Personnel trumps poultry in this Notre Dame-Michigan matchup

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — It took a while, but the elephant-sized chicken in the room finally was presented to Brian Kelly during the Notre Dame head football coach’s weekly Sunday press wrap-up.

A little history: The imminent interruption of the football series between the Irish and Michigan — perhaps, but not likely, for good — started with rancor from the respective athletic directors.

Then in May of 2013, Michigan coach Brady Hoke chimed in. While talking to a group of boosters, he said Notre Dame “chickened out” in ending the series after this coming Saturday.

Kelly answered last fall in the week leading up to the 2013 matchup with a reference of Michigan constituting a “regional rivalry.” Michigan counterpunched by not only serving something to the media in the press box that “tastes just like chicken,” it was actual chicken during last year’s clash in Ann Arbor.

Notre Dame was then escorted off the field, following a 41-30 Wolverine win, with the Chicken Dance song blaring over the Michigan Stadium speaker system.

Which brings us to Sunday, six days before the 42nd and final (for the foreseeable future) meeting, at 7:30 p.m. EDTat Notre Dame Stadium.

“My thoughts?” Kelly remarked Sunday of the Chicken-themed music last September. “Yeah, I mean, that's their prerogative. They won the game. They can play whatever they want. We're going to play the Alma Mater.”

When it comes to Saturday’s meeting between the two winningest programs in FBS history (Notre Dame .7330 and Michigan .7324) and a game that could cause them to switch places (.7326 to .7324), humans and not poultry provide the most salient soundtrack.

Here are the most significant ones, humans that is, and the numbers that go with them, as 17th-ranked Notre Dame (1-0) approaches the first of what could turn out to be seven regular-season contests played in prime time in 2014.

Everett Golson

Only once in the Notre Dame senior QB’s career has he ventured below the 100.00 mark in passing efficiency — sort of the Mendoza line (as in Mario, not Tom) for quarterbacks. And that time Golson was WAY below.

His career-low 19.0 rating came against none other than Michigan in career start No. 4, a game the Irish still managed to win, 13-6, early during their 2012 run to the BCS National Championship Game.

That was thanks to a solid relief performance from Irish tag-team QB Tommy Rees and five interceptions thrown by Michigan QB Denard Robinson (4) and halfback Vincent Smith (1). Golson was 3-of-8 for 30 yards with two picks and 0 TDs against the Wolverines.

Juxtapose that against what Golson did Saturday in his first start since the 2012 season.

His performance against Rice, which included a career best 206.3 efficiency rating, left him (small sample size warning) 10th nationally in that category, tied for second in points responsible for (30), third in yards per completion (21.07), 22nd in total offense (336) and 24th in passing yards per game (295).

“When you start to understand defenses and your movement keys, you can start to rip the ball into areas where you're not normally throwing the football with that great deal of comfort,” Kelly said of Golson.

Golson’s Michigan counterpart, Devin Gardner, actually would rank second nationally in passing efficiency but fell one attempt short of the minimum 15 to qualify. Gardner was 13-of-14 for 173 yards and three touchdownsSaturday in a 52-14 waxing of Appalachian State.

He made ND’s defense last season look Appalachian State-esque, running up 376 yards in total offense himself – nine more than Rice amassed Saturday against a greener and less proven unit. Gardner was then trumpeted as a Heisman Trophy contender and a likely first-round draft choice.

Ad nauseam. For about a week.

But by the end of the season and into the spring, many wondered if freshman Shane Morris would overtake him. Gardner now feels reborn with the change of offensive coordinators, though, with former Alabama OC Doug Nussmeier at the offensive joystick.

Is ND’s defense evolved enough to put that to a test Saturday night?

Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield

That brings us to Saturday’s safety play, garbled by the late-week deletion of captain and starting strong safety Austin Collinsworth from the opening-day lineup and beyond. The grad student has an MCL injury in his right knee and will be out two to four weeks, per Kelly.

He was ND’s quarterback in the secondary, and his absence was felt repeatedly against Rice. Junior Elijah Shumate, making his fifth career start, filled in and played alongside sophomore free safety Max Redfield, who was making his second.

“We just think with Shumate and Max, we just got to get them communicating,” Kelly said. “We like their skill set. We think they're the two best players back there.

“Again, we got into a very unique situation where we had 24 hours really to get them communicating more effectively. We gave up five explosive plays, four passes, three of them directly related to poor communication.”

