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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Irish Can't Close at Michigan

posted by John Vannie
Tate Forcier’s five yard touchdown pass to Greg Mathews with eleven seconds remaining gave the Michigan Wolverines a dramatic 38-34 victory over Notre Dame on Saturday in Ann Arbor. The Irish had fought back to overcome a 31-20 deficit in the fourth quarter to take a 34-31 lead with just over five minutes left, but a porous defense a some questionable coaching strategy enabled Michigan’s late heroics.

Special teams play also contributed significantly to the loss. Notre Dame surrendered a 94-yard kickoff return to Darryl Stonum in the first half, and short punts and kickoffs cost the Irish valuable field position throughout the afternoon and especially in the final minutes. It was the defensive front seven, however, that was victimized repeatedly by the Wolverines’ freshman quarterback. Poor tackling allowed Forcier to wriggle away from blitzes and make plays downfield.

Notre Dame battled back behind Jimmy Clausen and Armando Allen to take a 20-17 halftime lead after Stonum’s return staked Michigan to a 14-3 first quarter advantage. Clausen passed for scores to Golden Tate and Michael Floyd, whom the Wolverine secondary could not contain all day. Allen was equally effective in the running game with a career high 139 yards in 21 carries.

Michigan dominated the third quarter, beginning with a fumble by Jonas Gray on Notre Dame’s first series. They quickly regained the lead by 24-20 and scored later in the period on a fourth down play in which Forcier juked Irish linebacker Darius Fleming and sprinted untouched for 33 yards and a score.

Down 31-20, Clausen and Allen went back to work. Tate dropped a sure touchdown pass but later beat the Wolverines with 9:46 left in the game for a 21-yard score. Notre Dame went for two points and failed, leaving the deficit at 31-26. Kyle McCarthy intercepted Forcier moments later and returned it to the Wolverine 36, and Allen romped in for the go-ahead score and two point conversion at the 5:13 mark.

Allen was penalized for taunting on the conversion play, but Notre Dame stopped Michigan on the subsequent series despite the fact that the Wolverines were able to begin the drive on their 42. The Irish regained possession with three minutes left, needing only to run out the clock. After a 13 yard gain by Allen, Michigan stopped Robert Hughes for no gain and called timeout. Rather than continue to run the ball and exhaust the remaining Wolverine timeouts, Irish head coach Charlie Weis elected to pass.

The second down play was a deep fade to Tate that was covered well by Michigan’s Donovan Warren. In fact, Warren had successfully defended that same play all afternoon, and Weis' call in this situation was ill-advised given other higher percentage passing options and runs. Faced with a third down and ten, Weis had no choice but to order another pass. Unfortunately, he chose a timing route to a freshman receiver, Shaquelle Evans, with limited experience. Despite being afforded a comfortable cushion by his defender, Evans ran two steps too far past the first down marker and turned too late to make a play on the ball as it sailed by.

Eric Maust’s subsequent poor punt gave Forcier another shot from his 43. Armed with two timeouts and 2:13 on the clock, the Wolverines did not have to force the ball downfield or waste plays to spike the ball. Notre Dame continued to gamble on defense with blitzes, but Forcier’s artful dodging and short, accurate throws brought his team to the Irish five with 22 seconds left. LaTerryal Savoy dropped a sure touchdown on the next play, but Forcier then sidestepped another futile Irish blitz to hit Mathews with the game-winner.

Both teams were victimized on defense throughout the afternoon. The Irish seemingly moved the ball at will, but their own mistakes and a few questionable penalties contributed to their demise. On the first possession, Notre Dame came up empty when Michigan stuffed a quarterback draw on third down inside the ten and Nick Tausch missed a short field goal. Moments later, an apparent touchdown on a perfectly executed screen pass was called back when the replay officials ruled that Allen stepped out of bounds although the video evidence was anything but conclusive. The Irish had to settle for three points later in the series.

Michigan also squandered an opportunity to add to its point total. The Wolverines took the second half kickoff and ripped through the Irish defense behind tailback Brandon Minor. A 32-yard romp brought the ball to the one yard line, but Michigan could not punch the ball into the end zone. The subsequent field goal attempt was no good.

The loss was a bitter disappointment for Notre Dame as much as it was a boost to Michigan and head coach Rich Rodriguez. The Irish offense played well absent several holding penalties, both real and imagined by the Big Ten officiating crew. The defense and special teams, however, played poorly. Tackling issues and excessive, unproductive blitzes enabled rather than rattled Forcier.

Here is a review of the key questions raised in the game preview.

Can Notre Dame match Michigan’s intensity and emotion? Yes, the Irish were motivated and ready for battle. The problems on defense and in other areas were physical and strategic in nature.

Will Notre Dame allow the Wolverines to control the time of possession? Except for the third quarter and in the last few minutes of the game, Notre Dame’s offense did its part.

Can Paul Duncan and Matt Romine handle Brandon Graham and give Clausen time to pass? Yes, for the most part, although Kyle Rudolph had to stay in and provide maximum protection most of the day.

What impact will Manti Te’o have for the Irish? Manti who?

Can the Irish force Michigan into third and long situations? No, Forcier was rarely put in a position where he had to risk throws into coverage.

Which defense will demonstrate superior hitting and tackling? Neither, but the Irish were particularly awful.

How will Tausch perform under pressure? He missed a 28 yard field goal in the first quarter, but looked fine on his next (successful) attempt.

Which team will make mental mistakes and commit turnovers? Both teams had one turnover, but Notre Dame’s penalties and breakdowns on defense were more costly.

The Irish must bury this game and focus on the next one if the program is going to make real headway this season. The talent remains but the defensive scheme and the too cute play calling in certain situations needs to be reevaluated. It’s anyone’s guess at this point whether this will happen, but this team is more experienced now and there should be enough leadership among the players to move forward in a positive way. The obvious improvement in the running game will help, but the Irish cannot simply count on outscoring opponents.
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