Notre Dame entered the rain-soaked Big House on Saturday night, fresh from a bye week but lacking a coherent game plan against the inspired Michigan defense. Furthermore, Coach Brian Kelly made no discernible adjustments to account for the fact that the decisive first half was played in a torrential downpour. The Irish inexplicably tried to run east or west to no avail, and quarterback Ian Book was visibly panicked once again as the visitors fell by 45-14 to the Wolverines.
Things started downhill quickly for the hapless Irish. After stopping Michigan on third down deep in its own territory, linebacker Bo Bauer got his hand on the Wolverine punt. The ball rolled forward, but the Notre Dame players did not run away from it as is customary and wise. What happened next is the typical outcome when a player tries to pounce on a wet ball by doing a belly flop on it. As can be expected, Michigan recovered in the ensuing scrum and the Wolverines never looked back.
Employing a sharp north/south rushing attack, Michigan’s backs ripped through the Irish defense for big gains. A first quarter field goal was followed up by a touchdown drive on eight consecutive running plays. Zach Charbonnet capped the scoring march early in the second quarter with a seven yard run.
After another awful series by Ian Book and the Irish, Michigan took the ball near midfield and methodically rammed it into the end zone once again. Their lead stood at 17-0 with only 20 minutes elapsed in the contest and the visitors appeared as though they just wanted to get out of the rain.
The intensity of the deluge abated slightly in the second half, but the Wolverine running game was the constant and dominant force. Each team scored a touchdown after very questionable pass interference penalties kept drives alive in the third quarter.
Trailing 24-7 entering the final period, Kelly inserted backup quarterback Phil Jurkovec after Michigan stretched its advantage to 31-7 with a Shea Patterson touchdown pass to Donovan Peoples-Jones. Jurkovec ultimately led the team to paydirt to close the scoring, but not before the Wolverines added two more touchdowns of their own.
Michigan finished with a whopping 303 yards rushing, 149 by Hassan Haskins. The Irish managed only 47 yards on the ground in 31 attempts. Book was just 8 for 25 for 73 yards while Jurkovec hit three of four (including one dropped ball) for 60 yards. Patterson was called upon to throw only 12 passes for the Wolverines. He completed six. Chase Claypool stood out again for the Irish. The senior contributed a couple of acrobatic catches and displayed a warrior’s mentality for sixty minutes.
I realize this may be painful, but let’s review the answers to the pregame questions.
Will the Irish speedsters (Armstrong, Lenzy, Keys) become difference makers? Certainly not by running laterally to the short side of the field.
Which quarterback will be pressured into sacks or turnovers? Neither quarterback looked especially good, but Book was asked to throw it too many times in adverse situations. He simply could not cope.
Can the Notre Dame defense improve on the poor tackling it showed against USC? Not by much. The Wolverine backs ran with power and purpose.
Which team’s running game will be most effective? Michigan is the only team that had a running game on this night.
Can the Irish cover the tall Michigan receivers? The rain did more to limit the Wolverine passing game than the Notre Dame secondary.
Which special teams will make plays that alter momentum or field position? The early Irish special teams blunder ignited a Michigan avalanche that spiraled out of control.
Will the Irish finally execute a successful screen pass against the Wolverine blitz? Come on, now. You’re kidding, right? I counted three attempted screens that were utter failures.
Which team will be most effective in the red zone? It’s hard to say because Notre Dame is still searching for the red zone.
To sum it up, Notre Dame did exactly what I cautioned against in the pregame review. They ran the ball toward the sideline instead of right at the Wolverines. Book checked down to short, desperate and off-balance passes to Claypool and other targets that Michigan easily diagnosed and defended. They played right into Don Brown’s hands and paid the price.
Now that the fantasy that the Irish were a playoff contender has been put to bed, it’s time to prepare for 2020 by starting Jurkovec at quarterback. The team needs to see what he can do before next spring, or the job will almost certainly remain Book’s by default. The off-season may also be time to part ways with Offensive Coordinator Chip Long, who deserves some of the blame for ineffective game plans against the better teams on the schedule, and a failure to maximize the strengths of his personnel.
Finally, Kelly should not escape accountability for this debacle. He stubbornly continues to throw the ball with little or no chance of success in the worst conditions. After a full decade on the job, his teams always appear to be unprepared and reactive to the aggression of the opponent in the biggest games. His teams make the same mistakes from year to year while he places himself above the fray by pontificating about the players’ failure to execute. If this program is ever to reach the level the fan base desires, Kelly needs to go.
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