Well, that was a difficult game to watch. Getting blown out of the water by an arguably inferior, if not the exact same talent level, opponent is not something that should happen to a program that is (was) vying for playoff contention. The Notre Dame football team looked like a shell of themselves Saturday night as they got manhandled by Michigan, 45-14. All the credit needs to go to Michigan – the showed up and played a rivalry game the way it was supposed to be played. After racking up a second loss on the year and dropping to number 16 in the AP poll, the playoff hunt is out of the picture for the Irish. Granted, the game was played in the Midwest’s version of a hurricane, but the inexplicable errors by the players on the field and the questionable at best play calling certainly did not help Notre Dame in any way.
Offensively, there was nothing that seemed to get the Irish past Don Brown’s Wolverine defense. Ian Book finished the game completing only eight of his 25 passing attempts. As mentioned, the weather on Saturday night was cold, rainy, and windy so neither team’s passing game was going to be where it should have been which was a big advantage for Michigan. Had Notre Dame been able to force Michigan’s quarterback, Shea Patterson, into throwing more often, I believe the outcome of the game would have been drastically different. The best evidence of this theory came in the first half when Michigan was deep in their own territory and as Patterson was getting pressured, decided to throw the ball left handed (he’s a right handed quarterback) behind the line of scrimmage. Luckily for the Wolverines, the ball rolled out of bounds before an Irish player was able to get his hands on it other wise that would have been a turnover very close to the Irish end zone. It is plays like that that, in my mind, are a better representation of Patterson’s decision making ability, especially under pressure. If the Irish were able to force Michigan into more passing plays, turnovers would likely have arose, flipping the momentum of the game and putting Notre Dame into better field position.
Speaking of flipping the momentum and field position, the downward spiral of the Irish seemed to really be set in motion following the Bo Bauer partially blocked punt in the first quarter. As Bauer was able to get a hand on the punt deep in Irish territory, the ball kicked less than 20 yards. As Notre Dame senior linebacker Jon Jones saw the ball rolling on the field, he decided to attempt to dive on it and recover it (unnecessarily) for the Irish. This resulted in a brief Irish possession, a fumble, and a recovery for the Wolverines resulting in a fresh set of downs. This, rather than giving the Irish the ball less than 40 yards from their own end zone, ended up leading to Michigan’s first scoring drive and the start of Irish fans’ agony throughout the rest of the night.
Unlike Michigan’s offense, Notre Dame’s was not having success in any form. With Book struggling to accurately pass in the downpour, it would be up to the Irish rushing attack to handle the load. Unfortunately, Notre Dame’s leading rusher, Jahmir Smith, finished the game with a total of 15 yards which was no where near enough to give the Irish a chance in the ballgame. Of the first 28 plays that Chip Long called for the Irish offense, 20 of them went for two yards or less. Of Notre Dame’s big and physical receiving targets, none of them finished the game with more than two receptions. Yes, there were dropped balls which again would have helped, but the lack of targets and Book’s unwillingness to take any risks in the passing game is something that hindered the Irish. A performance like that, especially coming off a bye week with the extra preparation was not at all what I expected. I am not one that is falling into the narrative that Notre Dame backup quarterback, Phil Jurkovec, (who did see playing time on Saturday) should be granted the start against upcoming opponent Virginia Tech, but Book will need to respond with a strong and commanding performance if the Irish hope to compete for anything the rest of the season. Jurkovec did finish the game completing three of his four pass attempts for 60 yards and one touchdown. I expect Jurkovec to see more playing time as the season progresses especially if Book continues to struggle.
Patterson finished the game completing only six of his 12 passes, but it was the Michigan rushing attack that carried the load. Wolverine backs Hassan Haskins and Zach Charbonnet combined for 35 carries, 223 yards on the ground, and two touchdowns. This was thanks in part to the Michigan offensive line that opened up gaping holes for their backs. For how well the Irish defense has played this season, their performance on Saturday night was unfathomable. From being gashed by Michigan’s offensive line who has been putting up spotty performances all season, to missing tackles in the open field, there seemed to be nothing the Irish could do to stop the Wolverine’s offense. In the first half alone, it did not even seem that the Wolverine’s were looking to pass the ball and unfortunately they didn’t have to. Their running game was explosive and they almost didn’t even need to rely on their receivers as their offensive line was able to assert their dominance and pave the way for the rushing attack. As Chip Long and the Irish offensive play calling struggled, Clark Lea and the Irish defense’s unwillingness to load the box and send all the pressure to contain the running game was another huge error. The Michigan receivers Mike Sainristil, Donovan Peoples-Jones, and Nico Collins all accounted for one touchdown each, but the lack of a passing game should have been a cue for Notre Dame defenders to focus their attention on containing the Michigan backs.
Unfortunately, I would argue that this may go down as one of the top three worst losses in the Brian Kelly era. There should be a lot of internal evaluation before taking on Virginia Tech at home this upcoming week. Notre Dame was out coached, out schemed, and out played by a team that was not 31 points better than them. Although I, and many Irish fans, are down on the team following that disappointing loss, I will never stop rooting for the Irish. Let’s hope that this was an anomaly and the Notre Dame coaches and players are able to move past this. If there is any lingering disappointment and subpar play this upcoming week against Virginia Tech, we could be in for a long second half of the season. It’s back to the drawing board for the Irish before welcoming the Hokies to South Bend. I do believe that a 10-2 regular season is still squarely on the table for Notre Dame and a bounce back performance will be much needed this upcoming weekend.