Notre Dame still searching for its playmakers

Notre Dame still searching for its playmakers
September 8, 2013, 11:15 pm
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As Notre Dame begins to answer what went wrong Saturday night at Michigan Stadium, reflecting on the team's biggest road win last year offers some clarity.

Viewed through a broad scope, Notre Dame's road date with Oklahoma last October carried the same implications as the Michigan game over this weekend: Win, and the Irish assert themselves in the BCS Championship picture.

Notre Dame made the plays it had to in Norman. Against Michigan, it was the Wolverines striking in back-breaking fashion.

[More: Brian Kelly puts Notre Dame's loss to Michigan on the offense]

When Cierre Wood sliced through the middle of Oklahoma's defense for a 62-yard touchdown, it was an early haymaker. Notre Dame didn't play from behind again after Wood's run.

As was the case 11 months later, Notre Dame left points on the board against Oklahoma. Kyle Brindza connected on three of four field goals, but failing to get in the end zone allowed Oklahoma to lurk.

But here's where the difference came: After Blake Bell rumbled for the first rushing touchown allowed by its defense all year, Notre Dame swiftly responded. Everett Golson's 50-yard bomb to Chris Brown was the set-up, and Manti Te'o's interception on Oklahoma's ensuing series was the knockout blow.

Those plays were lacking against Michigan Saturday night.

Outside of Devin Gardner's ill-advised, panicked throw that Stephon Tuitt caught in the end zone for a touchdown, Notre Dame didn't come up with many momentum-building or momentum-changing moments. The Irish forced a three-and-out on Michigan's next possession, but couldn't land a haymaker on offense after it.

[More: Dan Fox talks Irish mistakes]

Instead, Tommy Rees was nearly picked off by Michigan's James Ross III, and Notre Dame had to settle for a field goal that cut the score to 34-30.

The onus shifted back to the defense, then, which failed to make a stop. Fitzgerald Toussaint gained 22 yards on a rush and 31 yards on a pass, and then a couple of third-down pass interference calls all but handed Michigan the win.

"They made some plays, some big plays when they had opportunities, and we didn't come up with them," Kelly summed up Sunday.

So while Kelly talked largely in terms of his team's offensive shortcomings Saturday, it wasn't just Rees & Co. failing to make plays that cost Notre Dame. A few failures to get in the end zone certainly hurt the Irish, but even just one or two stops of Devin Gardner, Jeremy Gallon and the Michigan offense could've swung things in Notre Dame's favor.

Last year, Notre Dame knew when it needed a play to be made, it could count on Te'o to make it. That identity is lacking -- it's certainly not easy to replace, and it may ultimately materialize. But it hasn't yet, and it showed against Michigan.

"Our expectation is that these guys that are now the starters that had not started before, and those guys that have been playing a lot, have got to take hold and ownership in this defense," Kelly said. "I think that's going to happen. It's a gradual process, but if we're better in November than we are right now, I'll be happy."

[More: Tony Rice breaks down Notre Dame-Michigan]

Te'o wasn't just a go-to defensive stopper, he was someone who found a way to galvanize his teammates into coming up big in key spots. It's a trait that probably became overrated during his Heisman chase, but it's worth noting he was the one who instilled confidence in Golson at halftime of the Oklahoma game -- a message Golson said helped calm him down for the biggest second half of his life.

Again, replacing Te'o is a difficult, perhaps impossible, task. But thanks to Te'o, and the plays Notre Dame made across its 2012 schedule, the expectations were set for the 2013 team.

"The expectations are when you go on the road, you don't lose to Michigan," Kelly said.

The expectation, too, was to make it back to the BCS Championship. That likely won't happen after Saturday's result, but now the expectation becomes forcing whatever issue the Irish can force in the next 10 games.

To do that, Notre Dame needs to have some of its players step up and become that go-to playmaker it currently lacks.