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Mistakes, Pressure, and Soft Coverage: How The Irish Were Able To Completely Crush Michigan

Michigan went into South Bend and got destroyed in a winnable game. What happened? We try and find out.

Jonathan Daniel

1. Every loss in football is in some part due to missed opportunities.  Teams try and fail all the time, and the narrative arc of most games lends itself well to second guessing those critical moments.

That being said, I don't know if I can remember another single half of a Michigan game that was chock full of as many missed opportunities and bad breaks as the first half was against Notre Dame.  Just glancing over the box score and play by play I came up with a short list of pivotal moments in which Michigan tried and failed.

- Missed field goal from 46 yards
- 2 PI flags on ND's first touchdown drive
- 27 yard pass to Devin Funchess gets UM to ND's 34. False Start makes it 1st and 15.
- Missed field goal from 48 yards
- Chesson can't capitalize on the muffed punt by Riggs.
- ND 4th and 3 conversion at the UM 36 yard line
- 2nd and 3 turns into 3rd and 20 after a Gardner fumble
- Michigan 1/6 on third down in the first half, Notre Dame 4/7.

Not all mistakes are created equal, but what happened above robbed Michigan of at least six points and set Notre Dame up for quite a bit of its halftime lead.  Even with under six minutes left in the second quarter Michigan was only down 7-0.  This game was close for a long time, then it was decidedly not.

That isn't to absolve Michigan from blame.  This wasn't the celestial hand of god sticking it to Michigan a half dozen times or more.  It was Michigan, coming up against big opportunities to write its own fate, only to fail time and time again.  As the mistakes grew — as did Michigan's deficit on the scoreboard — the weight of it all seemed to push the air out of the Wolverines.

The immediate reaction to this game has been disgust at the way Devin Gardner played, dismay at how the coaches game-planned, and disappointment at the defense's reversion to last year's model, but make no mistake: Michigan lost this game because Notre Dame managed more often than not to be in the right place at the right time.  That isn't luck, insomuch as it is the embodiment of the old saying "you make your own luck".

Michigan did no such thing, and by the time the dust settled at the end of the first half, the 21-point Notre Dame lead might as well have been 121 points.  Of course, Gardner, the coaches, and the defense all have a role in this one.

2. Those missed opportunities were a real killer, yes, but that was only half the story.  Coming out at halftime down three touchdowns and needing a score, Michigan flashed another trait that was all too present last year.  It coughed the ball up over and over again.

Michigan had seven second half drives, and five of them ended in a turnover (three interceptions, a fumble, and a turnover on downs).  The fast and loose quality that Michigan's offense plays with at its very best was stripped away.  Michigan needed to pass the ball, Notre Dame knew Michigan needed to pass the ball, and Notre Dame knew that Michigan wasn't very good at doing that when dealing with pressure.

It was a collapse, one that looks worse for Devin Gardner — no stranger to the turnover bug — but doesn't shine too brightly on an offensive line that didn't give him much room to work and receivers that had trouble getting open.

Devin Gardner made some nice throws in this game, and showed that he was capable of getting away from pressure at times.  Through most of the first half he was throwing the ball well, connecting on 9 of 11 passes before the final clock killing desperation drive of the first half.  But Michigan's offense didn't give him much to work with.  There was not one pass thrown past the first down sticks until 29 seconds left in the second quarter.  Doug Nussmeier called a game in which Michigan tried to pass quick underneath all night long, and Notre Dame tee'd off on those passes.  By the second half, the Irish just started stepping in front of them.  Why not, Michigan never made anyone believe it would challenge the Notre Dame defense over the top in the passing game.

3. Appalachian State was never going to be a real test for Michigan's OL, so all the success a week ago is out the window.

This game featured the full gamut of OL failures.  There were the missed assignments (such as when Glasgow should have helped combo Jaylon Smith instead of leaving Ben Braden to try and cut off the athletic Smith from the backside tackle position on a sweep).  There were players getting overpowered (Sheldon Day had his way on the interior all night long).  There were even stupid penalties that set Michigan back at critical times.

