With the way Notre Dame moved the ball for most of the game, I had forgotten how good the Michigan defense looked on the first drive. After letting Carlisle get the edge, Michigan has tight defense on a pass that Rees doesn't put on the money, and Frank Clark blows up a third and short run. It was a good statement-type stop to begin things.
The first play on offense is not such a statement. Michigan gets pushed back in the run game. A sign of things to come.
Play two is another sign of things to come: Notre Dame bringing pressure, hitting Gardner, and Gardner still calmly making the play.
Notre Dame goes hard to the sideline on the jet sweep to Norfleet. You could tell early that Notre Dame was going to flow hard to the sidelines on anything with a hint of outside zone blocking. Something that would come back to bite them later.
On 2nd and 8 from the UM48, Gardner throws a quick hitch to Joe Reynolds, and he does it while both feet are off the ground and he is taking pressure from two ND defenders. Later in the game he will throw the same pass rolling to his left and turf it in front of Gallon. This is something that I'd venture to guess we see a lot of from Gardner this year: great heat of the moment plays where he does something unconventional followed by breakdowns in fundamentals that cause inaccurate passes.
The next play is set up perfectly. The jet sweep goes back to the wide side of the field, but comes with a reverse to Gallon. Notre Dame flows hard to the field and Michigan gets an easy first down. So far if you're grading Al Borges, he has an A+.
3rd and nine, and we see it the first time: turn tail and run. This would get Gardner into trouble later on the worst interception in history, and both good and bad, we can expect this to be something Gardner continues to do. When he senses pressure from his right, he tries to spin (back to the defense) and get to his left. I don't know if better footwork makes it so he can do this without spinning, but him having his back to the line terrifies me each time. On this one,, as soon as he turns around he has another guy in his face from the left. He gets this one out of bounds and Michigan settles for a field goal. He won't be so lucky in the future.
Gibbons: ALL OF THE FGs.
Another three and out for Michigan's defense after Kelly goes: quick hitch to the flat, run, run. So far Michigan's defense looks as good as advertised.
HOLD ON TO THE BALL NORFLEET
Someone in the game thread said that Derrick Green should get some carries, but the first play of the second series shows why that was never in the cards. Toussaint is still three yards in the backfield when he is taking heavy heat from two ND players that beat blocks. Luckily, Funchess gets his man moving backward enough to give Fitz the edge so he can pick up a yard, but it was tough sledding like this all day. Green doesn't have the stop-and-go or change of direction skills to make something happen when his blocking breaks down, and he would show that in his limited appearance later.
Same thing on second and nine. Toussaint looks like he is bottled up, gives the defender just enough of a head fake to commit inside, and Toussaint makes the move around his blocker for a first down.
The first touchdown pass. Michigan does so many things right and Notre Dame does so many things wrong. It was the first pocket of the night that Gardner had all day to throw, Notre Dame's linebacker isn't deep enough and the safety gets lost wandering down the field, Gallon finds a huge hole right over the middle, and then the entire secondary pisses away tackling opportunities. After two possessions each, the yardage is 118 to 15 in favor of the good guys.
Notre Dame quickly answers with three first-down plays, and all of them look really sharp, in particular, both of Rees' passes, which are into small windows and right where the receiver needs them to make a play.
Qwash, who was questionable going in, makes a big stop in the run game. Michigan follows that up with a blitz with eight guys on the line, and Jarrod Wilson is in the slot against TJ Jones. This ends predictably bad, but Michigan's blitz failed to get the quick pressure that it needed. This would be a common theme.
/shakes fist at tipped pass
/waits for karmic retribution
I get the sense that Norfleet would take every kickoff out of the endzone if Dileo wasn't there to make him take a knee. I kinda like that.
Gardner after two drives: 5/6, 87 yards, 1TD
Michigan false starts. Offensive line penalties were a huge issue in this one. Not surprising given the youth. Gardner then skips a pass and Gallon can't get one in tight coverage. Three and out.
My kingdom for a spread punt formation. How many 15-20 yard returns do we have to see, Brady?
George Atkinson III starts things off with a drop. Michigan stretches the next run play to the edge after Beyer plays it perfectly letting Heitzman clean things up. Michigan gets the first good pressure it does all game to force the field goal attempt.
Michigan goes with play action on the first play of the drive for an easy first down. Gardner to Gallon again. Three plays later Michigan goes with the back shoulder fade to Gallon.
