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The Good, The Bad, The Ugly – Notre Dame

September 15, 2011




  • 4th Quarter Denard – I’m not positive, but the rumor is that on Saturday night Superman wore his Denard Robinson pajamas to bed.  For the second consecutive year, Denard broke the hearts of Irish fans, and I’m pretty sure he is the reason Brian Kelly is so angry all of the time.  It wasn’t all good on Saturday for Denard, but for the last quarter, he was basically perfect.  It started on the 1st play of the 4th quarter when D-Rob picked up a Stephen Hopkins fumble on the 2 yard line and sprinted into the end zone to pull Michigan within 10 points of Notre Dame.  And from there, it just got better.  Denard had a 4th quarter for the ages, racking up 202 passing yards, throwing for 3 touchdowns and rushing for another (the aforementioned fumble recovery).   His only blemish was an ill-timed interception with 4:23 to go in the game, which he more than made up for with his play down the stretch.  If you’re willing to extend Denard’s run to include the last 3 minutes of the 3rd quarter, Denard’s final 18 minutes looks like this: 8/10, 277 yards, 3 TD’s and 7 rushes for 36 yards and a touchdown.  To be fair, much of the praise needs to go to the wide receivers, who were excellent on Saturday after some early game jitters.  But anytime a QB can put up 300+ yards of offense and account for 4 touchdowns in a little over 18 minutes of play, he’s clearly doing something special.  After the way Denard shredded Notre Dame last year for 502 yards, it seemed ridiculous to think he could come close to that again, but 446 yards later, here we are again. He is without question the most exciting player in college football and he’s shown a pretty solid knack for clutch performances as well.  He wasn’t perfect on Saturday, especially for the first 42 minutes.  But for the last 18 minutes I’d be hard pressed to find a better performance in college football.
  • Making Desmond Proud – On a night where Michigan honored perhaps its greatest receiver of all time, the current receivers took it upon themselves to step up.  While much of the credit is going to Denard Robinson for this comeback win, if it weren’t for the trio of Junior Hemingway, Jeremy Gallon and Roy Roundtree making some big time catches, a big part of the story would have been how bad Denard was on Saturday.  Combined, Hemingway, Gallon and Roundtree (GRH) accounted for only 6 catches, but they went for 259 yards and 3 touchdowns.  And Gallon and Hemingway accounted for about 100 of those yards after their catches were made as they ran away from the defense.  GRH each took turns making Denard look good by adjusting to passes in the air and out-jumping the Notre Dame defenders to bring them in.  Denard is the leader and the guy who put the ball where it needed to be, but the unsung heroes of the game Saturday were the Michigan wide receivers.   
  • Night Game – I’ve been coming to Michigan football games for over 25 years, and I’ve never experienced anything like the atmosphere that occurred in Ann Arbor on Saturday night.  Dave Brandon and his team deserve a standing ovation for the event they put on.  Between the jerseys, the ceremony for Desmond Howard, the recognition of the 1971 team, and the halftime show, it was a first class event all the way around.  The bad news is that I doubt any night game will ever live up to the first ever night game in Ann Arbor.  Part of that has to do with the way the game played out of course, but it also speaks to the pomp and circumstance that Michigan put into the evening.  I normally am so involved in the game I don’t take time to look around and enjoy the pageantry of being in Michigan Stadium.  On Saturday on more than one occasion I found myself looking around and really enjoying the moment.  Overall, a fantastic evening – and one that will hopefully happen again soon. 
  • No Longer the Quietest 100,000 + people in sports – One reason that the night game was so enjoyable was the presence of the best crowd in the history of Michigan Stadium.  Of course the ending gave the fans plenty to cheer about, but for the first time since I can remember, the crowd actually played a role in the outcome of the game.  Several times in the first half the crowd noise either caused a Notre Dame penalty, or forced them to take a timeout.  And when they ran out of timeouts, they had trouble communicating and switching into the playcall they wanted.  Beyond the noise, this was by far the most festive and excited crowd I’ve ever seen.  From the pre-game ceremonies to the post-game sing-a-long, I guarantee that any of the 114,000+ fans that were dressed in Maize and Blue had an amazing time on Saturday.      