It wasn't all bad.  Michigan's line opened a few holes on the ground and the Wolverines managed to break 100 yards rushing thanks to a "give it to everybody" approach that saw Justice Hayes and Dennis Norfleet get carries, and not just Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith.  The key for this line was never to look great from day one, but instead to improve from game to game.  Call me crazy, but the mistakes were such that the latter may not be that far out of the question as the year goes on.

And to be honest, pass protection in the first half wasn't all that bad.  Once Notre Dame knew it could bring more pressure because Michigan wasn't going to try to make it pay deep is when things got dicey in the second.

4. The difference between Raymon Taylor and Blake Countess this season can be summed up in the two players' signature highlights from this year.  Countess has the nice open field hit on an App State screen to the flat in which he was unblocked.  Taylor did the same thing against Notre Dame, only he did it by blowing up a block, maintaining outside leverage, and still managing to drag the receiver down behind the line of scrimmage.  Taylor has never been a fantastic zone defender, but athletically he fits well in a defensive scheme that asks its corners to take away routes by contacting the receiver early.  Once Taylor was out, Michigan's defense — which was already without Jabrill Peppers — proceeded to bleed yards down the field against Countess and Delonte Holowell, neither of whom could match Notre Dame's big, physical receivers at the line or keep the windows tight down the field.  Everett Golson made all the right throws, but Michigan's corners failed to make life hard on him time and time again.  That is corners not named Jourdan Lewis, who took it a step too far and saw the seriousness with which officials plan to call penalties down the field this year.

The best example of this: 4th and 3 late in the second quarter.  Golson goes right at Countess in press coverage.  Countess doesn't get a bump until 2 yards downfield when he has turned his shoulders completely and the receiver gets an easy move inside on the slant for the catch and first down.  That is supposed to be Michigan's best corner.

In back to back weeks Michigan has lost perhaps its best linebacker (Desmond Morgan) and now its best corner (Taylor) to injury, and that doesn't even take into account freshman phenom Jabrill Peppers and his mysterious ailment.

5. But to the winners go the spoils, and no one deserves more than Everett Golson.  On Notre Dame's first drive the quarterback burned two timeouts and looked totally lost in the moment.  By the next drive he was already rounding into form, and through the second and third quarter he made a number of impressive throws that kept Notre Dame's offense moving down the field.  Michigan's corners gave Golson windows to throw into all night, and he hit them with aplomb.

This is a far cry from the Golson Michigan last saw in 2012, who was pulled early in favor of Tommy Rees.  Golson didn't run the ball and didn't have to.  Michigan's defense left enough windows open for him to get passes out quick, and the pass rush spent the whole night getting within spitting distance of him before watching the pass get away.

6. There were a lot of things Doug Nussmeier talked about bringing to the Michigan offense this season, but one of the most exciting propositions was that Michigan was finally going to be able to play at a faster pace by breaking the huddle quicker and getting to the line in time to make adjustments and catch the defense off guard.  Michigan successfully did this once against Notre Dame.  The rest of the game Michigan had issues with the play clock and looked sluggish between plays.  That is how a team holds the ball for seven more minutes than its opponent but gets thoroughly housed in a 31-0 shutout.  Here it is, two-thousand and fourteen, and Michigan coaches seem to think that time of possession matters one iota.

7. The video from this game has justifiably not made it up on the interwebs as of this writing (update: I watched the first half this morning after having written most of this Sunday night), but one thing that stuck out to me on first viewing was Michigan's game plan.  Early, the Wolverines pulled out a reverse and a couple of bubble screens in an effort to push an attacking Notre Dame defense back on its heels.  It was clear that the Irish were going to test Michigan's offensive front, and initially Michigan seemed ready to make Notre Dame pay.

