September 13, 2010
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly - Week 2 (Michigan)
Sometimes, all you can do is tip your cap. Sure, things could have been much different if Crist hadn’t missed so much of the 1st half, but the bottom line is that ND couldn’t stop Denard Robinson and couldn’t take advantage of the flimsy Michigan secondary.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only person in the stadium on Saturday who thought the game might be a laugher after that first drive by the offense. When Crist was in, the Irish generally moved the ball well, displaying an occasionally competent running game and an explosive (at times) passing game. Armando Allen had another solid, workman-like game, rushing for 89 yards at almost 6 yards a carry. Kyle Rudolph had a big day against Michigan’s suspect secondary, and TJ Jones continued to show flashes of his enormous potential.
The offensive continues to grow – although they had trouble imposing their will upon the Michigan front seven (especially for most of the 1st half), they generally gave the QBs time to throw (or run), and by my recollection, only committed one penalty (the hold immediately before the long Rudolph TD). Although there were some worries about the greenness of the line, particularly the tackles, it certainly seems as if we can move forward more confident that the line won’t be a major issue, at least until Pitt and their stud DEs come to town next month.
After going down by two TDs in the first half, the offense looked dominant at times in the 2nd half, running off 17 points unanswered. Although the end result was certainly frustrating, hopefully the furious comeback will give the offense some increased confidence moving forward.
Sure the comeback was impressive, but the Irish squandered some great opportunities to put more points on the board. The 2nd drive of the 2nd half saw the Irish forced to settle for another short FG, and after a big hold by the defense and a missed FG by Michigan, Crist threw an INT. The next few drives were a mix of ugly 3-and-outs with questionable playcalling (what happened to the run game??) and promising sequences that ultimately stalled. ND had all the momentum in the 3rd quarter (and most of the 4th as well), but couldn’t come up with the killshot.
Thus far, Crist has shown us that he’s got all the tools to become an amazing QB in the Brian Kelly offense. But he’s still incredibly raw. This is most immediately evident on his lack of touch on the longer throws, for example, his inability to keep the final pass in the field of play. We as Irish fans are incredibly spoiled, having watched one of the most accurate passers ever, Jimmy Clausen, over the past few years. Crist is no Clausen, and probably never will be, but I do expect him to make significant strides in the next few weeks.
Michael Floyd is an amazing talent, but something seems a bit off so far this year. He was visibly frustrated on at least one occasion in Saturday when Crist was unable to find him downfield. He also had at least one bad drop. I’m certain he’s drawing a significant amount of attention from defensive coordinators, but he needed to have a much bigger game yesterday. The Michigan secondary is probably the worst (or thinnest anyway) the Irish will face all year, and his disappearing act (whether on him or the coaching staff for failing to get him more involved) was incredibly disappointing.
Also disappointing thus far is the production from ND’s other WRs. TJ Jones looks like a good one, but early returns on the Theo Riddick Experiment don’t seem promising. I’m certainly willing to be patient, but I’m surprised that there isn’t someone else that could be contributing more in the passing game. Kamara played barely at all (did he even play at all?), and Deion Walker and John Goodman haven’t made any impact. With the (likely) impending departures of Kamara, Floyd and Rudolph, and the transfer of Shaq Evans, I’m very nervous about future production from the WR position.
To no one’s surprise, losing Crist for an extended period of time was disastrous. If it wasn’t already obvious, there isn’t a Zach Collaros on ND’s roster (at least not one that’s ready to play). Kelly has already announced that Massa and Hendrix won’t be taking any snaps this year, so the Montana/Rees combination will have to suffice if Crist goes down again.
Kelly took the blame for failing to adequately prepare his back-ups for the possibility of extended playing time. Neither looked good at all, throwing a pair of interceptions, and (apart from the 30 yard completion to Riddick at the end of the 1st half) failed to consistently move the Irish offense down the field. Unfortunately, this exercise only served to prove what all Irish fans already knew – the season will depend almost entirely upon the health of Dayne Crist.
The final stats were certainly ugly, but the defense did keep the Irish in the game for most of the day. After Crist went out, it was obvious to everyone in the stadium that the offense would not be contributing anything in the 1st half. The defense kept the game within reach and made some key stops after bad turnovers. In the 2nd half, the Irish held Michigan scoreless until the last minute of the 4th quarter, making several key 3rd down stops which resulted in missed FGs by the Wolverines. Although it didn’t seem like it, Michigan was only 3-16 on 3rd downs. Carlo Calabrese played another solid game, and it was encouraging to see the top 2 tacklers at the LB position.
