So I missed most of this game initially; had family over and only saw parts of the 3rd quarter live while the rest was from a DVR re-watch. Thus, I ignored most of the commentary, stopping only to watch Marshall Mathers absolutely trolling Musberger and Herbie in the booth. That was good fun.
One advantage of DVR’ing the game and watching it largely divorced from the in-the-moment fandom gives you a different appreciation for what happened on a per-play basis but, more importantly, the overall game. It gave me a better appreciation of the big-picture elements of the game, even though at times my notes read like an obsessive serial killer - “Gallon, Gallon, GALLON!”
But enough of that; on to the Best and Worst of the Indiana Fig Things
Best: We’re the one without a Goatee
This is the second result from Google Image for “Doppelganger”
Going into this game, one of the major talking points was whether or not UM-ND was a “rivalry”, with Brian Kelly originally seeing it as a regional tilt and then, once he consulted with Grimace, Tinky Winky, and Count Von Count in the only way I presume they know how, he “clarified” that it was a great and historic one. Various people, mostly on the internet where one is duty-bound to correct all falsehoods, chimed in and waged digital battle until everyone exhaustively looked around and realized anyone not associated with either team viewed this as nothing more than the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers arguing over whose pile of money was best for Scrooge McDuck’ing.
It’s this blue-bloodedness that has always separated ND from the rest of UM’s traditional rivals. MSU is the half-brother who always wants to be taken seriously but inevitably shows up to social events slightly drunk with an un-tucked shirt and some “crazy” story about last weekend that inevitably ends with him in handcuffs and urine-soaked pants. OSU has all of the trappings of a worthy adversary, with a veneer of tradition, success, and bright future that is undeniable. Yet, once you dig a bit deeper you realize he holds his 1st-grade “Super Bee” spelling award far too close to this heart and his treasured idols are jerks, crooks, and hypocrites. They might have success and a hatred will always burn true with them, but the nouveau rich odor is hard to shake. PSU, Nebraska, and Wisconsin keep trying to catch your eye and are always ready to throw down, but it feels forced and unstable as they undergo major changes or fail to live up to their own expectations.
Notre Dame, though, has always felt like a perfect foil for UM, and that’s what renders outside perceptions irrelevant. #1 and #3 in all-time wins, #1 and #2 in Win Percentage, and #1 and #1a in ISOS Percentage (Inflated Sense of Self). Both fanbases see themselves as football royalty but with a healthy perception of their team’s current state, which is absolutely true until any additional evidence is provided that contradicts that ideal. We both scoff at meltdowns from fans of other teams yet conveniently ignore our own, constantly question the integrity of other coaches and teams even though both our programs have had issues in the past, and (like all fans) perpetuate the narrative in which our team is always the noble protagonist valiantly overcoming the dark underbelly of the sport. And yes, both UM and ND have been at the forefront at key moments in the sport’s evolution. Yet in the end, we’re just like everyone else except we won a bunch of games back when guys wore leather helmets and the forward pass was an innovation that kept players from killing each other.
So in a way, Notre Dame and Michigan are destined to always be rivals even when they don’t meet on the field; we both strive to obtain the superiority and nonpareil that only one can possess. But at the same time, the institutions are so similar both on and off the field that to truly “hate” the other is nothing more than an exercise of self-flagellation. And yes, this whole section is one shining example; gotta love the hypocrisy.
Best: The Madden Offense lives!
At this point I imagine the Ven diagram of “People who read MGoBlog diaries” and “People who have played computer football” resembles a perfect solar eclipse, so if you only think of John Madden as a character played by Frank Caliendo, I guess just move on to the next section.
For everyone else, though, UM’s offensive playcalling reminded me of those great 16-bit and early PlayStation/XBox/N64 Madden games where they hadn’t quite figured out how to properly balance player attributes when it came to speedy QBs and so you could call a shotgun pass on basically every down with impunity (I know most people consider Michael Vick circa 2001-2004 as the apex mobile QB in video games, but picking the Eagles with Randall Cunningham or the 49ers with Steve Young led to untold fights when I was in junior high). With one of those guys in the backfield, every pass carried the real possibility of a QB run with about a 1% chance that the defense could stop you before 5-6 yards. And on the off chance that you found yourself on 3rd/4th-and-long, just call for a Hail Mary/4 Verts and you could either throw the ball into the tiniest of windows because your QB had a Howitzer or, to be extra dickish, run for the first while juking every LB about 15 times. A mobile QB was about as close to god mode as one could get on the football field.