From there, Michigan seemed to abandon that.  There was, of course, the blown up bubble screen to Norfleet early, as well as a failed screen pass that put Devin Gardner into heat quickly.  But Michigan never went back to that well.  Content to try and win throwing intermediate passing routes against good coverage and heavy pressure, Doug Nussmeier's offense asked Devin Gardner to pick apart the Irish defense from an ever-shrinking pocket.  While the quarterback made some throws, things got worse and worse as the game went on and by the third quarter Notre Dame was ready and waiting to punish Michigan for not trying to keep the defense off guard.

Upon a second viewing this morning, Michigan ran a few ill advised plays.  One quick hitch to Chesson was with him split wide, alone, with no blockers and a CB eight yards off.  That is fine if you've made the CB respect the deep ball, but Michigan hasn't thrown a pass more than 10 -yards down the field all night, and Notre Dame's DBs are obvously keying on quick passes to the flat.

Later on third-and-10, Michigan tries to run a screen pass to Hayes that gets blown up.  The problem?  Michigan motions Funchess to the backside of the formation to block. The hell, man?  Now, Notre Dame doesn't have to devote resources to Funchess in coverage, and he is completely marginalized on the back side of a screen play.  That is playing checkers with a chess set, folks.

This was a common theme throughout.  Michigan didn't take shots down the field which didn't make ND respect anything over the top, which let the Irish tee off on the short stuff.  Michigan's run game wasn't bad in this one (it wasn't great, but "not bad" is decisively a win after last year), but an uninspired passing game hurt things.  Michigan has dynamic offensive weapons to which it throws entirely hitch and crossing routes.

Chicks dig the long ball, Nuss.

8. Poor Devin Funchess.

He spends the entirety of the night as Michigan's only reliable weapon, catching nine passes for 107 yards, and all he has to show for it is a bum leg after getting tackled awkwardly on the sideline late.  Michigan took just one shot down the field to Funchess — a 33-yard reception that he just plain took from the corner in coverage — and the rest of the time just tried to dump the ball off to him on hitches over the middle.  No back shoulder fades, no post routes to stretch the field, just quick passes that put Funchess in a position where he couldn't do much other than fight three defenders for a couple more yards.

Jehu Chesson had a couple nice catches, and Dennis Norfleet provided a nice boost at points, but Michigan's passing game overall looked like it lacked a killer instinct, and because of this, Notre Dame was free to tighten up on the outside and play downhill on every short route.

If Funchess misses any period of time due to that late injury, Michigan is going to lack a lot more than that.

9. I was there for the first 38-0 Michigan win in 2003, as well as the second in 2007.  Do you want to know a secret about those games?

Both Notre Dame teams were terrible.  That's how you lose 38-0 against even a pretty good team.

I don't know what that says about this year.  I still don't think Michigan is as bad as the score indicates (the fairly even yardage totals paint the game as closer than it was, although they are misleading because they include 4th (and arguably 3rd) quarter yards that were completely irrelevant once it was assured that Notre Dame was well under control of the game.

Also, turnovers offer a good explanation of how lopsided it got, but good teams don't often turn the ball over four times in a half.

All of this is a long way of saying that after two games I still have no freaking clue how good this Michigan team is, and how good it can be when December rolls around.  Football is weird, sometimes.

10. A bright spot in all of this was Michigan's run defense.  Notre Dame's three running backs combined for nine carries, 61 yards and a touchdown — not exactly a banner day for a talented group behind a solid offensive line.  Of course, the Irish were having their cake and eating it too through the air, so that helps contribute.  However, Michigan seemed to cope okay on the ground without Desmond Morgan, and the longest run by a Notre Dame running back was just six yards.

Still, there was nowhere near the amount of actual in the backfield tackles for a defense as talented as Michigan's, and players such as Willie Henry, Chris Wormley, Ondre Pipkins, and Ryan Glasgow were conspicuously unmentioned for most of the game.  With Michigan's secondary reeling from injuries, the defensive line was the group that was most needed to step up to help generate stops in the passing game.  The task proved to be too tall for the Wolverine front.  I'm not sure I can get too far down on them, as Steve Lorenz said about Golson's night:

Yup, pretty much.