Funchess makes a great play on a ball a little behind him as a quick screen over the middle. he pulls it in with one hand and gets Michigan from 2nd and 11 to 3rd and 1. Fitz gets Michigan the first down just outside the red zone.
On second and long, Gardner shows the athleticism that makes him special. Tuitt gets a good rush off the edge on a Gardner bootleg. Most quarterbacks at this point are dead to rights. Gardner adjusts slightly, outruns Tuitt, and slips out of Tuitt's hands (literally).
Gardner must have been too used to throwing to Gallon, because he has Jake Butt in the end zone on a corner route and puts it a foot lower and inside than it should be. If he gets that ball out a little farther, its an easy touchdown catch for the big tight end.
First and goal from the two, Michigan is overloaded to the boundary side of the field and ND has no edge defenders to the field side. Gardner sees this and audibles into the pistol to run a quick option play which he sells beautifully by getting the ND defenders to commit to the outside, opening just enough of a cutback lane for him to sneak in for a touchdown. Having a quarterback that can make the throws down the field is one thing, but this kind of awareness and ability to make the play with his legs makes Gardner really dangerous.
Notre Dame gets the ball back and marches down the field into the red zone. During the game I was panicking a lot because Michigan was bleeding yards so badly between the 20s, but this is another example of MIchigan's game plan working very well. Force ND to move the ball down the field in long drives and constrict things in the red zone. Brian Cook brought it up on this week's podcast, and thinking about it made me rethink Michigan's defensive strategy. MIchigan held ND from touchdowns on five drives that made it within the UM35 yard line. One of ND's offensive touchdowns was a tipped pass on 3rd and 10. This is bend but don't break, and while the yardage totals look inflated, the points is what matters. Twenty-three on 410 yards is a good day for the defense.
Michigan shows off some of hte old offense with a 35 yard zone read out of the pistol. This is just another trick that Borges can pull out thanks to Gardner's athleticism, and that is a really valuable thing to have when combined with everything else, and its nice to see Borges go to it.
Sione Houma has a great tackle....as a fullback. That's a hold.
Michigan picks up another hold, this one a bit more questionable, as Miller matches up with Sheldon Day and doesn't really seem to do much other than get his hands too far outside on the block. Thanks to that, Michigan gives back over half of Gardner's big gainer, and is moved outside of field goal range.
Two pass plays and Michigan gets those 20 yards back for a manageable third and ten, but Gallon can't come down with the jump ball in the corner.
Gibbons: ALL OF THE FGs.
Less than two minutes remain and Michigan has a solid 20-13 lead to take into halftime. Not a bad first half.
Dymonte Thomas pulls out the quintessential freshman mistake with a late hit out of bounds on the kick return. Notre Dame is now looking at a short field for the two minute drill.
That is until Blake Countess swings momentum. He makes a great read, dropping from the receiver into the flat to pick off the out route. Rees never saw it coming and Countess gets a good return to the Notre Dame 23. If you are looking for the biggest plays of the game, this one is in the discussion.
Gardner flat misses Devin Funchess in the endzone on 2nd and short.
Third and short and the pocket breaks down almost immediately. Gardner gets out to the left and nobody can catch him before he picks up the first down. That's an impressive scramble right there.
And of course it sets up a quick roll out throw to Gallon for the touchdown. This is a pretty impressive throw as Gardner makes it on the move and puts it where only Gallon will be able to catch it.
That was almost it, but you gotta mention Devin Funchess laying the wood on Notre Dame's hail mary attempt. Pretty Boy no more.
First half grades:
Devin Gardner: A. His footwork broke down a couple times and caused a couple incompletions.
Jeremy Gallon: A++. Really nothing else he could have done. Even picked up a first down on a reverse.
Al Borges: A. The best part of this? Ace saying on the MGoPodcast that when he saw Borges at halftime that Borges was not happy. After that first half I'd be grinning like an idiot if I was the OC. This is why no one would hire me to run an offense.
OL: C. Gardner spent most of the first half under fire, and running room wasn't easy to come by. Still, the level of difficulty here is incredible. This is a really, really good defensive line, and DC Bob Diaco is bringing all sorts of blitzes.
Defense: B+. Made Notre Dame work and cut two drives down to field goals while swinging the game with a big turnover.
I'll have more on the second half in the next day or so.