Well, with Devin Gardner at QB and Borges overjoyed with a QB who isn’t afraid to scramble sensibly (sorry Denard), UM is trotting out the type of offense that seems largely immune to defensive adjustments. Whereas in years past a collapsing pocket was almost immediately followed by a tuck-and-run, Gardner seems more than happy to move around while his WRs work to get open. And if that doesn’t happen quickly enough, or if there are yards available on the ground, Gardner just gallops 2-3 yards a stride and can pick it up efficiently. A couple of times Gardner basically rolled out, outran with ease an ND player barreling down on him from the edge, and calmly surveyed the field looking for an open Gallon, Dileo, Funchess, basically anyone. At least once he just kept running; other times he’d throw for the first. You didn’t often see that type of play last year, or at least run so easily and successfully, and it seems like it will be a staple in UM’s offense going forward until such time as any defense (i.e. MSU and that’s about it) shows the ability to slow it down.
Best: It’s Super Effective
To start the season, UM has had 22 meaningful drives (i.e. not at the end of the half and/or running out the clock). Of those, they’ve scored TDs on 12 of those drives and another 3 have ended with FGs. Four ended with INTs and they punted 3 other times. 15/22 drives have ended with points (and if you want to be snarky, a 16th ended with points for the opposition), and I think most fans would concur that the offense remains a work in progress. The redzone offense was even better, going 4-4 TDs against ND and, outside of an iffy pass interference on the last scoring drive, with relative ease. It’s getting to the point that once UM gets into the endzone, teams might as well let them score and at least conserve the clock.
Gallon was the shiniest of shiny stars along with Gardner, reeling in 3 TDs and 184 yards while consistently abusing anyone Notre Dame put on him. I know he was a little banged up at the end, but it didn’t look too serious and I can only imagine the holy hell these two will drop on teams like UConn and Iowa going forward.
This is the most effective offense I’ve ever seen at UM during the life of my fandom, and it should only improve as the offensive line gels more and Gardner starts to look for receivers other than Gallon and Dileo more consistently. Unfortunately…
Worst: QB Vision Cone still in experimental mode
I’m sure some of this was dictated by defensive alignments inside as well as comfort on the part of Gardner, but Butt and Funchess, those wacky police partners trying to catch criminals on the mean streets of Ann Arbor if they don’t tackle each other first, coming this fall to Fxx, er, accounted for only 36 yards on 5 catches, which follows up on a 3 for 55 game against CMU that was goosed considerably by Funchess’s 36-yard scamper. They are young and should improve as the season comes along (especially Butt, who appeared to drop and/or run out of position for a couple of balls), but Gardner’s passing cone seems a bit skewed toward Dileo and Gallon and that could very well catch up to him as teams adjust or, knock on wood, one of them gets hurt. For as much as I love the idea of this team’s leading receivers both being eligible for the Pomeroy Award, that would feel like a massive waste of talent at other positions on the field and, frankly, counter-productive to this team’s maturation this year and beyond.
As ST3 noted in the always-excellent Inside the Boxscore, the running game was surprisingly competent, posting 166 yards and 11 first downs against an extremely active and talented (if young at LB) Notre Dame front 7. While Gardner’s legs remained a key player in the ground game, Fitz’s consistent inside running and ability to eke out positive yards at the edges is a major reason why this offense remains so dangerous despite less-than-spectacular numbers on the stat sheet.
I know some people like to joke about “Manball” as 3 yards and a cloud of dust, but to me it has always meant establishing the threat of a running game at least in name, if not in production, so as to open the playbook and keep the opposition off-balance. It’s why people smarter than me become giddy when Kalis and Glasgow successfully pull on a 5-yard run on 1st down, or Fitz is able to run around Lewan’s block on Shempo for the first. It’s about drawing a line here, and saying only your guys shall go further.
What makes this type of manball different than Iowa’s, for example, is that the playcalling followed suit, with Gardner throwing more in shorter yardage situations and even on first down when ND’s LBs started to cheat up. If the mantra of the defensive line is the Right to Rush 4, then Fitz deserves to wear an “Earning Those 4” shirt every day. He’s seemingly come all the way back from that horrible day against Iowa, and he’s a major catalyst for this team’s hot start.
Best: Tackling, and the Lack Thereof
If you didn’t have some weird flashbacks of GERG’s defenses during Gallon’s triple-bounce TD rumble in the first quarter, you are either 4 years old or have repressed those memories until such time as you need to punch aliens. After years of seeing missed arm tackles turning into long TDs, it was refreshing to watch UM put on a veritable tackling clinic against Notre Dame. Even on completed passes, Countess or Taylor was a half-step away and tackling almost immediately, and in the 4th quarter I remember at least one WR screen being blown up by a hard-charging Taylor (?) running through the block to hit the receiver immediately. The LBs and safeties kept everything in front of them and limited yards after contact. Rees finished with 314 yards and 2 TDs, but it took 51 attempts and he only averaged 6.1 ypa along with 2 INTs. He dinked-and-dunked his way down the fields at time (his long completion was only 23 yards), but even his completions were into small windows that his receivers had to earn. Jones, Niklas, and Daniels are dangerous skill-position players, and it felt like the secondary played them to a stand-still.
