Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Great Season Continues as Notre Dame Beats Michigan

After last year's debacle in Ann Arbor, the pressure was on Brian Kelly and this Notre Dame team to not only come out and prove that the team has grown since last year, but that their 3-0 start to this season is not a fluke. Kelly and the team answered in a fashion that is quickly becoming the core identity of this team - fierce, physical, and opportunistic defensive play. For a program that has struggled mightily with Michigan's Denard Robinson for his entire career, forcing him to turn the ball over so many times only illustrates how this Notre Dame program has progressed in Kelly's third year.

The hype for this game was unbelievable. Notre Dame had scores of recruits visiting, it was a night game in South Bend on national television, and it came against a major rival at a point where Notre Dame could establish it's legitimacy this season. And, as you would expect, it was the Notre Dame defense doing most of the work.

As I've mentioned previously, in Kelly's first two years, this was a program searching for some kind of identity. Inconsistency from week to week plagued the Irish, as there was seemingly nothing that the team could fall back on no matter what happened. Finally, this season, a tough defense has risen to the occasion as the backbone and identity of the team, and nowhere was this more evident than this past weekend against Michigan. Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix, Prince Shembo, Manti Te'o, Sheldon Day, Kapron Lewis-Moore, and for me, Danny Spond, carried the front 7 for the Irish. You had your usual play from the big names like Tuitt (who had a ridiculous sack of Robinson early in the game), Nix (who was disruptive from start to finish), and Te'o, but Spond, in his first game back as starter, really performed well.

Spond was everywhere against Michigan
Spond missed the start of the season after collapsing in training camp with what was eventually diagnosed as a severe migraine. He's worked his way back into shape and showed why he was the starter at the DOG position coming into this year. The DOG, or drop, linebacker in defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's 3-4 scheme, is primarily responsible for dropping into coverage and helping pick up tight ends and even receivers that come into his area of responsibility. This type of linebacker needs to not only be big, but athletic enough to turn his hips and run into coverage. Spond did this with regularity against Michigan, and his stellar play provides an undeniable boost to the Notre Dame linebacking corps. Think of it this way - besides the excellent play up front by the defensive line, the starting four linebackers for ND (Te'o and Dan Fox/Carlo Calabrese inside, with Shembo/Ishaq Williams at the CAT and Spond at the DOG) provide even more of a buffer to help compensate for the inexperience in the secondary. The talent and depth at all of those positions is due to the combination of great coaching and perceptive recruiting by this Irish coaching staff.

On offense, the team is still going through some growing pains. Redshirt freshman starter Everett Golson was pulled early in the game after throwing a red zone interception and was ably replaced by backup and former starter Tommy Rees. Rees played well, managing the offense for the game's only touchdown with a quarterback draw. Kelly was smart, though, in dispelling any quarterback controversy issues by detailing after the game that Golson will be the starter, and that Rees will be ready to come in if necessary in situations like that.

Rees played well, but Golson is still the starter
I'm mixed on Kelly's thought process here. I understand that the goal is to win football games above all else, but I wonder what this will do for Golson's confidence and development. Golson needs to go through these situations to learn from them. Pulling him the second he commits a turnover or makes a major mistake like that seems to undermine the very same developmental processes Kelly is trying to instill. At the same time, however, Golson is an intelligent kid and good friends with Rees, so Kelly could be killing two birds with one stone by going with Rees when the situation calls for it, all the while having Golson learn from the sidelines. I see both sides, and I don't want a highly talented player like Golson to take steps back in his development because of this. But Kelly has said it all along - not turning the football over is priority number 1 for this team this year. Golson can't sit on the sidelines and sulk - he must understand that he needs to learn to throw footballs away instead of forcing them into coverage. I guess in the very least this is an interesting story line to follow as the season progresses.

Count me as one who will miss this rivalry
One final note here, and for me, its a sad one. Notre Dame announced yesterday that it was giving notice to Michigan that it was canceling their series after the 2014 season. This surely was all precipitated by the recent announcement that as part of the Notre Dame athletic department's move to the ACC in all sports but football, the football team would play 5 ACC opponents per year. Notre Dame is trying to avoid pigeonholing themselves into a ridiculous schedule in a couple years that would include USC, Michigan, Stanford, Purdue, Navy, Michigan State, and 5 ACC opponents. That schedule is impossible to play for any program.

I can understand the school wanting to keep the USC and Stanford games on the schedule no matter what, considering the recruiting they always do in California. But why choose to keep Michigan State and Purdue on the schedule over Michigan? It's a huge rivalry, one that ignites fans, alumni, recruits, and players on both sides. Why not drop Michigan State? Hopefully, as some pundits have pointed out, this is merely a precautionary move so Notre Dame can go into the 2015 season with some scheduling flexibility, with the possibility of returning to a Michigan series, or at least a few games, in the future. But as it stands right now, we may have watched one of the last games in this illustrious rivalry this past Saturday, with only two more left to go on the slate. It makes me even more happy to know that the result was an Irish victory.