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What We Learned from 2013: Michigan

Jun 12, 2014, 6:09 PM EDT

Craig Chval, the official 2013 football beat writer for the Strong & True blog, is currently a junior at the University of Notre Dame. Over the course of the year Craig will bring you insight from within the student section, interviews with Fighting Irish players and previews of each game. You can follow Craig (and the rest of the Notre Dame student beat writing staff) on twitter at @JrNDBloggers.

With more than two months to sit and wait for Notre Dame football to resume, I have taken it upon myself to revisit the 2013 slate of games and see what each game can teach us about the team and what that means for the next iteration of Fighting Irish football. After discussing the effectiveness of different formations during the Temple game, the logical step was to move on to Michigan.

But this was a game that I was not too keen to review. I saw this matchup in person, and was not particularly interested in hearing Brent and Kirk’s (and Eminem’s) take on it.

I especially did not enjoy this game because I have a well-documented hatred of Michigan, and it doesn’t help that it seems we always lose to them when they’re just awful. Here are Michigan’s records from recent years when they beat us:

2009: 5-7

2010: 7-6

2011: 11-2

2013: 7-6

Four of those 30 wins are against Notre Dame. 23 of the remaining 26 wins are over such powerhouses as Northwestern (twice), Illinois (twice), Purdue (twice), Minnesota (twice), Indiana (three times), Connecticut (twice), San Diego State, Bowling Green, Central Michigan, Western Michigan (twice), Eastern Michigan (twice), Akron, Massachusetts, and Delaware State.

The other three wins are against Nebraska, Ohio State, and Virginia Tech (interestingly, Michigan’s last three games of 2011).

So yeah, this loss was infuriating, even nine months later. When the Irish take the field for the last time in the foreseeable future against the Wolverines this coming season, what can they take away from the 2013 game to get a modicum of redemption?

Last week against Temple, I focused on the offensive side of the ball. It’s hard to pin blame for the loss against Michigan because the offense only scored 23 and the defense gave up 41. I’m going to focus on the defense because it’s hard to win a game when you give up 41 points.

Fending off Fitz

It was clear from the get-go that the main priority for the Irish defense was to stop heralded halfback Fitzgerald Toussaint, and they did very well in this department, despite the defense giving up 41 points and 460 yards.

The thing is the defense looked very good in spurts, but breakdowns would give Michigan a huge boost. Not counting Michigan’s last garbage drive, 49% of their plays only yielded three yards or fewer. The Irish stopping the run very well early on – here’s how Michigan started the game on the ground.

Fitzgerald Toussaint rush for 0 yards

Jeremy Gallon rush for 14 yards

Fitzgerald Toussaint rush for 0 yards

Dennis Norfleet rush for 1 yard

Fitzgerald Toussaint rush for 2 yards

Fitzgerald Toussaint rush for 14 yards

Fitzgerald Toussaint rush for 2 yards

Fitzgerald Toussaint rush for 4 yards

Devin Gardner rush for -1 yards

Fitzgerald Toussaint rush for 4 yards

Fitzgerald Toussaint rush for 3 yards

Fitzgerald Toussaint rush for -5 yards

Devin Gardner rush for 2 yards (Touchdown)

Starting the game, Michigan had 13 rushes for 40 yards. Take out the two big runs and it’s 11 rushes for 12 yards. I think Notre Dame was so focused on stopping Fitzgerald Toussaint that Michigan was able to kill the Irish with the long plays. Even when your running game isn’t working, it can still help the passing game.

But, a positive takeaway from this performance was that Notre Dame was able to hold down Toussaint. A big part of that was the emergence of Jaylon Smith in only his second game. His speed on the edge, as well as his ability to shed blocks and finish tackles, helped tremendously. And despite some missed tackles (we’ll get to that), the safeties made some solid plays getting into the backfield to stop the run.

Overall, Toussaint only averaged 3.2 yards per carry, and just four of his 22 carries were for longer than four yards. But although the star running back was held in check, the big play was the deciding factor in this game, leading to another Michigan quarterback who got early-season Heisman hype before fading off into obscurity.

What We Learned from Michigan: Giving up the Big Play

You probably remember Michigan’s first touchdown of the game. In case you don’t:

Gallon was so wide open that there’s clearly a missed coverage assignment. This was a play action call after Toussaint’s first big run of the day (that 14 yarder), so maybe somebody bit on the fake and couldn’t return to their zone. That’s what the ground game can do for you. This happened on Gallon’s third touchdown reception of the game, as well, giving him an easy score.

But the more frustrating component of this play is obviously the tackling. To win a football game, you absolutely have to tackle well, and one missed tackle (or four on that play) can lead to a huge gain.

Missed assignments and missed tackling were absolutely huge on Michigan’s last touchdown drive especially. The Irish had all the momentum at the time, scoring 10 straight points, beginning with a Stephon Tuitt interception for a touchdown. Notre Dame would start a series well, but then give up a huge gain.

