By DOUG GRIFFITHS
ISL Assistant Editor
Having had plenty of time to digest and analyze Notre Dame’s first regular-season loss since 2011, I’ve come to some conclusions.
Before I dive into those, let me reassure Irish Nation that the sky isn’t falling and Notre Dame’s program isn’t slipping after Saturday night’s 41-30 defeat Saturday night to 17th-ranked Michigan in Ann Arbor.
“When you’re coming off of playing for a national championship, the bar is high,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “So the expectations are when you go on the road, you don’t lose to Michigan, and that’s really the standard that is set.”
With that said, I argue the following …
• The Wolverines are a much improved football team with a true dual-threat quarterback in Devin Gardner.
Denard Robinson who? All Gardner did against the Irish was account for five touchdowns, throwing for nearly 300 yards and averaging 6.3 yards on his 13 rushes.
• Surprisingly, the Fighting Irish defense isn’t as strong as most thought it would be … at least at this point in the season.
• I thought Notre Dame’s defensive front would have more of an impact in big games. It managed just one sack against Michigan despite having Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, two guys who NFL scouts already covet.
Tuitt did have an incredibly athletic interception in the end zone for a touchdown that for a time changed the game’s momentum, but he didn’t have a tackle. That’s production the Irish can’t afford from No. 7.
• Notre Dame’s running attack, which features George Atkinson III and Amir Carlisle, isn’t nearly as worrisome for defensive coordinators as was last year’s two-headed monster that featured Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick. Neither had a longer run of more than 16 yards against the Wolverines and the running game was held under 100 yards total.
• Quarterback Tommy Rees does give the Irish more of a passing threat than Everett Golson, but Rees is much easier to scheme against since he’s not nearly as mobile.
Rees was by no means the reason why Notre Dame lost to the Maize and Blue. After all, he threw for more than 300 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Granted his two interceptions hurt, but like it or not, he’s going to have to shake off some rust since he was primarily a backup a year ago.
• ND’s linebacking corps really misses Manti Te’o. The Irish looked like a defense that had never seen an athletic quarterback before as Gardner constantly broke containment and was able to pick up chunks of yardage at will.
• Staying with the linebackers, the Irish also miss outside backer Danny Spond, who had to retire from the game due to concussions and headaches, perhaps more than they would lead you to believe.
Spond’s replacement, Jaylon Smith, is going to be a very special player in time, but right now he’s a true freshman, making the kinds of mistakes you would expect from such an inexperienced player.
• Speaking of players missed, how much do you think Tyler Eifert’s absence hurts? A lot when you consider every time the Irish needed a big third-down conversion or big play last year, Eifert almost always delivered.
• The Irish secondary features a pair of seniors, but Bennett Jackson and Co. had absolutely no answer for Jeremy Gallon, who looked like a first-team All-American with his eight catches for 184 yards and three touchdowns.
• Maybe Notre Dame’s kicking game is in very good hands, which didn’t seem to be the case after the season-opener against Temple.
Kyle Brindza was automatic against the Wolverines, drilling all three of his field goal tries, including a long of 44. It was nice to see him bounce back after he missed a 44-yarder against Temple.
“There’s getting beat and then there’s losing,” Kelly said. “You know, I’m okay going across the sideline and shaking somebody’s hand after losing to a team that took it from us.
“We made a lot of mistakes and that’s on us and we’ve got to clean up. We’ve got to coach better and we’ve got to play better. At the end of the day, this comes down to execution when you need to.
“It was a game where Michigan played well,” Kelly added. “I’m not going to take anything away from them, and I would like to move on sooner or later.”
So with all that in mind, do I think Notre Dame is going to struggle this season to say a 7-5 or 8-4 regular season. Absolutely not. I still firmly believe this Notre Dame team is still in line to win 10 games.
Just look at the remaining schedule.
Notre Dame could very well be favored in every game with the exception of the regular-season finale against top-five Stanford.
It’s a very easy and manageable schedule.
The Irish will get very healthy come Saturday night as they can name their score against lowly Purdue.
After they beat the Boilermakers for the sixth straight season, the Irish will return home to face a Michigan State team that is as offensive challenged as any in America.
So Notre Dame will be 3-1 when nationally ranked Oklahoma pays a visit to South Bend.
Sure the Sooners will be looking for revenge after what happened in Norman a year ago against the Irish, but they’re not the team they were in 2012. If you need proof, just look at their less than impressive 16-7 home win over West Virginia on Saturday.
Following the Oklahoma game, there’s the Shamrock Classic against Arizona State in Arlington, Texas. No doubt, the Sun Devils could present some problems and will learn how tough they’ll be after the next two weeks when they face Wisconsin and Stanford.
USC then visits Notre Dame Stadium in what will likely be Lane Kiffin’s final game against the Irish. The Trojan program seems to be in disarray after losing to Washington State and believe it or not SC doesn’t have a quarterback. When is the last time you could say that?
Look for Notre Dame to be sporting a 6-1 record when USC leaves town.
After that, the Irish will be prohibitive favorites against Air Force, Navy, Pittsburgh and BYU, and could very well be 10-1 heading to Stanford for what would be a huge showdown.
Sure, Notre Dame fans are naturally disappointed with the outcome of Saturday’s game against the Wolverines, the final showdown in the Big House between the two storied programs for quite some time. However, there’s no need to press the panic button.
The down-to-earth fan had to know Notre Dame wasn’t going to get all the breaks this year and have a magical run like it did in 2012.
Kelly has preached all off-season and at the beginning of this season, this is a different year, different team. That it is, and it’s a team that has faced adversity already. First, Golson became ineligible, and now the Irish have a regular-season loss.
How well Notre Dame deals with that setback in Ann Arbor will set the course for the rest of the season.
“We’re not a finished product,” Kelly warns. “We’ve got some work to do.”
That they do, but you can expect Notre Dame will get real healthy the next couple weeks and have whatever swagger they may have lost in Ann Arbor back by the time Oklahoma pays a visit on Sept. 28.
Keep in mind, currently just two teams remaining on the Irish schedule are ranked among the top 25 – the Sooners at No. 14 and No. 5 Stanford.
Yes, there’s still plenty to look forward to for Irish fans as the wins are about to pile up for Kelly’s club.
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