  • Brandin Hawthorne – In what is quickly becoming the year of the Brando(i)n’s at linebacker, Brandin Hawthorne picked up right where injured linebacker Brandon Herron left off last week.  While Hawthorne didn’t end up with any touchdowns, he was perhaps our most effective player on defense.  Hawthorne routinely knifed through the Notre Dame defense to make tackles, including a crucial 3rd and 1 stop in the 4th quarter.  The box score only credited him with 6 tackles, but it felt like he was everywhere.   Fittingly, he moved up the depth chart this week and we should be seeing more of him.  
  • Jordan Kovacs – I said it last week and I’ll say it again.  All Jordan Kovacs does is make plays!  Saturday was no different, as Kovacs made perhaps the turning point play of the 1st half when he intercepted a ball near mid-field with the Irish driving and already up 14-0.  The interception setup Michigan’s first touchdown just a few moments later, and kept Michigan within striking distance in the first half.  Kovacs also had several touchdown saving tackles on Saturday as he looked like a true safety.  But make no mistake, he is our playmaker on defense. 
  • Defensive Improvement – Let’s be clear, the defense is by no means a solvent unit and still has plenty of holes to fill.  But, for the 2nd straight week, they got better as the game went on.  Save for one botched coverage assignment that almost cost us the game, they only allowed seven 2nd half points, and only 10 points after the 1st quarter.  More importantly, they came up with big plays when they had to – including 2 stops on third and short, and two huge fumble recoveries.  Yes, the fumbles were unforced errors by Notre Dame, but Michigan was in the right spot to recover them.  And for the second straight week the defense did a nice job was the red zone, picking up two turnovers and holding the Irish to a FG on a third trip inside the Michigan 20.   Still a long ways to go, but there are glimmers of hope.  
  • JT Floyd – It may seem like a surprise to see JT Floyd here, as the man he covered for most of the evening, Michael Floyd, ended up with 13 catches for 159 yards.  But given how talented Michael Floyd is, the fact that JT kept him to only 159 yards and didn’t let him find the end zone is a pretty impressive accomplishment.  Floyd’s longest catch only went for 25 yards, and even though JT got flagged for a couple of  pass interference penalties when he was trying to keep up with Floyd, he kept him from making the big play and from getting into the end zone.  And for icing on the cake, JT even snagged an interception.  All in all, not a bad performance. 
  • Unexpected Production – For this defense to be successful, one of the things that Greg Mattison and Brady Hoke have discussed is that they will have to find production from some unexpected players.  Brandin Hawthorne was one of those guys on Saturday, but 2 other players had a huge impact on the game.  One, Jake Ryan, is one week away from me placing wildly unrealistic expectations for him in the coming years.  Ryan made a great tackle on 3rd and short for Notre Dame late in the game to force a punt and finished with 4 tackles overall.  The other player who finally made a contribution was defensive tackle Will Campbell who had a key fumble recovery in the 3rd quarter deep in Michigan territory.  He didn’t register a tackle, but he was a force on the defensive line, forcing Notre Dame to double team him and freeing up linebackers to make tackles.  For the one-time 5* talent, he finally showed some of the upside we’ve been promised. 


  • First 3 quarters Denard – As scintillating as Denard Robinson was for the last 18 minutes on Saturday, he was absolutely atrocious for the first 42 minutes save for a handful of plays.  With just over 6 minutes to go in the game, Denard was 3 of 13 for 59 yards and two interceptions.  In short, he was horrendous.  There were a handful of drops by the receivers, but very few of his passes were right on target.  And worse, he seemed reluctant to use his best weapon, his legs. In several instances, Denard hung in the pocket only to make a bad throw when he could have run the ball for sizeable gains on the ground.  I’m still not sure what clicked at the end of the 3rd quarter, but suddenly Denard and his receivers were on the same page.  Despite his 100+ yards on the ground, Denard still never seemed to be running at the right times other than on designed runs.  At one point, I openly lamented to others that I missed last year’s highly productive offense due to how poorly Denard was playing.  And for what its worth, I’m still not sold on his comfort level in this offense – I think the great play of the receivers and letdowns by Notre Dame disguised a lot of flaws.  If we see 1st three-quarters Denard for any extended time this year, I doubt we will be as fortunate as we were on Saturday to win. 
