Irish dominated by Wolverines on both sides in wet, sloppy game
Jack Concannon | Sunday, October 27, 2019
It started around 3 p.m. Driving rain that soaked Michigan Stadium’s turf field, pooling in the corners and creating a slick surface. It pounded down most of the game, making special teams difficult and passing nearly impossible. These conditions posed an equal challenge for both teams, but it was the Wolverines that found a way to thrive in the downpour.
The rain forced both teams to run the ball, and Irish fans’ fears of Georgia’s D’Andre Swift cutting through the inexperienced Irish front seven were realized a few weeks behind schedule. On the other side of the ball, the Wolverines’ run game was similarly dominant. They totaled 303 yards on the ground, choosing to run the ball 57 times compared to just 14 pass attempts. Senior safety Alohi Gilman said the Irish did expect Michigan’s emphasis on the run.
“We anticipated it, especially with the weather conditions. They came out and ran the ball, they ran the ball well,” Gilman said. “We just did not execute or do what we were supposed to do.”
The Irish had their chances early in the game to establish momentum. After their first drive stalled out, a roughing the punter penalty gave them new life and great field position.
They failed to take advantage, with penalties and poor execution putting the Irish into an impossible second down and nineteen. They were forced to punt, giving away their second chance to establish themselves early.
By contrast, Michigan took advantage of early Irish mistakes. After Bo Bauer partially blocked a Wolverines punt, the ball rolled weakly to the 33-yard line, where it would have been Irish ball had it not been touched. Instead, senior linebacker Jonathan Jones made an attempt to recover the loose football, and by touching it allowed it recovered by the Wolverines. They took back over and drove down to the Irish two-yard line, settling for three points and taking a lead they would not give back. Irish head coach Brian Kelly described the blocked punt as a lapse in decision-making.
“There was no confusion. What happens in the moment has an effect on somebody’s judgment,” Kelly said. “Everybody knows what they’re supposed to do at that time, but that’s where you have to over-communicate and over-coach, and unfortunately we touched that ball in that situation and caused it to become a free ball again.”
After taking that 3-0 lead, the Wolverines did not look back. They embraced the field conditions, keeping the ball on the ground and dominating in the process. By the end of the first half the home team was up 17-0; they had attempted just four passes, and they had 167 yards on the ground.
At that point, Irish senior quarterback Ian Book had completed four of 13 passes, and the team had comparably little success keeping the ball on the ground, gaining just 20 yards on 15 carries. Kelly described the game plan and gave credit to Michigan’s defense.
“[The plan was to] run the football to set up opportunities to throw the ball down the field, which has been the case every week with this offense,” Kelly said. “That defense is set up with a very aggressive tilt towards making it difficult to run the football, but you still have to find ways to throw the football. We were just not effective in doing so. When we had chances, we were not able to execute.”
When the rain slowed slightly in the second half, the Irish chose to attack the Wolverines through the air. It led to two straight three-and-outs, with the conditions making even basic pitch-and-catches hard. The Irish defense kept the Wolverines off the board as well, forcing three straight three-and-outs. On the third Irish drive of the half, a pass interference call wiped out an interception and set up a seven-yard touchdown to a wide open junior tight end Cole Kmet.
That was the final glimpse of hope for an Irish comeback, as the Wolverines would score touchdowns on two of their next three drives, with senior quarterback Shea Patterson taking advantage of drier conditions by throwing two touchdowns. Even when the rain stopped, they punched with their run-heavy approach as the Irish continued to throw. By the time the fight was over the Wolverines held a 45-14 advantage. Kelly acknowledged that his team had been outplayed by the Wolverines.
“Michigan was the better team tonight. In all phases, they were better. We didn’t coach well enough tonight and didn’t play well enough,” Kelly said. “That’s not our identity, but that’s what we showed tonight. We own what we showed this evening.”
Michigan tailored their game plan to the field conditions and executed beautifully. The Irish were dominated in the first half, and instead of making adjustments to their rushing game chose to abandon it, a strategy that resulted in Book completing just eight of his 25 pass attempts. As the door slams shut on returning to the College Football Playoff, the Irish will need something else to motivate them next week against Virginia Tech.