Michigan exposes Notre Dame weaknesses


South Bend Tribune


Notre Dame may not have been chicken, but the Irish sure laid an egg Saturday night.

See ya, Ann Arbor. Good riddance. Couldn't get outta there fast enough.

Michigan's convincing 41-30 prime-time victory over Notre Dame was the send-off of which Wolverine fans were hoping. Score almost at will. Dictate the tempo. Own the line of scrimmage.

The Big House, one of college football's classic venues, was a house of horrors for the visitors. Don't worry, the Irish won't be in a hurry to return anytime soon.

This series has always defied the norm, and Saturday night was no exception. The Irish made it close when Notre Dame’s large defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt somehow came up with an interception in the end zone. Late in the fourth quarter, a couple Irish pass interference penalties and a couple blown assignments conspired to turn a game destined to go down to the wire into a double-digit difference.

Notre Dame had its opportunities to find the magic and compete the way it made last year special. It just didn't happen. The breaks caught up with the Irish before more than 115,000 folks.

That dominating Irish defense, which made up for so many inconsistencies last season, stumbled onto the list of problem areas that must be solved to keep this young season from unraveling in a hurry.

Worse than the first regular-season loss since Stanford, 2011, is the alarming identity issue that now confronts Notre Dame.

What is it the Irish do well? Defense? Forty-one points make that outrageous. Offense? Too many blunders. Survival? Last year's most prevalent trait seems to have abandoned them.

The Irish running game was stagnant. Too many "oops" in the passing game, which was more on the receivers than quarterback Tommy Rees. The defense wasn't special until the fourth quarter.

It's not like Michigan was Alabama. This game will hardly put the 17th-ranked Wolverines in the national championship conversation. The Irish showed spurts of offensive effectiveness, especially late in the third quarter, when the Irish finally realized tight end Troy Niklas might be a difficult matchup.

But it didn’t happen enough.

Late in the third quarter, trailing by 7, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly gave his defense a vote of confidence. Second-and-eight from their own 24, the Wolverines threw an incomplete pass and were flagged for holding. Rather than push Michigan back 10 yards, Kelly declined the penalty.

That's about when the defense fell flat on its face.

Wolverine quarterback Devin Gardner ran for 10 yards and a first down, then hit Jeremy Gallon on a 41-yard pass. A couple plays later, Gardner found Gallon again for his third TD reception and a 14-point lead.

The first half was stacked with lows that took away from any Irish positives.

lþRunning back George Atkinson III dropped five passes in the first 30 minutes. Four fell incomplete, one was tipped into TJ Jones' hands in the back of the end zone for the only Notre Dame touchdown.

lþRees threw a critical interception in the final 2 minutes. The turnover turned a bid to tie before the half into a 14-point difference.

lþThe Irish secondary was overmatched. Gardner — he looked a lot faster than anyone who ever wore No. 98 — picked Notre Dame apart through the air (13-of-20, 180 yards, 2 TDs), then caused some concern on the ground (50 yards, 5 carries, 1 TD). Gallon (5 catches, 123 yards, 2 TDs) caused four quarts worth of trouble.

The next challenge is how the Irish recover. Michigan exposed some weaknesses. A solid ground game was just a dream. The secondary was vulnerable.

A long way to go. Purdue should help the Irish get healthy.

However, there are bigger fish to fry for the Irish.

Can they handle what’s ahead?

Notre Dame's George Atkinson III, left, falls into the end zone as teammate TJ Jones, right/out of focus, makes a touchdown catch during the Notre Dame vs. Michigan game on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich.