by John Vannie
A determined group of Michigan Wolverines came into Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday with a smoldering rage borne of frustration after a 7-5 season in 2005 and questions regarding their place among college football’s elite. Meanwhile, the Irish have enjoyed their reclaimed position as America’s team behind head coach Charlie Weis and quarterback Brady Quinn. These roles reversed again suddenly and convincingly as the Wolverines administered a thorough and complete beating to the stunned Irish.
Notre Dame showed why it is not ready for prime time, or at least the top five ranking it had enjoyed since the preseason polls. The Irish running game on Saturday can best be described as anemic, the passing game was reduced to dink and dunk, and the offensive line was physically dominated by the bigger and stronger Wolverine forward wall and linebackers. The latter group played exceptionally well, led by Prescott Burgess’ two interceptions and a touchdown.
On defense, the hosts started well against the Michigan running game, but the undersized Irish wore down as the game progressed. The secondary reverted to 2005 form by allowing three long scores to Mario Manningham, who burned Ambrose Wooden once and Terrail Lambert twice. The latter matchup was exploited repeatedly by the Wolverines and the Notre Dame defensive staff did nothing to counter it.
Even special teams contributed to the Irish demise. A fumbled kickoff return set up a touchdown and the coverage teams were mediocre. Penalties (11 for 84 yards) were also a problem, although the referees may have been tired from Friday night’s family reunion in Lloyd Carr’s hotel suite.
It was a long afternoon for Brady Quinn, who saw his status as Heisman favorite evaporate despite three touchdown passes. Although the sturdy signal-caller had a poor game, he does not deserve undue criticism for the loss despite misfiring on a number of throws. The fact of the matter is that Notre Dame was truly overrated, and no quarterback is going to be successful over the long haul without even a respectable running game.
While Weis bravely took his medicine after the game and pinned much of the blame on himself, Irish followers know that the real solution to the problem lies in recruiting. Despite his ability to coax significant productivity out of the talent he inherited, the team’s weaknesses have been exposed by bigger, faster and more physical opponents in three of its last four outings.
Besides the inability to get any push up front in the running game, Quinn’s receivers have been unable to separate from quicker defenders. Long passes in particular have become little more than jump balls because the current receivers lack elite speed. Bright spots include the growth of tight end John Carlson as a legitimate threat, and the breakout performance of wideout David Grimes against Michigan’s nickel backs. Notre Dame still has the horses to beat many teams, but not enough to crack the top ten.
Despite the rude awakening administered by a long time rival, Irish fans should not sink into a state of depression. There are nine regular season games left, and the Nation must support this team for what they are rather than complain about what they are not. Many folks blindly adopted the confident attitude of Weis because they wanted to believe he could scheme the team to victory over any foe, but football is a game won in the trenches much more often than in the coaching box.
As is often said in sports, the most important game is the next one. This Notre Dame team has no time to feel sorry for itself, because 2-2 is a real possibility with a trip to East Lansing only a few days hence. The coaches and players will be smarting from this loss, but the staff must try to restore the confidence of every player from Quinn on down the line.
The question is whether opposing teams have figured out how to defend Weis and the Irish in this second year of operation. With virtually the same personnel on offense from last year, Weis is limited in what he can do against tough, physical teams on the schedule. Michigan was certainly one of them.