Wide Receivers and Tight EndsMichael Floyd was outstanding, breaking his week-old personal best with 13 receptions totaling 159 yards and a score. The senior star routinely made something out of nothing on slot screens and slants, gaining ample yards after the catch. Floyd added a downfield seal block in the third quarter that helped running back Jonas Gray gain 38 yards over the right side.
Theo Riddick bounced back from his Week One nightmare with two touchdowns – the opening score and the late-game, 29-yard go-ahead grab down the seam that should have marked the game-winner. Riddick's final kick return, a clutch 33-yarder to the ND 39-yard line, helped set up the offense's final touchdown march.
Sophomore T.J. Jones showed excellent run-after-catch burst, turning a third down short cross into a nine-yard touchdown dance, the final sprint made possible by a tremendous downfield block by Robby Toma. Jones also drew a pass interference penalty in the end zone.
Tyler Eifert secured multiple chain-moving receptions including a crucial 22-yard post to midfield late in the contest. The junior helped clear a path at the goal line for Cierre Wood's short touchdown run as well though it appeared he missed his assigned block on one of three 3rd and 1 stops of the team's ineffective short-yardage offense. (As assessment prior to film review). Backup Ben Koyack – making his collegiate debut and pressed into action after an apparent leg injury by Mike Ragone – also lost a block in short-yardage resulting in a tackle for loss.
Initial Assessment: One week after contributing greatly to defeat, the team's receivers and tight ends played at a BCS level Saturday night.
Offensive BackfieldTommy Rees' poise, touch, and ease with which he operates belies his inexperience as a player making his fifth career start, but the sophomore's maddening, consistent penchant for a throw into traffic – usually headed for a well-covered Michael Floyd – damaged the Irish again Saturday.
Rees fired for 315 yards and three scores but was intercepted twice and suffered an unmolested fumble; two of the three errors occurred inside the red zone. His would-be game-winning drive furthered the athletically limited Rees as a gutsy, clutch performer who, warts and all, can lead the Irish to victory this year and in the future…but he could use a change-of-pace backup or Wildcat option going forward.
Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray were outstanding in tandem, accounting for 215 yards on 32 scrimmage touchdowns. Its shocking Notre Dame found a way to lose with such a performance from its backfield. Gray ran hard in traffic; showed patience plus speed on a 38-yard gain, and even provided a check down option for Rees early. Wood has been outstanding through the opening contests – an open field danger who might be one step slow for an elite back, but possesses the quickness, cutting ability, and vision to excel for the Irish over what could be 37 more college football games.
Wood's third-quarter fumble was unforced and cost the Irish a shot at 3 or 7 points, but the competitor bounced back: his next carry yielded 24 yards following a vicious full-speed cut in space reminiscent of former program great Lee Becton. He saved Rees' life and a potential turnover as well with an inspired, cross-pocket blitz pickup that resulted in a Rees completion to Floyd.
Initial Analysis: Four turnovers offset an otherwise outstanding performance by the three-headed Irish backfield. Unfortunately, turnovers are more important than many of the cosmetic yards gained in modern college football.
Offensive LineA sloppy effort overall witnessed three penalties in both halves including a trio of false starts and a personal foul. The line had trouble picking up delayed blitzes (though it allowed no sacks) throughout the second quarter and offered zero push on four 3rd and 1 situations (one conversion thanks to a favorable spot).
Offensive line reviews are better printed after Monday's look at the game film, but at least four of the six main blockers committed egregious errors and or multiple penalties in the hostile environs.
Inconsistency and mental mistakes were as much the story as the 198 rushing yards produced.
Head coach's analysis: Kelly was asked to evaluate the OL in the wake of three failed 3rd and short situations:
"Each one is a different scenario on 3rd and short. The first we converted," he began. "I thought the second we did not block correctly – we had two mistakes in the front. The third one we had a pass built into it and they hit the play. Give them credit on that. On the fourth, in that scenario, we have to check out of the play and throw the football because they had nine guys on the line of scrimmage.