On first down in that drive, Michigan ran five plays, combining for -2 yards. But despite showing promise early on in a series, the Irish would have another breakdown. On the second play of the drive, Fitzgerald Toussaint ran for 22 yards, thanks to two missed tackles near the line of scrimmage. Two plays later, Touissant had a 31-yard reception on 2nd and 9 because he was completely uncovered out of the backfield.

Notre Dame showed the ability to stop Michigan’s offense for most of the game, but plays like this proved to be the team’s downfall. After two third-down pass interferences (one of which was an awful, awful, hellacious call), Michigan punched it in for the dagger.

To complement the missed assignment theme, another lesson of the game was overpursuit and lack of containment by the Irish. Even when Notre Dame was stopping the ground game early, Michigan got 14 yards on that Gallon reverse because of overpursuit on the play.

Much of Gardner’s success running the ball came from lack of containment and failure on the part of the designated spy: his touchdown run, his 35-yard run in the second quarter, his 7-yard run the play before that, his 11-yard scramble to start the third quarter, and his 10-yard designed run on 3rd and 8 late in the third.

And passing the ball, Gardner was able to move out of the pocket and let his guys get open because no one was there to keep him contained. It seemed when Notre Dame only sent three or four guys, he had all day to throw, and when they sent six or seven, he either got the pass off quick enough or bought some time when containment broke down.

Looking to 2014 

The 2012 Notre Dame defense prided itself on not giving up the big play, and that was certainly the philosophy of Bob Diaco’s conservative defense. I’d like to think this was an aberration of an early-season game.

But looking forward to 2014 is intriguing because, of course, Notre Dame has a new defensive coordinator in Brian VanGorder. VanGorder has had some very impressive stops along his career, especially at Georgia in the early 2000s.

VanGorder runs a very different defensive system than Diaco did. The 2012 defense prided itself on its “bend-don’t-break” mentality, giving up very few points (second in the nation) even if the yardage stats weren’t as good. That type of defense required fundamental, disciplined football that wouldn’t give up the big play. This philosophy, and its tremendous success in 2012, makes the 2013 Michigan game that much more frustrating.

VanGorder’s defense is much more aggressive and complex. The defense that goes for the big play is more susceptible to giving up the big play. Notre Dame gained only 17 turnovers in 2013 – 103rd in the nation. If VanGorder’s system bumps that number up, improving the “big play” defense might not be as big of a priority.

I have no predilection toward one system or another – whichever one works. But even if Notre Dame’s new-look defense makes a name for itself with its aggression, the fact remains that just one big play can undo the solid defense that came before it.

Like most Irish fans, I’m very excited to see what VanGorder had to offer. After 2012 saw the best Notre Dame defense in recent memory, hopefully he can create a similarly fearsome unit.

Reviewing Old Lessons: Pistol vs. Empty

For the Temple game, the lesson was how the Irish could find success with the versatility of the pistol formation, especially if it’s not derailed by the empty set. Here’s how the formations broke down against Michigan.

Pistol: 12 runs for 78 yards (6.5 YPC); 6-8 passing for 87 yards (10.9 YPA), TD

Ace Backfield: 3 runs for 7 yards (2.3 YPC)

Ace Shotgun: 3 runs for 19 yards (6.3 YPC); 11-19 passing for 91 yards (4.8 YPA), TD, INT

Empty Shotgun: 12-26 passing for 128 yards (4.9 YPA), 1 INT (sack counts as pass)

Note on these numbers: I calculate them myself while watching the game, which is why they might be a yard or two off from the official totals thanks to ambiguous spotting. I also, as noted, count sacks as passing plays.

Once again, the pistol was (by far) the best formation. Unfortunately, it was only used on 28% of plays, as compared to 49% from the Temple game. The empty set saw a whopping 37% of plays, as compared to 17% from the previous game.

Much of that can be attributed to the fact that 10 of Notre Dame’s last 12 plays were from the empty set (mostly the last drive, during which the Irish were down 11 with under 4 minutes left). One might think that skews the numbers to make the empty set look worse than it actually was. In fact, it was the opposite.

Since they were up two scores at the end of the game, Michigan played in a shell on the last drive, letting Rees complete 7-12 yard passes from the empty set. Here’s how the numbers break down:

Empty set before final drive:

6-18 passing for 69 yards (3.8 YPA), INT

Empty set during final drive:

6-8 passing for 59 yards (7.4 YPA) (sack counts as pass)

So while the game was still within reach, the Irish went to the empty set 18 times and completed only a third of those passes. Unlike last game, it was not used primarily as a third-and-long formation. Of those 18 plays, only two were on third down.

I’m curious to see how this plays out as I continue to revisit the 2013 season in preparation for 2014. I was a little envious of the way Michigan mixed up their offensive formations between pistol, ace shotgun, ace backfield under center, I-formation, and a pistol strong with a fullback (no empty sets).

Coach Kelly made the move to add the pistol in 2013, and I hope he continues to increase its presence moving forward. I am especially excited to see how Golson or Zaire can handle the reins.

Lessons from 2013:


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