Shumate got burned on the touchdown, which came at the 2:13 mark of the first quarter on a second-and-18 play from the ND 26.

“We can get that corrected, Kelly said. “Both those guys are the kind of skill players we want back there. We have to address that issue, which we will this week.”

Pat Eilers

Speaking of safeties, former Irish wide receiver/defensive back Pat Eilers has joined the Irish coaching staff as a defensive quality control assistant.

Essentially, the member of the 1988 Notre Dame national championship team is filling in when graduate assistant coach Kyle McCarthy, who coaches the Irish safeties, takes intermittent leaves for cancer treatments.

The Irish received a special exemption from the NCAA to add Eilers, who is taking sabbatical from his position as managing director of Madison Dearborn Partners (MDP), LLC, a Chicago-based private equity firm.

Eilers, who has two daughters who are current students at ND — and one of those a member of the Irish women’s lacrosse team — is low-key about the new coaching gig and defers to McCarthy whenever he’s available.

“Pat said, ‘Hey, you know, if we can make this work, I'd be happy to stay off the field,’ ” Kelly related. “ ’When Kyle can't go, I'll fill in for him.’

“It was just a great gesture on his part to make a situation work and allow Kyle to stay on the field when he can. I don't know that he has a long résumé in terms of coaching. But, as you know, he's bright, he's great with the kids. He's already shown himself to be pretty effective.”

The Irish pass rush

Notre Dame produced a modest two sacks Saturday against Rice, which put the Irish slightly ahead of pace to overtake last year’s underwhelming total of 21, good for 96th among the 123 FBS teams. It was hardly the Rex Ryan-ish pressures expected from first-year Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.

According to Kelly, that was by design.

“Most of our calls were to take away the quarterback runs,” Kelly said of opposing QB Driphus Jackson, who led Rice with 61 yards on 11 carries, but largely struggled in the passing game. “We wanted him to be a quarterback.

“So we were quite OK, because we were trying to take away some running lanes from the quarterback. We could have brought some pressures if we felt like we wanted to do that. But we were more interested in making that kid drop back and throw the football.”

Three freshmen — Andrew Trumbetti, Grant Blankenship and Daniel Cage — were part of the pass rush Saturday on a defensive unit that saw seven total freshmen play. Six of the seven registered at least one tackle, with safety/linebacker hybrid Drue Tranquill registering a class-high three, including one snuffing out a fake punt.

“I think Jhonny Williams and possibly another defensive lineman could see the field as well (in coming weeks),” Kelly said. “I don't think that we're done there. There's time for these younger defensive linemen to develop. Jay Hayes is in that group, as well.

“I would say that both of those guys, Jhonny Williams, Jay Hayes, even possibly (Jonathan) Bonner, could play this year.”

Jaylon Smith

Kelly maintained ND’s best defensive presence on the field Saturday was senior middle linebacker Joe Schmidt, who garnered a game-high eight tackles in his first collegiate start.

So what of Jaylon Smith, the player with seemingly the highest ceiling on either side of the ball for the Irish? The sophomore, who started at outside linebacker last year, made his 14th overall start but first as a weakside (inside) linebacker on Saturday and garnered a modest three tackles.

“Had some mental mistakes,” Kelly said. “I think he's still learning the position. But he plays with great effort and great enthusiasm.

“When it comes to Jaylon, he takes his work very seriously. I would expect that you're going to see significant improvement from Jaylon from week one to week two.”

The best news regarding Smith coming out of Saturday’s game is that the injury that sent him to the sideline in the third quarter and pushed true freshman Greer Martini into the game, turned out to be nothing more than a speed bump.

“It was a dislocated finger, which was reset in a matter of probably five minutes,’ Kelly said, “and then went back in the game.

“For the first time, we got some good medical news. Nobody (new) that would be out of Saturday's game against Michigan.”

To reach: Eric Hansen

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Notre Dame sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith survived some growing pains and a few real ones in Saturday's season opener with Rice. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)

WHAT: No. 17 Notre Dame (1-0) vs. Michigan (1-0)

WHEN: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. (EDT)

WHERE: Notre Dame Stadium; South Bend, Ind.

TV: NBC

RADIO: WSBT-AM (960), WSBT-FM (96.1), WNSN -FM (101.5)

LIN E: Notre Dame by 5.