Can rout of Michigan become a building block for Notre Dame?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — In the glob of mostly impressive numbers that spilled out of Notre Dame’s 31-0, series-ending, door-slamming, chicken-overdosing conquest of Michigan Saturday night, the one that matters most is three.

That’s the number of Irish starters among the 22 who took the opening snaps against the Wolverines whose eligibility expires after this season.

That’s right guard Christian Lombard and tight end Ben Koyack on offense, and cornerback (and punt returner) Cody Riggs on defense.

Why it matters is that if Notre Dame (2-0) finally has personnel across the board that align with the offensive and defensive schemes head coach Brian Kelly wants to run, then the most lopsided Irish victory in the history of the Michigan series could signify something much more than karma.

Like the first big building block leading to something bigger.

And perhaps something lasting.

Small sample sizes and lack of knowledge about how good Michigan actually is are the obvious caveats. But here’s a look at some of the people and trends that are feeding the long-term optimism as well as an immediate hike from 16th to 11th in the AP poll and 15th to 11th in the Amway coaches poll heading into Saturday night’s clash with Purdue (1-1) in Indianapolis.

Jaylon Smith

The sophomore’s move from outside linebacker to an inside position continues to be one of the best decisions of the offseason.

It wasn’t just the team-high 10 tackles the 6-foot-3, 235-pounder recorded against the Wolverines, it’s the plays opposing offensive coordinators are now likely increasingly hesitant to call because of the skill set Smith brings.

Specifically planned quarterback runs.

That likely won’t come into play Saturday night against Purdue, with Boilermaker quarterback Danny Etling having amassed four yards on 11 carries in two games, but the next six starting quarterbacks who follow on the schedule all have significant dual-threat skills.

That’s Syracuse’s Terrel Hunt, Stanford’s Kevin Hogan, North Carolina’s Marquise Williams, reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston of Florida State, Navy’s Keenan Reynolds and Arizona State’s Taylor Kelly.

Saturday night, Michigan’s Devin Gardner amassed five rushing yards on 11 carries with a long run of nine yards. A year ago, in a 41-30 Wolverines triumph when Smith was in game two of his career and out on the perimeter, Gardner had a game-high 82 rushing yards on 13 carries and a TD, with a long of 35.

“Certainly his ability to close changes so much in terms of what you want to do,” Kelly said of Smith's speed during his Sunday weekly press briefing. “He's playing almost (the) dive and (the) quarterback because of his ability to close.

“He's a unique player. I think there's a handful of guys out there across the country that can do that. So he affects obviously the zone read because of his athletic ability, and he's really got good football instincts.”

Brian VanGorder

Had ND’s new defensive coordinator, Brian VanGorder, and Kelly decided to keep VanGorder upstairs in the press box rather than his preferred spot on the sideline, Notre Dame may have some extensive drywall repair work to do in the coaching booth.

As it stands, the extremely animated VanGorder brings an energy to the sideline that his young defense seems to feed off of, not to mention the NBC cameras.

“That's his style,” Kelly said. “Brian and I have known each other a long time. When we first coached together, we felt comfortable with both of us being on the sideline. That's kind of how we wanted to operate.”

Both VanGorder’s style and his substance are a much better infomercial for recruiting in practice than they were in the rhetoric/promise phase. Perhaps that will help perk up the available pool of defensive end prospects, the most urgent area of need for the Irish with five more months in the cycle.

Speaking of substance, one of the hidden pieces of that Saturday night was that Michigan never did reach the Irish red zone. And six of Michigan’s 12 drives failed to reach the Wolverines' own 40-yard line, a testament to both the defense and ND’s special teams play affecting field position.

“There's still a lot of room for improvement,” Kelly said. “We made some mistakes out there that we didn't get exposed.”

Given the complexity of the new scheme and the preponderance of new faces on defense, including freshman end Kolin Hill who had a sack in his collegiate debut, it’s surprising the mistakes have been kept to a minimum.

“It's not complicated to him,’ Kelly said of VanGorder, “so it's so easy for him to describe it and communicate it to his players.”

Added Smith, “We're all eager to learn and improve our football IQs. And just doing stuff outside of football together, whether it's team bonding or studying together, it all boils down to the whole fact of being a team.”

Hidden gear

So far Notre Dame’s commitment to a snappier offensive tempo is more rumor than fact.

