. I bring this play up more to highlight the nice blocking (and good work from Miller, again) than to criticize Toussaint's decision-making. Again, Michigan has shown flashes of excellent run blocking, but that's all they've been: flashes.
  • The Hoke shrug. Oh, it was tremendous.
  • Eminem interview. I still, I...I just don't know.
  • Gardner number change. To a certain extent, the number changes can be somewhat dizzying at first, but I have to say that Gardner wearing No. 98 is really, really cool.
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