Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Post Mortem: Notre Dame 35, Michigan 17

Editor's Note: After 10 days of jousting with the Blogger server, we are pleased to announce that we have finally beaten the insurgent little rogue into submission and can resume our normal blogging activities. Hoo-rah.

The Irish took a fairly significant step in the right direction on Saturday, blowing past Michigan 35-17 on a day that started and ended with flooding of biblical proportions. In between, the Irish rained on the Wolverine's parade by pouncing on every single one of Michigan's all-too-numerous mistakes, affording themselves the luxury to hit cruise control throughout a slop-filled second half. Beating the Wolverines of 2008 hardly qualifies as an earth-shattering victory, but it was the type of day the Irish needed after their opening act against San Diego State.

In a script most recently seen during the 2006 and 2007 editions of this contest, when Notre Dame turnovers led to one embarrassingly easy Michigan score after another, the Irish turned the tables as "Big Blue" spent most of the afternoon figuring how many unique ways they could think of to shoot themselves in the foot. The result was a 14-0 Notre Dame lead less than 5 minutes into the contest, an edge the Wolverines were never able to whittle under 11 points in spite of strong performances by young quarterback Steven Threet and freshman running back Sam McGuffie. To their credit, every week the Wolverines start to look incrementally better running the Rich Rodriguez offense. It's that pesky concept of ball security they're having trouble with, as they fumbled 7 times (losing 4 of them) to go with two interceptions.

Unlike in 2007, when the Irish were more likely to look a gift horse in the mouth than bother to attempt any scoring, they punched in two early fumbles for touchdowns, burned the UM secondary late in the first quarter and then again midway through the second on their way to 28 first half points - or, to put it in proper context, more points on offense in one half against Michigan than they scored in the first four games against Georgia Tech, Penn State, Michigan, & Michigan State a year ago. While not exactly the breakthrough everybody's waiting for, it's a least the kind of positive forward movement that will have the therapist saying, "We're making some genuine progress."

It takes two points of date to make a line, and this performance definitely ticked the Irish stock up from their starting point a week ago versus the Aztecs. Not close to blue-chip status, mind you, but enough motion to make their progress worth tracking going forward. Among the trends to watch:
  • How will the running back spot continue to shake out? Robert Hughes and James Aldridge, the latter getting his first action of the season, handled 28 of the 34 running attempts for 3.8 yards a pop - hardly dazzling but again a sign of progress for a team that was the country's worst at running the ball a year ago matched up with a team that was one of the best at stopping the run. While the Irish have the luxury of three backs each hosting a unique skill set, they need somebody to step up as the indisputable hot hand.
  • Tate is the new Ismail: With four catches against the Wolverines for 127 yards a touchdown, sophomore Golden Tate's numbers of 10/220/2 through 2 games in '08 put him at essentially double his output for all of 2007 (6/131/1). Last season John Carlson led the Irish with 372 yards receiving in 12 games - look for Tate to blow past that mark before the end of September.
  • Safety help, and then some: There are two ways to look at the stats through two games showing that Notre Dame's leading tacklers are, by quite a wide margin, their two safeties Kyle McCarthy and David Bruton. When no other two Irish defenders combined have as many solo stops as the two men in the deep backfield, is this a sign the Irish have no reinforcements? I would argue that, for the moment, the high tackle count for the safeties is not a concern. Notre Dame played consecutive games against spread-the-field offenses where the best defense is sure-tacklers in open space, not necessarily bulky defensive lineman or lateral moving linebackers. Both McCarthy and Bruton have executed that role flawlessly in the first two weeks - as the Irish face a more traditional power running team this week and a wide-open run'n'shoot offense next, more of the burden will fall to the other 9 guys on the field.
  • Call Me Haywood: The Irish offense was more fluid, better scripted, better managed, and better executed. Credit to Charile Weis, Mike Haywood, and the offensive staff for putting a big red bullseye on the Michigan secondary and getting the Irish offense ready to shoot to kill. When it mattered, the Irish picked up right where they left off against San Diego State in the 4th quarter and also helped grind the game to the finish in nearly unplayable second half conditions. There are nits to pick with selected play calls and while the Irish gained only 260 yards of total offense, they were ready and they accomplished what they set out to do, which put Michigan in a hole they were unable to dig out of.
  • Get Well Soon: Weis demonstrated a little toughness (and I'm gonna guess a willingness to guzzle Vicodin during halftime) after being clipped by John Ryan during a punt return late in the first half. Diagnosis - torn ACL/MCL, which naturally is the same injury that befell Tom Brady, Weis' former pupil, a week ago in New England. NBC excerpted some coverage of the hit and the aftermath here.
Even though the Irish have a lot to be satisfied with about how the game went on Saturday, they certainly cannot sit back and be satisfied (and boy, does that sound like a Rumsfeld-ism). The Irish spent the weekend talking about respect and how the Michigan game was viewed as a chance to earn some back, from Maurice Crum's speech at Friday's pep rally to Weis' post-game comments:
They wanted to make a statement that Notre Dame is not some garbage school out there that everyone can crap on all the time.
After Saturday, maybe a few people out there would concede that teams can't crap on Notre Dame all the time. But this is no time for the Irish to feel content that they've proven everybody wrong, because they haven't. A lot of work remains before this team can legitimately claim to be a finished product, but for the first time in a long time it looks like they're well on the way towards that goal.


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