Through two games, the Irish are averaging 64.5 offensive plays per game, which is actually down slightly from last year when they ran the 24th-fewest plays in the FBS at 66.8. The FBS average through two weeks in 2014 is 73.5.

Interestingly, former ND offensive coordinator Chuck Martin, now the head coach at Miami (Ohio), is one of eight coaches whose teams are averaging 87 plays or more a game (87.5). Former Irish quarterback Andrew Hendrix is running the show for him. TCU leads the nation at 96 offensive plays per game.

But Kelly said last week there will be times when he wants to push the ball down the field faster and is confident his team can execute that when the occasion calls for it.

“When I came to Notre Dame, I didn't think it would take us five years to kind of get to the offense that we wanted to run,” Kelly said Sunday. “It's just the circumstances have been such.

“But we're starting to evolve into the kind of offensive and defensive structure that allows us to play fast and play aggressive, play the kind of style of football we want to play.”

Flag famine

Notre Dame finds itself in the unfamiliar position of being near the top of the nation’s standings in fewest penalties per game (fourth) and fewest penalty yards per game (third).

Last season, the Irish were 66th and 59th, respectively, in that category.

“It's never an accident,” Kelly said of the improvement. “We're not a sloppy group. We pay attention to detail. There are going to be times where you're going to have some penalties, more in certain games. By and large, it's something that is emphasized and talked about every single day.”

An odd one came Saturday on what should have been the last play of the game, a would-be-61 yard interception return for a touchdown by Elijah Shumate.

The officiating crew called “roughing the passer” on Notre Dame safety Max Redfield during the return when Redfield blocked Gardner on what appeared to be a clean hit. ND was awarded the ball and was required to run one more offensive play, but the points came off the board.

“I was on a blitz toward the quarterback,” Redfield said Saturday night. “What we’re told is to find the quarterback on an interception, and I hit Gardner like the way I was taught.”

Kelly agreed.

“We didn't think he took a shot at a kid who is 6-foot-4, 220 pounds,” he said. “Max did not size up somebody or target a player. We felt like in that situation he was doing his job.”

Squibs

• How did the 31-0 verdict play in Ann Arbor? Here’s a sampling from Detroit News columnist Bob Wojnowski:

“This was the biggest embarrassment of (coach) Brady Hoke’s regime, as Michigan was beaten on the inside, on the outside and on the sideline. On a brutal, brutal day for the Big Ten, the Wolverines landed the honors of largest humiliation.

“The Irish rolled to a 31-0 victory Saturday night, and all of the Wolverines’ bad habits were on horrific display.”

And this:

“There’s no telling where the Wolverines go from here, but the coaching staff had better dig deeper for answers after Michigan suffered its first shutout in 30 years. Hoke has to find a way to patch his team up, because this is the type of beating that makes you assess the direction of a program. This was supposed to be a season of teeth-grinding determination, and all we saw was more teeth-bashing.”

Hoke has some extreme home/road splits. He’s 20-2 in Ann Arbor and 7-12 at road/neutral sites.

• Kelly said Sunday that starting guard Christian Lombard has been nursing a sore ankle, so he ceded some reps Saturday to Matt Hegarty. Also on the injury front, running back Tarean Folston suffered a bone bruise when a Michigan defender landed on his foot, but Kelly didn’t expect any lasting effects.

Kelly said there was nothing new to report on the five players being held out because of the academic fraud investigation, a process which reaches day 42 on Monday.

• Notre Dame leads or is tied for the lead in three pertinent statistical categories nationally: Fewest turnovers lost, fourth-down conversions and red-zone offense.

• Irish quarterback Everett Golson ranks 15th in passing efficiency (173.27) — 12 spots ahead of FSU’s Winston, 21st in yards per completion (14.8) and fourth in points responsible for (24 per game)

• Kicker/punter Kyle Brindza, one of only three Michigan high school products on the ND roster, finished his career 6-for-6 in field goals against the school only a short drive from the home in which he grew up.

• Sometimes even the NCAA gets stuff wrong (OK, maybe more than sometimes). Its record book listed Michigan’s NCAA-record streak without a shutout, snapped by Notre Dame, as 376 consecutive games. The NCAA, however, called ND officials early Sunday morning to inform them the record book was wrong. The number is 365 games, but still an FBS record.

Notre Dame junior linebacker Jaylon Smith was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated with teammate Ronnie Stanley. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)