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Notre Dame defense willing to take the blame

Chris Masoud | Monday, September 12, 2011

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Following a heart-wrenching 35-31 defeat at the hands of Michigan, many Irish fans have already begun the finger-pointing. While costly turnovers on offense and miscues on special teams contributed to the collapse, much of that pointing has been aimed squarely at the defense.

Heading into the fourth quarter with a 24-7 lead, the Wolverines posted four consecutive touchdown drives to steal a victory under the lights. Irish junior linebacker Manti Te’o said the experience was unlike any football he had ever played.

“Never, and it’s something that I hope I don’t experience again,” Te’o said.

With the Irish down four points in the final minute, sophomore quarterback Tommy Rees connected with junior wide receiver Theo Riddick for a 29-yard score. Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson responded with his fourth touchdown of the quarter. In just three plays and 28 seconds, the junior led the Wolverines 80 yards down the field, denying Notre Dame its first win of the season.

“I’m surprised that obviously we weren’t able to hold on,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Nobody would sit here and say, ‘30 seconds, you know, we’ve got a pretty good chance to win the game.’ But I’m not stunned. I’ve been in this business way too long.”

Notre Dame suffocated Robinson and the Michigan offense to start the game, forcing consecutive three-and-outs and a number of errant throws. Robinson finished the first half with 48 yards passing after completing just two of nine passes, along with 40 yards on the ground.

But the defense yielded in the second half, falling victim to a number of Robinson deep throws. Michigan receivers Junior Hemingway and Jeremy Gallon finished with a combined 243 yards catching and two touchdowns, including receptions of 77 and 43 yards.

No play was bigger than Gallon’s 64-yard reception in the closing seconds of the half. Robinson connected with the uncovered receiver, who stretched the field and set up a 6-yard strike just one play later.

“We were in quarters coverage,” Kelly said. “They ran double-post wheel. We’re supposed to expand with that, and we didn’t do a very good job of it.”

Kelly expanded on that point in his teleconference Sunday.

“There’s a couple of key coaching points on how you play that route,” he said. “It’s a very common route. It’s not like it’s something we haven’t seen before, so we’ll address that with those guys that were responsible for it.”

Kelly added that fifth-year senior Gary Gray’s position as a starter was not at stake. Gray was targeted on a number of Michigan passes, including Robinson’s game-winning throw to receiver Roy Roundtree to seal the comeback.

“I mean, you just got to make the decision really,” Kelly said. “Looking at Gary right now, he’s a senior. If you’re pulling him off the field, you’re pretty much making a decision that we’re going with a younger guy. We’re not at that point with Gary.”

Freshman cornerback Lo Wood has yet to see significant playing time at a position where experience can be much more valuable than potential. Kelly remains confident Gray will bounce back following an uncharacteristic start to the season.

“We’re two games into the season,” Kelly said. “He’s got a lot of pride, and he’s a guy that has shown that he can bounce back from a tough game. The cornerback position is such that you’re put out on an island. Sometimes it doesn’t go your way. I’m very confident Gary’s going to bounce back next week.”

Like Kelly, Te’o believes Notre Dame will make the necessary adjustments in practice to prevent a similar breakdown by the defense. Despite the noise and distraction brought by over 114,000 fans in Michigan Stadium, Te’o said the defense accepts full responsibility.

“That was all on us,” he said. “Michigan fans provided us with a great atmosphere to play college football. I really appreciate them for this environment and this atmosphere, and I feel real privileged to be part of this game.”

In spite of the tendency to point fingers and single out individual plays or players, Rees, like Kelly, attributes the loss to the team’s overall inability to close out the game.

“We had confidence in our defense, but we didn’t do enough ourselves,” Rees said. “By no means are we pointing fingers — it’s a team game. We still have confidence in the whole team.”