Notre Dame, Michigan full of potential mirages in the trenches

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — So plaid and so loud was Brian Kelly’s sports jacket Tuesday it was difficult to wrap your eyes around it.

“First and foremost, I did not lose a bet,” the Notre Dame head football coach offered at the start of his weekly Tuesday press conference.

The 42nd and last scheduled game (for now) in ND’s on-again, off-again 127-year-old football series with Michigan Saturday night at ND Stadium (7:30 EDT, NBC-TV) offers similar optical challenges, specifically when sizing up the most intriguing and likely most pivotal matchup within it.

Michigan’s offensive line vs. Notre Dame’s defensive line.

The numbers from the team’s respective openers on Saturday, vs. Appalachian State and Rice, respectively, suggest strength vs. strength. History and the abundance of new pieces being plugged in on each side suggest one or both could be a mirage.

Whichever is more real could tilt the advantage Saturday in the 11th night game in the history of Notre Dame Stadium. And where things get real interesting is with the two new coordinators pulling the strings —Michigan offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier and ND’s defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.

Nussmeier was hired away from Alabama after Al Borges was purged, and he is being credited with giving fifth-year senior quarterback Devin Gardner’s career a strong second wind.

Kelly, whose attire Tuesday incidentally was the prize for winning a golf tournament, is familiar with Nussmeier’s work. They last faced each other in the 2012 BCS national championship game in which the Crimson Tide took an ND defense that had put up historic numbers up to that point and gashed it for 529 yards in the 42-14 walkover.

VanGorder, meanwhile, brings a Rex Ryan influence of exotic pressures and outlier strategy, to an ND defense in need of a strategic transfusion. He showed his vanilla side Saturday to the Rice Owls.

“I would think we would have a little bit more and a variety of schemes for Gardner,” Kelly said, “because he can hurt you obviously running the football, throwing the football. We're going to have to have a comprehensive plan for him.”

ND certainly didn’t have one last year in a 41-30 loss at Ann Arbor. Gardner amassed 376 total yards and was sacked just once against an Irish game plan that seemed content to sit back, read and react.

But Michigan couldn’t find a way to make the theme continue. The Wolverines ended up the 2013 season 102nd nationally (out of 123) in rushing offense, 86th in total offense, 73rd in third-down conversion percentage, 105th in sacks allowed and 121st in tackles for loss allowed.

And that’s before they lost two standout tackles this offseason, one of whom —Taylor Lewan — was a first-round NFL Draft pick.

Which is what makes the record numbers posted in the 52-14 Appalachian State win hard to qualify, if not suspect.

Michigan broke both the school's single-game total offense yards-per-play record (10.18) and the single-game rushing average record (9.72 yards per carry, 350 yards on 36 attempts). And the Wolverines did it while starting a true freshman, left tackle Mason Cole, for the first time ever on the offensive line in a season opener.

Notre Dame’s defensive line showing in a 48-17 subduing of Rice wasn’t quite so dramatic, but against an opponent that won 10 games last season, the Irish held the Owls to 141 rushing yards, 3.5 per carry and 367 total yards, all below their 2013 averages of 227.4, 4.55 and 405.6.

And the Irish D did it without committing a single penalty and with forcing a couple of turnovers.

The Irish, who moved from 17 to 16 in the latest AP poll, are young all over. Of the 57 players who saw action Saturday, only seven will exhaust their eligibility after this season. A total of 20 made their ND debuts, and 10 of those were true freshmen.

Six of those freshmen showed up in ND’s defensive front seven on Saturday and each one of them recorded at least one tackle.

Kelly is still counting on quarterback Everett Golson to offset the growing pains while the front seven develops. The senior easily had the best statistical day of his career against Rice (295 passing yards and two TDs, 41 rushing yards and three more scores.

Kelly hopes and expects he’ll handle success with the same hunger and intensity that he navigated the heartache of being suspended last season.

“The first thing you want to see during film study is how you're going to handle the critical analysis,” Kelly said of the Golson he has seen so far this week. “I thought he did a very good job.