  • Playcalling – With our offense sputtering early in the 3rd quarter, I MAY have sent a text to a friend wondering if it was too late to get Calvin Magee back as offensive coordinator. It’s probably a little unfair, as part of the problem was Denard’s inability to find open receivers, and the receivers inability to catch the ball.  But I was mystified at some of the playcalling throughout the game.  In the end, it all worked out – but I’m not sure that “let Denard drop back and throw a jump ball” is a sound gameplan going forward – no matter how many times it worked on Saturday.  As I’ll get to below, the running game from anyone not named Denard was non-existent.  But that’s largely because we only gave the running backs 10 carries!  Hardly a chance to get into a rhythm.  Additionally, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, I thought we threw the ball downfield way too much.  With a player like Denard Robinson, anytime you can get to 3rd and less than 4, I like our chances of picking up the 1st down.  But if you’re throwing 15 yard out patterns on 1st and 2nd down like we did, you end up with a lot of 3rd and longs, which are not Denard’s strength.  For now, Al Borges is still getting a pass for me, but we’ve got some work to do. 
  •  Defensive Line – When I wrote my season preview I suggested that the defensive line would be a strength for this team, and potentially the best unit we have.  Through two games I couldn’t be more wrong.  Against WMU the lack of a pass rush was concerning, but I chalked it up to quick passes and a conservative defense.  But Saturday the defensive line showed that they are going to be a legitimate concern this year.  Mike Martin is still a very good player, but he’s getting no help anywhere else.  Ryan Van Bergen is still too small to play inside, and ends Craig Roh and Jibreel Black routinely were caved in on running and passing plays.  Black showed flashes of solid play, but for the most part he was ineffective.  Roh failed to register a tackle for the 2nd straight week.  And Tommy Rees had all day to pass and only felt pressure when we blitzed.  Not a winning combination.  I still believe there is talent on this line – especially if Will Campbell can continue to improve.  But it’s definitely a concern to keep an eye on.   


  • Running Backs – After a solid debut in week one with both Fitzgerald Toussaint and Michael Shaw exploding for some long runs and looking good, the running backs went into hiding.  Toussaint couldn’t play because of an injury, and both Shaw and Stephen Hopkins were largely useless.   The Michigan running backs of Shaw, Hopkins and Smith combined for 10 yards on 8 carries.  Now to be fair, 8 carries is hardly enough opportunities to establish the run, but from what I saw, it wasn’t going anywhere anyways. I can’t believe that Fitzgerald Toussaint is the only running back we have that can actually move the chains.  It’s possible that Notre Dame’s defensive line and linebackers were just better than our offensive line, but we’re going to need to be able to consistently run the ball to compete in the Big Ten.
  • Rush Defense – With 7:43 to go in the 3rd quarter, shortly after Notre Dame’s Jonas Gray sliced through the Michigan line for a 38 yard gain, PA announcer Carl Grapentine forgot to turn of his microphone before asking someone in the press box how many rushing yards Notre Dame had.  He drew a chuckle from the 114,000+ fans who heard his question.  The answer at that point was 160 yards – an appalling number when you consider how much time was remaining.  Jonas Gray and Cierre Woods each chruned out yardage with ease with Woods racking up 134 yards, and Gray averaging 11 yards per carry.  For reasons I still don’t understand, but am thankful for, Notre Dame went away from the running game after that and only picked up 38 yards the rest of the game.  It was a fatal error if you ask me, as they seemed able to rack up 4-5 yards on almost every 1st or 2nd down run.  For Michigan, it’s the same story as last year; a small defensive line is not going to be able to defend the run without blitzing.  On Saturday our rushing defense weakness almost cost us the game.  Against a team like Michigan State or Nebraska, it probably will. 
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