What hasn't gone wrong for the Wolverines? The loss to Appalachian State was one of the biggest in the history of college football. Oregon traveled cross country and added salt to the wound with a 39-7 victory. Starting quarterback Chad Henne got injured in the defeat to the Ducks and will not play this weekend against Notre Dame. Head coach Lloyd Carr has been taking the brunt of the criticism and many think a change is finally needed after 13 seasons. Carr wants to see how his group comes out on Saturday after two straight humbling losses.
"The measure, the test, I guess of any athlete, any player, any team, any coach, is how you respond when things aren't going well because that's when I think you get your greatest challenge," Carr said on Tuesday. "There are always challenges out there but if you've got good people, you don't worry about those issues. You know what it takes, though, what is required, is you get into the competition itself is a concentrated ability to focus on the things that you need to do individually, the player, as a coach, to do your job. That's, to me, what it comes down to."
The defense has been particularly bad so far in 2007 for Michigan. Both Appalachian State and Oregon employed spread offenses with mobile, athletic quarterbacks. It's caused major headaches for the Wolverines defense. Michigan is 109th in rushing defense, 108th in total defense, 101st in scoring defense and 116th in pass efficiency defense. The Wolverines have been unable to stop the big play. Through two games, Michigan has allowed 11 plays of 20 yards or more.
"We let the ball outside the defense and two things occur there," Carr said, who emphasized tackling would be a top priority this week in practice. "You lose the pursuit of your defense, because the ball is somewhere where you don't expect it to be. When the ball is outside the defense your defense has to run further and it wears you down. I think it was good effort but I think we have to play team defense. That means that when you're responsible for putting the edge on the defense and turning it back, then we have to do a better job of it."
The Wolverines defense might catch a break this weekend. Notre Dame's offense has been just as bad. The Irish rank at the bottom or near the bottom of several national statistical categories. Notre Dame's offensive line has been a leaky vessel in not establishing a ground attack or protecting the quarterback. Speaking of that position, freshman Jimmy Clausen will be making his second career start after last week's 17-of-32 performance for 144 yards in the 31-10 loss at Penn State. Carr likes what he saw from the young signal caller.
"I thought he showed really good poise," Carr said of Clausen. "I thought there were a number of times in that film where it's just obvious that he's going to be sacked, and yet he finds a way to get rid of the ball so that they don't lose yardage. I think he moves around well. He's got a good arm. He's a smart player."
Michigan will also have their own freshman quarterback starting on Saturday. With Henne out, Ryan Mallett takes control of the Wolverines offense. In last week's loss to Oregon, the freshman came on in relief and was just 6-of-17 for 49 yards and an interception. Mallett will get all the snaps in practice to prepare for Notre Dame and has the luxury of handing the ball off to senior running back Mike Hart, who's averaging 6.6 yards per carry. Carr doesn't think his freshman quarterback will get flustered by the magnitude of the rivalry or crowd.
"I can guarantee you, he's not intimidated by anything," Carr said. "I think that's one of the things I like about him. He's got a lot of confidence. He's got a great arm and yet he's got to go into this week and play within himself and within the context of the game plan, because it's really about winning. And it's not about Ryan Mallett. It's about doing the things that will help this team win."
Saturday's contest is big for both tradition-laden schools. Michigan and Notre Dame want to avoid 0-3 starts. It's only happened once in Irish football history. For the Wolverines, thoughts of a 0-3 start were absurd at the start of fall camp. Carr believes his team can find their way back to respectability.
"I think we are where we are," Carr said. "What I've all done throughout my career every week is try to address where we are, the reality. We know where we are. The reality is that we very much would like to change that to become the team that we're capable of being, and there are fundamentals that are important in terms of achieving that end."