"All in all, if the numbers are fair (enough blockers vs. defenders), I can evaluate our offensive line and say we did a pretty good job," Kelly offered. "When the numbers aren't fair, we have to do a better job of giving our quarterbacks the options as to what he does with it.
"With Tommy (Rees), you're limited. You're not going to do a lot of things with the quarterback running the ball. We just have to continue with Tommy in there and those situations to develop our third-and-short package with him."
Defensive LineLouis Nix and senior Hafis Williams offered yeoman's work in the absence of starting nose guard Sean Cwynar (broken hand). Nix engineered several pocket pushes though was blown five yards backwards (too high) on Michigan's maddening 3rd and Goal fumble recovery touchdown.
Kapron Lewis-Moore offered two big plays with PD and solo stop in the first quarter; then added a third knifing through the line to stop Robinson in the second.
Lewis-Moore could not swing Robinson to the ground for a late-third quarter sack, the result a 77-yard gain downfield to Junior Hemingway, who beat Gary Gray (a recurring theme of the evening). Lewis-Moore's late game personal foul penalty exacerbated a trash jump ball gain that took the ball from the UM 10-yard line to the Irish 45, tacking on 15 more to the ND 30-yard line.
Ethan Johnson's best play was a skate-down-the line stop of an inside draw to RB Vincent Smith, but the key to his efforts was sealing the edge vs. Robinson on multiple early bootlegs, including one in which he stopped Robinson in space, allowing Manti Te'o to clean up the play.
The Irish front allowed 114 rushing yards on 26 carries (Robinson 108 on 16) with only a fumble recovery touchdown breeching the scoreboard. Michigan managed just five rushing first downs on the contest.
For the second straight week, little pressure was applied on an opposing quarterback – a theme that dates back to the team's 2010 November winning streak during which the defense offered just three sacks over the final four contests (and only one over the first two games of 2011).
Initial Analysis: Incomplete, but good enough to win a football game vs. a team that generally relies on running the football. Maintaining rush lane integrity was likely the team's goal vs. the sublime Robinson, but the Irish need to find a way to create more pressure with their front line heading into what should be a wild contest vs. Michigan State next Saturday.
LinebackersNondescript, and in the case of Darius Fleming: ineffectual. I barely noticed the team's supposed senior breakout star aside from his missed tackle in space that turned a 3rd down stop into a Michigan touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
Prince Shembo struggled to shed an outside seal block on a pair of long Robinson rushes while Manti Te'o was sucked inside on the latter – a 39-yard gain. Shembo made a nice play to stretch the runner to the sideline for a four-yard loss in the third quarter.
Dan Fox showed well statistically, registering the game's only sack, leading the team with two tackles for loss, and finishing third with four solo stops. One play after Fox's sack of Robinson, the junior ‘backer blew an assignment in the left flat, allowing a simple backfields swing pass to result in a 15-yard fourth quarter gain. Carlo Calabrese hustled to stop Robinson for a six-yard gain on a beautiful second quarter scramble that had danger written all over it.
Manti Te'o finished with five tackles in his second straight solid, unspectacular performance. His between-the-tackles speed did result in at least two stops of Robinson that could have turned into large gains.
Initial Analysis: Nowhere near elite level or what was deemed possible heading into the season though the quintet of regulars, like the defensive front, played well enough to win a road game vs. the nation's most dangerous early-season offensive weapon.
Defensive BacksThe good? Three interceptions including a clutch end zone play by Robert Blanton that shifted fourth quarter momentum…a kamikaze goal line fumble forced by an airborne Harrison Smith on 3rd and G from the 1-yard line…A tremendous early third quarter solo stop of Robinson by Smith in open space…The hustle of Robert Blanton (briefly) saving a touchdown…
The bad? 30 yards per catch – a video game number. At least 220 yards and four touchdowns surrendered or set-up by an out-of-character Gary Gray as the boundary corner…a poorly played lob pass by safeties Zeke Motta and Harrison Smith…terrible discipline by the defense and Gray on the penultimate play of the contests – a wheel route that gained 64 yards and allowed the Wolverines a chance to win the contest.
