Late, Deliberate Thoughts on ND

Go something like this.

It's never okay to lose to ND. It's never a game that you can toss away or trade away, saying "I'll take a split with ND and Wisconsin," or anything like that because there's always a measurement being taken. It's not between this team and their team, it's between the programs. For example, Michigan owns the all-time head-to-head series with Notre Dame with a several game margin, but Notre Dame fans like to point out that since the series resumed in 1978, they have the edge. That was one of the little things Michigan was playing for on Saturday, to even up the "modern day" series. Now Notre Dame has a 2-game edge again (curse Lou Holtz!).

And as I suggested before the game, a measurement was being taken between the 2008 Michigan team and the 2007 Notre Dame team. There was an element of incompetence on display from Michigan this Saturday that was reminiscent of the 2007 Notre Dame. The fumbles, the dropped snaps, the kick returners looking around, asking themselves "what just hit me on the head? Oh ... the ball!"

But this is where the measurement becomes complicated.

Is it possible to lose to Notre Dame, but somehow feel better about the team than you expected to feel with a win? That may be where I am. I went into the game expecting a bad display of football from two teams, anemic offenses, and a humorous Michigan victory that gives no indication that we are any closer to achieving the offense we set out to achieve. I came out of the game embarrassed at the fumbles and dumb penalties, but feeling very heartened by the performance of the offense.

Steven Threet demonstrated that he has decent arm strength and good accuracy. Where this was in spring and against Utah and Miami, I do not know, but there was promise on display against Notre Dame.

Sam McGuffie looked excellent. I caution against reading too much into any performance against the Notre Dame defense, especially one where the linebackers may be the weakest link, but McGuffie demonstrated quickness, vision and tremendous acceleration (although watching a Michigan lineman accident redirect McGuffie into the lane that led to the endzone was a fittingly silly way to score a touchdown).

The offensive line performed better than expected, although Notre Dame's defense is not exactly a wrecking crew against which reputations are made. Very little pressure got to Threet and running lanes existed, although more often outside the tackles than between.

The WRs performed well. Gone are the days when Notre Dame's secondary was looked like professional ushers, showing WRs their way into the endzone, so the ability of Greg Mathews and others to get open down the field against ND may mean something.

These are all things that we really hadn't seen much previously. Given the option between (what I expected) points off short fields and turnovers, with the occasional big play thrown in or (what we got)The offense, in putting up nearly 400 yards, moving the ball consistently and dropping it unprovoked with alarming frequency, I will take the latter. The latter gives some hope that the offense is further along than previously suspected, that we actually have a Big 10 level QB and that by the middle of the season we will be seeing exactly what Rodriguez has been drawing up. The fumbles will not recur. It's that simple; the fumbles will not recur. A few here and there, sure, but teams will not come up against Michigan thinking "All we have to do is land on the ball when they drop it and we'll be fine."

Disappointing along the way was the defense. The defensive line is an easy culprit for not getting the pressure on Clausen that we were expecting, and some may even fear that the ND offensive line has gotten its act together, but I would caution about reading too much into that, too. ND went into max protection much of the game, and hit one long pass when the safeties both got sucked up too close to the line of scrimmage, and hitting another when two players missed tackles after 10 yards and let the fastest ND wide receiver get to full speed on the sprint. These were fundamentally failures in the secondary. The defense *did* get after Jimmy Clausen, forcing throw aways and dump offs, then bailing him out with an unnecessary PI in the back of the endzone on one such scramble.

Secondary was supposed to be a strength of the team. Steve Brown was supposed to be a breakthrough player, and instead he is turning out to be the player that so many people accused Ryan Mundy of being. Morgan Trent was supposed to be Michigan's best CB, and instead he's turning into the eerily ND-like burnt toast generator that his detractors said he was.

So why doesn't this concern me? Why wouldn't I be happier with the defense playing lights out, keeping us in games, and the offense making understandably slow progress with the 9 new starters and freshman everywhere? Why am I not upset that the one thing we should be able to hang our hat on seems to have failed us when we needed it so badly?

For two reasons: 

1. The defense will not be here in 2009. If Tim Jamison and Will Johnson are blowing everything up at the line of scrimmage and Morgan Trent is shutting down half the field, that may help us get to a bowl and have a respectable 2008, but it doesn't give me anything to hang my hat on for 2009. When the 2008 defense departs, and all that's left from this season is an offense that sputtered its way to 7-5 despite the dominant defense, where does that leave my optimism? No, I'll take the offense making great progress, allowing me to quote my favorite statistic, the one that had me telling people all spring that 2009 was going to be a great year ... the *only* player on Michigan's offense who  won't be back in 2009 is Mike Massey (barring  early departures). If this offense looks decent this year, in year 1, with 9 new starters, it will be outstanding in 2009, in year 2, with 11 starters returning.

2. The defense may be where we expected to earn our wins in 2008, but this may be the last time in the Rodriguez era that we say that. Rodriguez is an offensive coach. Just seeing flashes of what he can do on offense lights up the Michigan fan base in a way that has relevance not just to the rest of the year and into 2009, but to the entire Rich Rodriguez era.

Posted: Wednesday - September 17, 2008 at 09:50 PM