Thursday, September 20, 2012

Don't Believe Brian Kelly When He Says There is No "Revenge Factor" for Notre Dame

Two days ago, Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly was asked if his team was playing up the "revenge factor" as they prepare for their week four bout against Michigan in South Bend. He said they weren't.

"They don't talk about it," Kelly told the South Bend Tribune. "They just want to win games."

Don't believe him for a second. If there's one game the Irish absolutely want to win this year, it's the one against Michigan. Notre Dame was burned three times in a row, as Michigan won the last three contests by exactly four points within the final minute of the game.

Kelly and co. were desperate coming into Ann Arbor in 2011, after an infuriating loss to South Florida in South Bend. The Wolverines crushed their hopes and dreams of starting 1-1 instead of 0-2 when Denard Robinson threw a touchdown pass to Roy Roundtree with only two seconds left on the clock.

The Irish were devastated... just like they were in 2010 when Denard Robinson ran all over them, or in 2009 when true freshman quarterback Tate Forcier tossed a touchdown pass to Greg Matthews in the endzone with less than twelve seconds remaining, upsetting the No. 18-ranked Irish big time.

So, after three devastating losses, are you seriously going tell me that you or your players don't talk about reversing the trend? That you don't talk to them about it? That they don't secretly talk to each other about it?

Okay, sure, Kelly doesn't have the fiery magnitude of pressure that comes from being Notre Dame's head coach right now. The Irish are 3-0 for the first time since Tyrone Willingham's 2002 squad. Kelly's most recent and reassuring win came over No. 10-ranked Michigan State in East Lansing, where Notre Dame prevented the Spartans from scoring a single touchdown, ending the game at 20-3.

The Irish have since risen to the No. 11 ranking, the highest they've been since late 2006 under Charlie Weis. The victory over Michigan State was their first defeat of a Top Ten team in seven years. Ever since 2007, Notre Dame has struggled to stay in the Top 25. There's definitely a lot of optimism pouring out of South Bend after the Irish handily dismantled Michigan State in a game many if not most expected them to lose.

But then again, Notre Dame walloped Michigan State last year, 31-13. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio's only victory over Brian Kelly had to come in a last second overtime fake field goal (the now-infamous "Little Giants" play), and Kelly has handled the Spartans ever since. It could be that Kelly just has Dantonio's number.

Sort of like how Michigan has just had Notre Dame's number for the past three years.

The Irish are vulnerable in their secondary: two starters are true freshmen and one is a converted wide receiver. They're even more vulnerable now that they've lost safety Jamoris Slaughter, the lone veteran, to injury. However, Notre Dame boasts an impressive defensive line and a group of outstanding linebackers led by All-American Manti Teo. Their run defense has been stout.

Michigan State, which typically has relied on a stout running game or the senior leadership of Kirk Cousins, was unable to exploit the Irish secondary. Once Notre Dame stopped the running game and Spartan workhorse Leveon Bell, the primary weapon Michigan State used to win their season opener over Boise State, new MSU quarterback Andrew Maxwell was forced to open up the passing game. What showed was Maxwell's inexperience and the inexperience of Michigan State's wide receiving corps.

Purdue was able to hold Notre Dame to a close battle in South Bend by making the Irish one dimensional--stopping their running game and putting more pressure on Irish quarterback Everett Golson to make plays--sort of what Notre Dame did to Michigan State.

Either one of two things comes through from observing Notre Dame's games against Purdue and Michigan State: 1) they're just that good and Purdue is a better team than they expected, or 2) they were able to escape when their weaknesses weren't exploited. This was certainly the case with Michigan State, although you won't find too many Notre Dame fans who feel that way.

Michigan certainly has its problems too. The defensive line is not doing well. In three games against three different opponents of varying talent levels, the Wolverines have not managed to create a consistent and secure pass rush. They've also struggled mightily to stop the run.

This was probably most disturbing against UMass (Massachusetts), a team that isn't even in the same stratosphere as Michigan, but MGoBlog attributes this to Michigan's defense primarily being in the nickel formation, perhaps as a way to practice or experiment, since UMass never posed a threat.

We will obviously learn more about both teams when they face each other in South Bend, in a night game that is being broadcast in prime time. For the first time in six years, Michigan and Notre Dame are playing each other at a time when both teams are in the Top 25. Michigan has managed to disappoint the Irish for three years straight, curiously at a time when both teams were revolving coaches: Rich Rodriguez versus Charlie Weis in 2009, Rich Rodriguez versus Brian Kelly in 2010, and Brian Kelly versus Brady Hoke in 2011.

The Michigan game is by no means one that Notre Dame wants to lose, and when Notre Dame still has aspirations of national championships and BCS bowls, the Wolverines stand firmly in the way of that. The piling losses and heartbreak that Notre Dame has suffered at the hands of the Maize and Blue won't be soon forgotten. So when Kelly says that his team doesn't have revenge on its mind when Michigan visits South Bend...

Don't believe him.

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