As stupid as it sounds, the Irish defense is what it is – we aren’t going to see too many 3-and-outs, and the opposition is going to continue to have success running the ball as long as ND’s depth at the DL remains paper-thin. If the Irish can consistently force some 3rd and longs and be stout in the red zone, they should be effective enough to allow ND to win much more often than they lose. Kelly has recognized the depth problem and has been working this year on the recruiting trail to get some solid athletes at the DE and OLB positions. The next step is recruiting some ball-hawking, hard-nosed safeties who can help some more in run support and allow Diaco to play more aggressive with his corners. Until Diaco has more confidence that Smith, Motta and Slaughter can make reads and help out the corners in coverage, we’re going to continue to see opponents make hay with the quick outs and curl patterns.
Anytime your defense gives up 500+ yards to one player, there’s going to be lots of “bad.” Although ND was able to effectively neutralize Michigan’s RBs, Robinson ran wild, and the Wolverines averaged over 7 yards a carry. The tackling wasn’t terrible, but the Irish did have several opportunities to make plays in the Michigan backfield, only to let Robinson slip away.
The defense really seemed to run out of steam on the last drive, as they were no doubt exhausted having orchestrated several key stops only to have to take the field immediately after the 95 yard TD to Rudolph on the second play of the penultimate drive. The Irish may be much better conditioned after the offseason training program, but its tough for any defense to contain Denard Robinson for 4 quarters.
Certainly the D needs to get much better as the year progresses, but I’m not going to ding these guys too badly – Denard Robinson is really freaking good.
With 3:47 left in the 2nd quarter, Ben Turk and Darrin Walls stuck Michigan back at their own 2-yard line. Although Irish fans may have had visions of a big turnover or getting the ball back in great field position with some time on the clock in the 1st half to tie the game, many would have been thrilled to simply get to the locker room down only one score. Two Robinson rushes got Michigan out of the shadow of their own end zone, and a 2-yard Vincent Smith run picked up a key 1st down. Then Robinson takes the ball around right end for 87 yards, putting the Wolverines up two scores and destroying whatever momentum ND might have had left in the 1st half. A disastrous turn of events.
David Ruffer continued his excellence, hitting another FG to increase his made-FG streak, and also sticking his kickoffs to the goal line and even into the end zone.
Ben Turk stuck Michigan inside the 20 on several occasions, and the coverage teams were generally excellent again.
I don’t think I can in good conscience say anything negative about the special teams. They were consistently great (and clearly superior to Michigan’s) and there’s enough negativity floating around the other areas.
The staff was able to keep the Irish in the game, both emotionally and physically, and orchestrated an impressive turnaround in the 3rd quarter, allowing the Irish to roar back into the game almost immediately.
It wasn't pretty, but Diaco's bend-don't-break defense kept the Irish afloat, getting some big stops on 3rd down. The inside LB play has been greatly improved so far this year, and Diaco has to get some kudos for the development of Carlo Calabrese, who has been excellent.
Its been discussed to the point of exhaustion – why would Kelly eschew a short FG at the end of the 1st half for a shot at a TD with Nate Montana in the game. The soundness of that decision, to me at least, depends upon Brian Kelly’s expectations for the return of Dayne Crist. If he knew Crist would be available for the 2nd half, the decision doesn’t look like a good one. If he thought he’d be playing with a 2nd string QB the rest of the way, I’d certainly understand why he would take a shot there.
There were a few other decisions that were questionable that I won’t bother going through here. I had a chance to talk to a buddy from Cincinnati after the game who has no rooting interest in ND, but lived and died with the Bearcats the last few years. According to this guy, Kelly gets great marks for program-building, recruiting, motivation, player development and politicking. But he would often (2-3 times per game at least) make a head-scratching decision that led said buddy to go so far as to call Kelly a “terrible” in-game coach. Something to keep an eye on the next few games.
I’m going to take these reports with a grain of salt, but the Michigan coaches are saying that Robinson carried so often because the ND defense was crashing hard on the RB on the zone read play, basically “forcing” Denard to keep. If this is true, what a terrible decision.
Offense - KYLE RUDOLPH
Kelly took the leash off Rudolph this week, taking advantage of Michigan’s LBs and safeties. Crist’s 95 yard TD to Rudolph was the most exciting play in the stadium since Quinn to Shark against UCLA in ’06.
Defense – MANTI TE’O
He was destroyed on Robinson’s 87 yard TD run at the end of the 2nd half, but paced the ND defense in tackles and was the only ND defender to wrangle Robinson down behind the line of scrimmage.
Special Teams – BEN TURK
He’s still got a ways to go to become a consistently excellent punter, but he did manage to stick Michigan inside the 20 on several occasions.
A daunting task facing Kelly and the Irish the next 4 weeks – at MSU (at night), Stanford, at BC, Pitt. Yikes. I do think the Irish D matches up much better against the straightforward, old-school smashmouth offensive style used by these teams, but at this point, even 2-2 against that stretch doesn’t sound so bad.