Many of those who left of their own free will collected at the corner of Stadium and Main in Ann Arbor, Mich., and roundly booed the Notre Dame football equipment truck as it prepared to roll back to South Bend.
“That’s not the team,” a chatty female police officer, using a high-tech version of Mr. Microphone, informed the throng. “They already left.
“Oh, you booed them already? OK, good.”
The winning Michigan team, which provided the final dagger in ND’s 35-31 heartbreak with two seconds left, picked up a verbal commitment after the game from Alliance, Ohio, running back/defensive back Dymonte Thomas for its 2013 recruiting class.
Yes, Notre Dame was one of the schools that had offered the Marlington High athlete a scholarship that he didn’t pick.
Meanwhile, ND’s own recruits from its 2012 class were splattering Twitter timelines with everything from frustration to disbelief.
All of which hints at Michigan football, the winningest program in FBS history, being back and Notre Dame football, the second-winningest program in FBS history, languishing on the shoulder of college football’s version of I-94 trying to fix a blown engine with duct tape and perky bursts of optimism.
The reality is both programs could be on the road back to elite status, despite the current snapshot, and that the Irish may actually be the team that might get there faster ...
If ND second-year coach Brian Kelly can stop the hemorrhaging, some of which is more perceptual than real.
“I still believe in this team,” Kelly said during his Sunday postmortem with the media. “I still believe we're going to be a good football team.”
Here is where the Irish are not a good team:
Notre Dame’s five turnovers Saturday night at Michigan give the Irish 10 for the season. That’s more than Wisconsin committed all of last season (9), more than a Bob Davie-coached Irish team amassed in the 2000 season (8).
If ND keeps up the pace over 12 games, the Irish will fall one short of the 1971 North Texas State team’s NCAA record of 61.
And, mind you, not all turnovers are created equal. Five of ND’s 10 have come in the opponents’ red zone (inside the 20). Four of those happened inside the 10. That helps explain the discrepancy between ND’s lofty national ranking in total offense (13th) and its pedestrian showing in scoring offense (75th).
nþSpecial teams don’t even rate as ordinary. The most glaring area is punting, which equates to field position.
Junior Ben Turk’s 33.89-yard average is at the bottom of the national stats. ND’s team net punting (27.79) ranking of 119th is ahead of only West Virginia.
Kelly said Sunday he still plans to stick with Turk.
“He’s our best guy,” he said.
The Irish are 98th nationally in both punt returns and kickoff returns. John Goodman replaced struggling Theo Riddick on punt returns Saturday night and garnered 10 yards on three returns with no fumbles.
Riddick returned five kickoffs for 99 yards and caught six passes for 62 yards and two TDs with a less-crowded plate of responsibilities.
“We thought both (punt returns and kickoff returns) were a little bit too much for him.,” Kelly said. “Obviously, from an offensive standpoint, it proved to be the right decision. He (Riddick) didn't drop a ball. He caught everything that was near him. We still have to work on his decision-making on kickoff returns.”
ND held a 268-90 edge in total yards at halftime, 410-141 after taking a 24-7 lead with 2:13 left in the third quarter. The Irish then allowed 229 total yards and four touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
Fatigue or lack of mental toughness?
The signs point to the latter. Remember, this group of Irish fifth-year seniors is 24-28 in their careers. Even the vaunted 2008 recruiting class, now fourth-year seniors, are a mortal 21-19.
So how do you build mental toughness?
“It can be taught,” former ND All-America offensive lineman Aaron Taylor said. “Sometimes you don’t realize how tough you are until somebody brings it out in you. My line coach, Joe Moore, brought the physical toughness out in me. Lou Holtz taught me to be a mentally tough player.
“He put so much pressure on us in practice, keeping us so tight, that on game day the games were easy. When you come in as a freshman, you don’t know how to do it. I think you learn it Sunday through Friday, if you will. At some point then it materializes on Saturday.”
If it doesn’t materialize this Saturday, the Irish will be 0-3 for only the fourth time in school history. So what must Kelly stay away from if he doesn’t want to join the 1887, 2001 and 2007 Irish in that dubious category?
Here are the don’ts heading into Saturday’s home matchup with No. 15 Michigan State.
1. Don’t abandon the mental toughness template that has worked for him at his other coaching stops.
Kelly has got to be true to himself, not the NBC (or ESPN) cameras. The only moderation should be the window dressing — how the message looks, but not the message itself.
2. Don’t hold back the change-up quarterback package if Kelly indeed has one.
The three times ND got stuffed on third-and-short in the second half, in which Michigan overloaded its defensive front, could have been alleviated either by checking into a pass play or by having a QB who was a dual threat in those specific situations.
“With Tommy (Rees), you're limited,” Kelly said of his sophomore starter. “You're not going to do a lot of things with the quarterback running the ball.”
3. Don’t play musical quarterbacks.
Having a change-up QB, a la Tim Tebow/Chris Leak at Florida in 2006, is different than flipping from Dayne Crist to Rees back to Crist to Rees, etc.
Rees does have nine turnovers in his last 14 quarters of football, but Kelly sees enough promise to stay the course, which is paramount to a turnaround at this point.
“If you look at what Tommy did out there — almost throwing for 70 percent completion, getting us into a lot of good run checks, playing against a team that shows all kinds of different pressure packages — that's a very good situation at the end of the day.”
4. Don’t sell out the veterans.
Some coaches, at 0-2, would go all in for 2012. And Kelly admitted Sunday he’s not averse to playing a young, dynamic player over a veteran.
“It depends who those young guys are,” Kelly said. “If we feel like they've got the opportunity to help us win, we would definitely play them. (But) we're not left with a ton of options at certain critical positions.”
That includes cornerback, where Kelly said he’ll stick with senior Gary Gray after a trying night in the secondary.
“If you're pulling him off the field, you're pretty much making a decision that we're going with a younger guy,” Kelly said.
“We're not at that point with Gary. We're two games into the season. He's got a lot of pride and he's a guy that has shown that he can bounce back from a tough day.”
And here’s a critical finer point. If Kelly does gravitate toward youth, he’s still going to be playing for 2011. The healthiest team dynamic, especially on a squad whose chemistry is being put to the test, is the best player plays — young, old or somewhere in between.
Senior nose guard Sean Cwynar missed the Michigan game with a broken hand, Kelly said.
Senior tight end Mike Ragone suffered a knee injury during the Michigan game and will undergo an MRI. Because sophomore Alex Welch (foot infection) and Jake Golic (broken arm) were unavailable, freshman Ben Koyack saw meaningful snaps late in the game as the second tight end.
Backup outside linebacker and special teams performer Danny Spond will have an MRI done for a hamstring injury that knocked him out of Saturday’s game.
Michigan QB Denard Robinson’s 16-yard TD pass to Roy Roundtree with two seconds left is the latest ND has surrendered a game-winning TD in school history.
nþRees was 30 seconds away from becoming only the third ND quarterback in school history to have road wins at Michigan and USC on his résumé.
Saturday was the first time in 28 games, dating back to the end of the Tyrone Willingham Era, in which the Irish outrushed an opponent (198-114) and still lost the game.