September 16, 2008 // Notre Dame Football

Michigan Win A Building Block for Young Irish

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Notre Dame, IN (UHND.com) – Notre Dame’s win over Michigan this past weekend was a step in the right direction for a Notre Dame team trying to rebound from last season’s nightmare of a season, but it wasn’t the “signature” win some people might want to make it out to be.  It is what it is – a building block for Notre Dame as they attempt to rebuild
a program the depths of last season’s dreadful 3-9 season.

Saturday’s win for Notre Dame over Michigan certainly wasn’t pretty at times.  The Wolverines handed the Irish the ball time and time again during Notre Dame’s 35-17 victory over the new look Wolverines under first year head coach Rich Rodriguez.  Of the four fumbles Michigan lost, three of them came without a Notre Dame defender even touching the Michigan ball carrier – one was a botched kick return, one was a backwards pass, and one was a botched shotgun snap.

To an extent, the Irish were indeed very “lucky” on Saturday.  Even when Michigan wasn’t placing the ball on the turf without contact, the ball was bouncing Notre Dame’s way.  Several times the Irish coughed the ball up only to see it bounce directly in the hands of a fellow Irish player.

Some in the media have harped on this “lucky” aspect from Saturday’s win such as ESPN’s Pat Forde, but what narrow minded columnists such as Mr. Forde failed to realize was that while the ball was bouncing Notre Dame’s way, the Irish still needed to put the ball in the end zone –something the 2007 team couldn’t do even when things did go their way.

Two prime examples of this from last season came in the Penn State and UCLA games.  Against Penn State, Tom Zbikowski returned a punt inside the Nittany Lion 5 yard line with the game still very much in doubt.  The result?  A 22 yard Brandon Walker field goal.  Instead of cutting the Penn State lead to three points, Notre Dame still trailed by seven and gave Penn State back the momentum after their goal line stand.

A couple weeks later in the Rose Bowl, Zbikowski again created a big play when he sacked Ben Olsen causing a fumble which Kerry Neal recovered and returned to the one yard line.  The result?  Another chip shot field goal.

Blessed with outstanding field position in both instances, the Irish settled for three points in both times.  Now fast forward to this past weekend.  Against Michigan the Notre Dame offense got the ball inside the redzone twice because of Michigan fumbles and both times the Irish capitalized with touchdowns – once on a Robert Hughes two yard run and the other on a Duval Kamara touchdown catch.

Call it lucky all you want, but the Irish were not capitalizing on those type of opportunities a year ago and that is why Saturday’s win was a very important building block for this team.   Notre Dame dug itself a huge hole to crawl out of at the end of last season and Saturday’s win was a very important step in crawling out.

Losing to a struggling Michigan team which lost its season opener to Utah would have been a sign that the Irish were not much improved from a year ago.  This was a game a game that Notre Dame should have won so a loss would have been a big setback for the Irish.  It wasn’t a huge win because Michigan is likely going to be a .500 (or maybe worse) football team this year as they adapt to Rodriguez’s spread offense, but it was a game that showed this isn’t the same football team we saw in 2007.

If this was the 2007 Fighting Irish, those first two possessions would have likely ended in field goal attempts – not even necessarily field goal conversions.  If this was the 2007 Fighting Irish, Golden Tate likely would most likely not have gotten behind the Michigan defense on his way to a 48 yard touchdown.   If this was the 2007 Fighting Irish, the offense would not have responded to Michigan’s 10 unanswered points with a score of their own in the second quarter.

This team still has a long way to go – in all likelihood, a very long way to go – but Saturday’s win showed that the Irish are building towards being a better team.  The running game still isn’t close to where it needs to be, but after two games last year the Irish were still in the negative running the football.  When you look at it that way, averaging 109.0 yards a game doesn’t seem so bad does it?

The passing game is still a work in progress, but after surrendering a NCAA record 58 sacks last season, it sure does look beautiful to see a 0 in the stat column for sacks allowed through two games this year doesn’t it?

Defensively the Irish also look improved.  Even if some of Michigan’s turnovers were self inflicted it’s awfully nice to see the Notre Dame defense credited with creating eight turnovers through two games after forcing just 25 all last season.

The special teams appear to be improved as well.  Mike Anello and David Bruton are doing an amazing job as the gunners on the return units and are helping the Irish win the turnover battle.  The Notre Dame return units appear to be better even though they haven’t been test a whole lot.

Yes, all of these improvements have come against a really bad San Diego State team and a mediocre Michigan team, but guess what folks?  The Irish played some bad teams last year too and didn’t look this good or capitalize on opportunities like they are this year a year ago.  And say what you want about the Michigan team as a whole, but their defense should be pretty solid this year and Golden Tate owned their secondary before the rains came and Notre Dame went vanilla with a two score lead.

Are the Irish a top 10 team right now?  Not at all.  Are they a top 25 team?  Probably not yet.  They are, however, an improved team that is building towards becoming both of those things.  They might not reach the top 10 this year, but if they continue to improve as they have so far, the top 25 might not be too far away for the Irish and that is very important to keep in mind when analyzing where this team stands right now.

This weekend’s game against Michigan State will be another test for the Irish and another potential building block for this season.  This is very much a rebuilding season – even if Charlie Weis doesn’t like that word.  Notre Dame is rebuilding itself after last season’s embarrassment and this weekend’s win was just another building block towards that goal – nothing more, nothing less.  What will be important for Notre Dame moving forward will be to keep building, to keep improving.

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