Kelly was asked Sunday bout Gray's rough day and the possibility of working in Lo Wood at some point Saturday: "You have to make the decision, really. Gary is a senior. If you're pulling him off the field you're making a decision that we're going with a younger guy. We're not at that point with Gary, we're two games into the season.
"He has a lot of pride and he's a guy that has shown he can bounce from a tough day. The cornerback position is such that you're put out on an island and sometimes it doesn't go your way. I'm very confident Gary's going to bounce back next week."
Kelly said of Michigan's 64-yard gain vs. the Irish on the game's penultimate play, "They ran a double-post wheel. We squeezed hard on the curl and the wheel outflanked our defense. There are a couple of key coaching points in how you play that route. It's a very common route. We'll address that with those guys responsible for it."
Initial analysis: Unconscionable mistakes by the defensive secondary contributed heavily to the defeat. 28 points allowed in the fourth quarter is obscene and inexcusable.
There's no reason backup cornerback Lo Wood should not have given Gray a break to at least collect himself during the onslaught obviously directed at him. There's also no way Gray should have been left alone to defend Roy Roundtree with eight seconds remaining at the ND 16-yard line.
The secondary unequivocally failed Saturday night.
Special TeamsLast week it was laughable; this week, merely inconsistent with a trio of low points that included a shanked Ben Turk punt and pair of errors (one mental, one physical) on recycled punt return option John Goodman. Turk's follow-up effort of 54 yards was returned for 21 to set up Michigan's initial go-ahead score with just 1:12 remaining.
Still, the Irish special teams nearly played the role of hero:
Two key kick returns by Theo Riddick, the latter a 33-yard burst to the ND 39-yard line, positioning Rees and the offense at a reasonable distance for the go-ahead score (realized five plays later).
The first through-the-end-zone boot of Kyle Brindza's career when the Irish needed it most: setting up Michigan with 80 yards to travel in 30 seconds.
In the end, it wasn't enough, though Riddick showed flashes of potential as a kick returner and David Ruffer bounced back from his shocking Week One miss to drill a 38-yarder earlier.
Baby steps were taken, but everything involving a punted football still favors to opponent.
Ten of NoteIrisheyes.com's top 10 performers Saturday vs. the Wolverines:
- Michael Floyd – Allows the Irish to function as a viable offense. A dominant short and mid-range receiver
- Cierre Wood – Tremendous start to the season and is light years better in pass protection. But … tuck it away, young man
- Theo Riddick – Scored the first and last touchdown for the Irish, setting up the latter on special teams
- Robert Blanton – Clutch interception and a typical gritty effort on the corner
singing his praises as a cool customer and unflappable winner if the team's defense didn't suffer repeated ridiculous breakdowns
- Tommy Rees – Made a trio of critical errors along the way; Irish fans would be
- Jonas Gray – Joins Riddick for the bounce-back award…now give him the ball more and throw less
- T J Jones – Has always been willing and tough in short bursts after the catch; Saturday was his best overall game. Jones is emerging after a touchdown catch-and-run and another drawn penalty in the end zone. Tough as nails and another bounce back player from a Week One debacle
- Tyler Eifert – Clutch receptions and two tremendous in-line blocks but I have a feeling the film review will show two key misses on short-yardage as well. Eifert was open for at least a 30-yard gain (if he fell upon completion) on Rees' first pass interception
- Kapron Lewis-Moore – Three big backfield plays...personal foul penalty notwithstanding
- Manti Te'o – A bit of a default pick; the Irish defense would have struggled to contain Robinson's inside forays without him
On tap Monday: A full-film review of the Irish offense, defense, and special teams.