Sunday Drive Thru

IrishEyes' weekly Sunday morning look back at the key story lines from Saturday's contest.

Robinson: By Knockout

Last Wednesday, Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco was bombarded with questions regarding upcoming foe Denard Robinson, he of the 197-yard rushing effort in Week One. Could the Irish contain Robinson? Would the Irish D utilize a spy on each or certain plays? Was Robinson focal point 1, 2, and 3 in game week preparation?

"We're just going to call our defenses," Diaco stated. "There's no defense in the menu where a gap is not fit and a zone is not covered. We don't have that defense. Every single defense we have, every single gap is filled and every single zone is covered by assignment."

A national star on the rise, Denard Robinson fittingly orders off the menu.

502 yards of total offense (an opposing player record at Notre Dame Stadium). 258 rushing yards including a Stadium record 87-yard sprint past the Irish defense to stake the Wolverines to a 21-7 lead. No interceptions on 40 pass attempts and a completion on the game's decisive play, a 15-yard strike to the post on 3rd and 5 to set up his own game-winning touchdown run.

A better college football player will likely emerge over the next 10 games…no one's close after the first two.

"It's like a play-action pass every time he takes the snap," noted Irish senior safety Harrison Smith when asked about defending Robinson.

"I'm speechless right now," Robinson offered post-game. "That was amazing: the offense came together, the defense played well…my offensive line was ready to play and everybody was ready."

Robinson was equally tongue-tied when informed of his offensive output.

"Man, I didn't know that. Man…the offensive line came together, the receivers were catching…everything was clicking," he understated.

In addition to his record-breaking run, Robinson compiled six rushes with gains between 11 and 36 yards on the afternoon. But of his 24 completions, two 31-yard tosses down the heart of the Irish defense incurred the most damage: the first to a completely uncovered Roy Roundtree for a touchdown following Notre Dame's first turnover; and two drives later, another easy loft bursting the left seam, this time to Martavious Odoms to set up a one-yard plunge and go-ahead score.

"I can give you the specifics if you really want to know, I think I'll bore everyone in this room," Kelly answered of the notable breakdowns. "The safety is in a position where he's coming off the hash and he's trying to fill that voided area because we're dropping a player down to leverage vs. Denard Robinson.

"So this is still an individual who you're trying to defend and forcing a safety now to be in a ‘Can't Miss' situation. If he's a second off, if he's not on his key, they're going to hit it."

Robinson noted the Wolverines saw something earlier in the contest, rather than on previous game film, that allowed them to take advantage of the Irish coverage scheme.

"We watched film but we didn't know how they would play us, so that was a problem. We saw it in the previous plays, that's what made us go back to it," Robinson said of the touchdown toss to Roundtree.

To round out his afternoon, Robinson added a 30-yard pooch punt that pinned the Irish inside their own 5-yard line late in the 3rd Quarter.

Was he sore after 28 carries (29 the previous week)?

"Just a little bit," he admitted.

He'll be more than a little sore if he continues to carry the Michigan football program on his back through the conference season, but that matters little now.

Familiar Fate

In 2009, the Irish lost six contests close and late. In three of the six, the team's defense gave up the go-ahead or winning score with less than one minute remaining. Conditioning, both from excessive weight loss over the 12-game slate and the lack of defensive depth that kept starters on the field too long, was offered as a chief culprit in the failure to secure a final stop.

Saturday, for the second time in a calendar year, Michigan took the pigskin from its end of the field to the Irish goal, winning on their final offensive drive.

Despite liberal substitutions throughout the contest, and despite an off-season conditioning program lauded as one of the nation's best, the Irish defense again felt the wear-down factor when it mattered most.

"Obviously they didn't have much left," Kelly said of the defense at the end. "And that had a lot to do with how we played offensively; we would have liked to tackle better on that last drive and we had some missed assignments that we had not (had previously), so we were fatigued. It might have been just being on the field a little bit too long.

"That's a great (convenient) excuse," Kelly added, "we didn't give them that excuse in the locker room. We told them we have to bow up in those situations and we have to make a play."

Michigan, just 3 for 16 on 3rd down conversions over the course of the contest, succeeded on both 4th and 1 and the aforementioned 3rd and 5 to complete its 72-yard game winning drive.

"Time to put it away," Robinson said of his pre-drive pep talk to offensive teammates that rested squarely on his shoulders for the duration of the contest. 11 plays later, Robinson hit Roundtree for the drive's penultimate play. The quarterback knew which receiver he'd seek out as they broke the huddle.

"He gave me a wink," Robinson said of Roundtree. "That's how I knew to go to him and he'd catch it."

