Notre Dame football: How one play changed course of ND-Michigan contest


South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - Scoring 30 points is usually a good sign for a college football team.

Heck, at Notre Dame last year, it would have been enough to win 12 games and make the BCS National Championship Game with Alabama a whole lot more competitive than it actually was.

It would have left the Irish 10-3 in 2011.

Saturday night in Ann Arbor, it didn't measure up.

Michigan's 41-30 victory provoked Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly to heap a good deal of concern on an offense that generated 410 yards (314 passing, 96 rushing).

One play changed everything.

Late in the second quarter, with Michigan up 20-13, George Atkinson returned a kickoff to the Notre Dame 27. On his way out of bounds, the Wolverines were flagged for a late hit.

With the ball on the Irish 42, second-and-10, less than 2 minutes to play, quarterback Tommy Rees had his opportunity. Michigan's Blake Countess picked off Rees' pass and returned it 24 yards to the Irish 23.

Four plays later, Michigan's Devin Gardner hit Jeremy Gallon for a 12-yard touchdown pass.

What could have been a tie ended with Michigan leading by 14 at intermission.

"I got flushed a little bit," Rees explained of the pick. "I tried to get it over to (tight end) Troy (Niklas). The corner slouched off the flat. I've gotta be smarter than that. In that situation, a 2-minute (drill) situation, you can't turn the ball over. I've gotta be smarter than that."

No argument. That was the perfect time for Rees to throw the ball away and live to fight another day.

Instead ...

"I have to take accountability for some of those missed opportunities," Rees said. "There are throws you want to have back and plays you want to have back. It starts with me. I've gotta be better and give our team a better chance to win the game. I take full accountability for that."

That interception, and the score that followed, made the Irish offense one-dimensional in the second half. Thirty-six offensive plays were called by the Irish in the final 30 minutes. Twenty-nine of them were passes.

It’s a bad sign when Tommy Rees is called on to throw 51 times. Balance is what makes the Irish offense effective.

Of course, problems ran deeper than just that one play. Running back George Atkinson had five very catchable passes slip through his fingers. Five. One happened to land in TJ Jones' hands for a touchdown. The other four fell to the ground.

"He's either got to catch the football or he doesn't get scripted in those plays," Kelly said of Atkinson. "So George understands that if he's going to be in the game, he's got to run the right route. He's got to catch the football."

Atkinson also appeared to take a little heat from Rees when he failed to pick up a blitzer on a pass play. The pass got off, but the untouched defender put a hit on Rees.

"Attention to detail (is important) — whether it's making sure you run the right route on a play; lining up right; blocking the right person when they may roll coverages in the middle of a play," Jones said of the woes facing the offense. "Staying focused and keyed-in the whole game (is essential)."

Kelly has seen an offense click on all pistons. He knows what to look for, but he hasn't seen it yet.

"Recognition of what's happening from play to play, and not taking one play and assuming that the next one is going to look the same way," was the way Kelly explained a high-functioning unit. "Each play is a brand-new canvas, and you have to be able to see it and react to it. That's where we have to continue to evolve. Tommy did some really good things, but we had some opportunities that we'd like to have back that cost us some points."

Purdue should be easier this week. But the problems that bothered the Irish at Michigan won't magically go away.

"(Being 1-1) is tough, but it's a steppingstone," Jones said. "For a lot of people, it's a wake-up call. It's a way for us to start that drive up to the top.

"We got glimpses on what it kind of feels like to lean on each other, especially with a lot of the new guys.

"We're going to have to watch how practice and other things go this week. Make sure guys are paying attention to detail, and that guys are getting what coach Kelly is saying, and not paying attention to how he's saying it (which will likely be loudly).

"A lot of guys have trouble separating the two. That's where (the older players) can help."

"If we're in a position where we don't understand what it takes to win at Michigan, then we're missing the boat," Kelly said. "If you look at the game, we just have to play better and we have to coach better. I don't think there is any big-picture relevance to those quotes (by Jones about the wake-up call) other than you've got to get back to work. You've got to practice harder. You've got to pay attention to detail.

"Look, when you're coming off of playing for a national championship, the bar is high. 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. I don't think there is anything that you would read into it relative to these guys not doing what's asked of them."

Forget the bar. Back to the basics.

Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees (11) audibles at the line of scrimmage during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, in Ann Arbor, Mich. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER