Trailing 17-13 with nearly two minutes to go in the first half, Notre Dame held the ball at midfield after a 26-yard kickoff scamper by running back George Atkinson and aided by an additional 15-yard personal foul penalty on Michigan defensive back, Dymonte Thomas. The Fighting Irish possessed a golden opportunity to strike a demoralizing blow against the Wolverines right as the half drew to a close. Notre Dame senior quarterback Tommy Rees took the snap, rolled out of the pocket and to his left, threw against his body into coverage and watched as his pass fell perfectly into the hands of Michigan defensive back Blake Countess, who then returned the interception 30-yards up field to the Irish 23-yard line. Four plays later a demoralizing blow was indeed struck, with Michigan increasing its lead 27-13 as the last seconds of the first half ticked off the clock.
The same ol’ Turnover Tommy, they say.
As Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly stated to the media, “We did that [win games] last year on the back of our defense. I just felt like this was one of those nights where our offense had to bail out our defense.”
The Notre Dame offense, particularly Tommy Rees, is an easy target if your desire is to play the blame game. But is that where finger-pointing should really be directed? The Rees-led Irish offense piled on 410 total yards against the Wolverine defense, having only amassed 239 yards the previous year. The Notre Dame offensive line also showed significant improvement, grinding out 5.1 yards per carry on the ground as opposed to the 3.0 yards per carry average in 2012. While critics have been quick to point out the offense only rushed the ball 19 times, the low number is due to Notre Dame trailing 10-0 within the first eight minutes of the game and playing catch up the rest of the evening, having never led once in the contest.
There were moments of gallantry on the offensive side of the ball as well, with senior captain T.J. Jones refusing to stay on the sidelines after hurting both shoulders in-game – one of which was sprained – hauling in 9 receptions for 94 yards and a touchdown in the process. All of the gains in offensive production were achieved despite starting quarterback Everett Golson being dismissed and both starting running backs in Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood, as well as number one tight end in the country, Tyler Eifert, leaving due to the NFL or graduation.
Notre Dame’s offense was never intended to do the heavy lifting this season – its purpose was to manage the game in a relief role to Notre Dame’s talented defense. The loss of former defensive stars Manti Te’o, Danny Spond and Zeke Motta was difficult, but armed with arguably the best defensive line in the nation – and coupled with three senior linebackers and a talented, proven secondary with depth – one has to wonder why all eyes are on Rees and not the real disappointment from Saturday.
The Fighting Irish defense was essentially blown off the field, channeling defensive performances from the Weis era. A defensive unit that returned eight starters and only surrendered 12 points per game in 2012 more than tripled that number, allowing 41 points against Michigan. Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner earned a quarterback rating of 119.1 against the Irish defense, a complete 180 from the 31.6 passer rating Heisman contender Denard Robinson was held to in 2012. A defense that created six turnovers one year ago created only one in Ann Arbor. And a secondary that ranked 16th nationally in pass efficiency in 2012 allowed one Michigan wide receiver, Jeremy Gallon, to catch 8 passes for 184 yards and 3 touchdowns.
What were the critics saying about Rees again?
While easy to do after a loss, it’s important to keep in mind that finger-pointing and assigning grades in the blame department will do nothing to improve Notre Dame’s level of play or keep this past Saturday in perspective. Notre Dame went on the road, in primetime, and lost to a talented and ranked Michigan football team. While expectations were high after a national championship appearance, and fans may not wish to hear it, the truth is the 2013 Notre Dame football team was never going to go undefeated en route to another BCS Championship appearance. What it is capable of doing – and is still on track to do – is having an elite season. Notre Dame’s offense is littered with raw but talented and capable youth. The Fighting Irish defense has underperformed to date but, unlike the Weis years, it is not from a lack of skill. This defense can play better, and with a defensive coaching staff only one season removed from winning big on the award circuit, it will improve.
Perhaps most importantly of all, a once imposing football slate is starting to lose its intimidation factor. Notre Dame’s next opponent, Purdue, is on the verge of a disastrous season only two weeks into its schedule. After enduring a humiliating blowout loss at the hands of the Cincinnati Bearcats, 42-7, Purdue was taken to the wire and nearly defeated by Division I FCS Indiana State, 20-14. Michigan State’s offensive woes from 2012 have haunted them into 2013, struggling in week one against a Western Michigan University squad that lost to Nicholls St. and eking by South Florida with only 265 yards of total offense. And USC fell in a stunner to Washington State, 10-7, scoring the least amount of points against Wazzu in 72 years and only mustering an 8-yard pass as the longest throw of the day.
An elite caliber season remains within Notre Dame’s grasp. The Fighting Irish can get there, not as two separate offensive and defensive units but as one unified team.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles as well as co-founded a nationally-featured non-profit organization. In his spare time he takes his NCAA Football ’13 online dynasty way too seriously and alienates those around him by discussing football 24 hours a day. Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.