Decisions, Decisions

The role of Sunday Morning Quarterback has always annoyed me. Games are decided by 60 minutes of blocking, tackling, athleticism, and yes, coaching preparation and adjustments, not a decision made at the conclusion of the first half.

But Brian Kelly's decision to go for a touchdown from the Michigan 3-yard line, rather than a field goal at the end of yesterday's first half had a decidedly Weis-ian feel.

As Theo Riddick's 37-yard setup grab was reviewed and upheld, I offered two words to IrishEyes' staff to my left and right: "Field Goal."

They were split in agreement. I saw no other side of the coin and still don't. The Irish were fortunate to have a chance at end-half points. The certain three-pointer would offer momentum to a shell-shocked group. An 11-point comeback, at home, vs. an average defense, is par for the course, not stuff of legend.

Kelly went for the seven; with a run an unlikely option, backup quarterback Nate Montana's pass sailed into the stands. Of course it did.

"I thought where we were: score, two scores down, I thought that was an opportunity," Kelly said. "We had the right look. We just read it out wrong."

The last part is likely accurate. It was also predictable. Expecting his already shaky backup quarterback to execute in that situation was the obvious fly in the ointment. Panic or desperation are too strong of descriptors for the failed call…but a lack of game awareness seems accurate.

Asked to evaluate the play of backup quarterbacks Tommy Rees and Nate Montana (a combined 8-19 with two interceptions), Kelly stated:

"I did a poor job of preparing them," later adding, "We know who our back up quarterbacks – in terms of the candidacy – who they are. I just have to do a better job getting them ready. Maybe (have) created a package that was just for them and had that been the case, maybe they could have managed the game a little bit better."

In this particular instance, Kelly could have done the same.

Game, Set, Mat-- Maybe Not…

Lost in the final score and final failed pass attempt was the coming-of-age of junior quarterback Dayne Crist. After leading a 13-play, 71-yard drive to start the contest, Crist did not return for Notre Dame's second offensive series.

In-game reports indicated the junior had blurred vision in his right eye.

"It was a previous play where he ran, I think he had 20-yard run something like that," Kelly said of the play that caused the injury. "And when he was hit, he was hit from the side. He struck his head on the ground. And we think that that's what triggered some blurriness."

Michigan raced to 21 unanswered with Crist sidelined for the duration of the first half. Upon his return, the Irish reeled off 17 consecutive points, including a home field record-breaking touchdown toss of 95 yards from Crist to classmate Kyle Rudolph to give the Irish a 24-21 lead with just 3:41 remaining.

"Our guys competed a great deal," Crist said of the comeback. "Definitely have to be proud of that. And as the quarterback of this offense, I'm happy knowing that the guys are competing until the final whistle. But, again, we just didn't make enough plays to come out on top."

Crist finished 13-25 for 277 yards, tossing two touchdowns and one interception in his second career start.

The Morning After Blues

Irish fans enjoyed plenty of thrills last fall: four wins secured in the last minute or overtime, three at home, made the 2009 season ticket the best buy in town.

But those wins came at the expense of lesser opponents. The Irish were a minimum touchdown favorite in each (MSU, Purdue, Washington, BC); they were wins of relief, not landmark victories fans on which fans will reminisce over gatherings of friends and family for years.

A quick informal count shows 17 such wins during the 1980s; 16 more in the 90s…and I can justify denoting a mere five in the past decade; none since Week Two of 2005 in The Big House.

Rivalry wins; wins in underdog roles that seem relevant to the college football landscape; wins that made Notre Dame Football the nation's top collegiate program, brand and legend – all of the above are in short supply in recent program history.

A win yesterday would have counted only as the former (maybe the latter, as the Wolverines have gained a good deal of love over the last 24 hours). Unless Utah rolls through its slate undefeated (that would include a win over current No. 4 TCU), there's no such game on the Irish slate until (possibly) Thanksgiving Saturday.

There are, however, four solid matchups with peer teams in the next four weeks. In each of the four, the favorite will hold no more than a field goal edge entering the contest. In none of the above should one team prove clearly superior to the opponent.

And though a loss or two or three will little bearing on what Brian Kelly is building in South Bend, his Irish do need to experience consistent success in the next month of football. Four wins during said stretch is a lot to ask (two are on the road and I had the Irish slated to lose next Saturday in East Lansing in my pre-season predictions); three wins would position the 2010 Irish for a solid second half.

But such big picture analysis is pre-mature; it's a one-game at a time sport. On tap: a prime time battle at Michigan State on ABC, and the first opportunity to respond to adversity in the Brian Kelly era.


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