“I thought he was attentive to those things he needs to get better at, and I think with success, you don't want to be infected with it. You want to be driven by being perfect, and I think he erred on wanting to be better at all the little things.

“I thought it was a very productive day for him, and we're excited about practice today.”

Personnel matters

Kelly said there was no news to report with regard to the five players being held out of practices and games because they’re at the center of ND’s ongoing academic fraud probe process.

“Status quo,” he said.

Three starters — cornerback KeiVarae Russell, defensive end Ishaq Williams and wide receiver DaVaris Daniels — remain in limbo, along with reserve linebacker Kendall Moore and backup safety Eilar Hardy.

If any of the players is found to have committed academic fraud, there is an appeals process available to them that must be exercised within seven days of the original ruling.

• Sophomore wide receiver Torii Hunter (groin tear) returned to practice for individual drills Tuesday for the first time since the first week of training camp.

“It’s four weeks today (Tuesday) since the injury,” Kelly said. “I think most would say that is a six-week injury. He is well ahead of schedule. If he has a great week, he could be in a situation where potentially he could play next week (vs. Purdue on Sept. 13).

• There is still no precise timetable for senior middle linebacker Jarrett Grace’s return from four fractures in his right leg suffered Oct. 5, but Kelly said there are plenty of encouraging signs that he continues to move in the right direction.

“He's not at 100 percent, but he's getting better each and every day,” Kelly said. “He's running. He's able to do things that require that bend and torque that he just didn't have coming into camp. So we're hopeful.”

Grace was ND’s starting middle linebacker when he went down in game six of last season against Arizona State. Former walk-on Joe Schmidt has taken his place, and he led the Irish with eight tackles against Rice.

Kelly is confident Grace could be an immediate contributor in some role when he is medically cleared, despite having very limited actual practice time in VanGorder’s new defensive scheme.

“We're going to put him right in there and see what he is capable of,” Kelly said. “He's so smart, very instinctive player. He knows football very well.”

• Sophomore wide receiver Corey Robinson’s surgically repaired thumb held up Saturday, Kelly said, despite Robinson catching a 25-yard laser from Golson over the middle against Rice.

“He's one of those kids that thought that was a great challenge in his life that he wanted to undertake,” Kelly said of Robinson, who played with a brace that wrapped his hand and thumb.

“He was going to play and find a way to succeed. Again, I think it just shows the kind of kid he is. He's a little sore, but he's feeling confident that he can catch anything thrown his way.”

• Kelly said he’ll continue to tag-team cornerback Cody Riggs and running back Greg Bryant on punt returns. Riggs amassed 49 yards on two returns — more than a season full of return yardage amassed each in 2011 and 2012 — the first two times he touched the ball on special teams.

Bryant collected 31 yards on three returns.

“Cody is taking a lot of snaps right now, and we want to make sure that we keep him healthy for the entire season,” Kelly said. “We cannot afford to lose Cody. So we've got to be able to give him a blow, given the circumstances.”

“We're just trying to get a feel for the situation, how many snaps he's taking consecutively, and that's why we're looking at that closely and using them both right now at this point.”

Different strokes?

Michigan head coach Brady Hoke’s softened version of his thoughts about his school’s upcoming and indefinite hiatus with Notre Dame had a nostalgic tweak to them this week.

“It kind of lets you know where the team was early in the season because of the similarities of the athletes on the field,” he said.

And yet the programs even seem to be heading down divergent paths there.

The quality of athletes may indeed be similar, but the two schools don’t seem to bump into each other on the recruiting trail as much.

Of Notre Dame’s 22 starters from Saturday’s win over Rice, 11 received scholarship offers from Michigan per Rivals.com’s database. And only five Wolverine starters had Notre Dame offers coming out of high school.

Compare that with seven Florida State starters with ND offers, eight Stanford starters and 10 USC starters.

Both starting quarterbacks, Golson and Gardner, received an offer from the other school, but neither player got far down the road with the school that’s now their rivals.

To reach: Eric Hansen

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Sheldon Day and the Irish defensive line will have to amp up the pressure Saturday against Michigan. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)