The defense remains a work-in-progress, and it still feels like a year or two away from truly disruptive, but against a ND offense with some real blue-chip players offensively they more than held their own. I think every UM fan will count that as a win.
Worst: Missing the Firestarter
This probably doesn’t need repeating, but Jake MF Ryan’s presence is sorely missed on this team when it comes to putting pressure on opposing QBs. It’s been two games, and while the CMU numbers weren’t as bad as I originally thought, I remain skeptical that the front four will be able to consistently generate a pass rush against a competent line. Mattison’s defense only sacked Rees once, hit him another time, and only infrequently made him uncomfortable throwing the ball; when they did, it either ended with a poor throw or one of his two INTs. With 51 attempts, including a large number when ND was clearly going to pass, you’d expect much more presence by a defense that seems best suited for pining its ears back and delay-blitzing the crap out of you.
With Ryan back I presume some of those blitzes will hit home, and that should open up rushing lanes for the likes of Clark. Luckily there doesn’t appear to be another team coming up before Ryan’s return that should pose much of a threat passing the ball (MAC! Big East!, 1/4 Big Ten!), but this remains the one noticeable deficiency in an otherwise-stout defensive unit.
Best: Michigan Speed!!!
Just something I loved – on a stretch play early in the first quarter, ND’s RB (I think it was Carlisle) kept trying to string out the play toward the sideline; each time he took a step toward the line, though, another UM player was there to drive him back. The athleticism on the defensive side of the ball, while objectively not much different than during the 90’s/00’s heyday, still feels warp-speed compared to those RR defenses that couldn’t hold the edge to save their lives. Part is probably coaching and positioning, but this defense just flashes to the ball the way good defenses are supposed to, and it is a sight to watch.
Best: Give Him All the Women
Brendan Gibbons was 2/2 this game, breaking the consecutive FG record previously held by Remy Hamilton. if Mattison has the Heininger Certainty Principle, then somebody needs to figure out what Hoke did to Brendan and call it the Gibbons Kicking Catalyst. I know kicking is notoriously wonky and unpredictable, but from 1/5 to the record book is amazing. And Matt Wile deserves continued kudos for booming kickoffs into the end zones as needed.
Worst: Obligatory Wrestling Reference
I’m really not trying to make this a common theme, but it just feels right in this context. As always, feel free to skip this section if you don’t care about professional wrestling.
One of the common tropes in professional wrestling history is to exaggerated ethnicity and treat it as “character” for a grappler. That’s why for years you had evil Kozlovs, the “Polish Hammer” Ivan Putski, dozens of Samoans, the Mexicools (with real riding lawnmower!), Junkyard Dogs, and every other horrible stereotype you can think of perpetrated . While there is undoubtedly a racist component to it, a major reason promoters highlight a wrestler’s ethnicity is because it eliminates the need for nuance and “plays” to everyone regardless of their viewpoint; you boo or cheer because you are told to associate some characteristic with good or bad guys regardless of who they actually are; the man is basically just laundry.
For obvious reasons, this characterization has become less common in recent years, as even the most generic of wrestlers are at least given a chance to be more than their last name or nation of origin. That doesn’t mean, of course, that they must turn their back completely on their heritage; in fact, many of them incorporate parts into their persona. The most prominent example I can think of in recent years is Sheamus, an Irish-born grappler with a red shock of hair, alabaster skin, and pun-approved move names like the Brogue Kick, the High Cross, and the Irish Curse backbreaker. Outside of the ring he has a delightful Irish accent, seems to have a reasonable sense of humor, and can carry himself on the talk show circuit like a champ. In so many ways, he should be loved.
But here’s the thing; if you aren’t a little kid, you probably think Sheamus is kind of a dick. His attempts at humor you mind grating, especially when they inevitably take on sophomoric qualities such as stealing a Mexican aristocrat’s car, eating Mexican food in it, and then pooping in it. He’s rather predictable in the ring, and while the higher-ups tried pushing him as a main-eventer, that fizzled out when people realized he just wasn’t that compelling a figure. He’s kind of a relic of a bygone era, and decades ago probably would have been one of the biggest draws in the Northeast and Midwest.
Notre Dame is the Sheamus of college football, and it’s not just because of the obvious Irish connection. Both seem like they should be a bigger deal than they are, and despite WWE/OWMiM’s (Old White Men in Media’s) attempts to convince us otherwise, that connection to the past isn’t strong enough to ignore the mediocrity of the present. And, I guess, both retain the possibility for rebirth with the proper tweaking; Notre Dame under Kelly look to be returning to at least national competitiveness, and Sheamus is probably a new entrance song and catch phrase from main-eventing a PPV. But right now, the luck of the Irish isn’t smiling on her favored sons.
Best: The Signs!
You guys posted some great ones and it was fun to see them IRL. My two favorite remain “Play like your girlfriend’s are real today” and “Where was the ‘Luck of the Irish’ during the potato famine?” I can only imagine what we’ll see next week with Alabama and A&M.