Five Things We Learned: Notre Dame

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By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 8, 2013

This week, we learned Beyoncé is a Michigan fan, Eminem is a weirdo and Athletic Director Dave Brandon really likes flyovers. There was also a pretty good football game going on. Here are five other things we learned this week:

1. This offense is dynamic.

Yes, Michigan coach Brady Hoke loves his Michigan traditions, but so far, only the productive ones. That means the conservative, punt-happy approach is gone. Gone too, is the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offense of Michigan’s past. Michigan would love to run the ball up the middle, but not to the point of being stubborn.

Take Saturday. Notre Dame had a behemoth nose tackle clogging the middle. So Michigan took the fight to the edge. That’s not rocket science, but the game plan showcased Michigan’s versatility. In only the second week with a new offense, the Wolverines showed they have a deep playbook.

In the first drive alone, Michigan used a reverse, a double-reverse and quick pitches to the outside. Later on, offensive coordinator Al Borges used the pistol formation, the traditional I-formation and the shotgun. There were runs up the gut, stretch plays to the edge, strong play-action fakes and a sprinkling of read option.

This was arguably one of the best games called by Borges in his time at Michigan. Last year, Borges was criticized at times for predictability. Against Nebraska, his play calls displayed an unmistakable pattern. Against Ohio State, the Buckeyes knew what play would be run based on where Denard Robinson lined up.

Could Borges have been better? Probably. But he had few other options. Now he’s got the full complement of players.

Redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner could be a traditional drop-back passer. He finished with 294 yards and four touchdowns. Route combinations can be more complex with him as the passer. But his legs add a new wrinkle, one that allows the read-option to remain. It is especially potent in the red zone and on third downs.

The playbook is wide open. And Michigan’s offense has seldom looked this dynamic.

2. Gallon is even better than we thought.

Can we put to rest the argument that Michigan doesn’t have any weapons on the outside? Fifth-year senior wide receiver Jeremy Gallon is one. That much is glaringly obvious. Gallon had eight catches Saturday for 184 yards and three touchdowns. It was one of Michigan’s best receiving performances in recent memory.

Since Gardner took over at quarterback, Gallon has been Michigan’s receptions leader in every single game. Taking Gallon’s seven-game totals with Gardner as the passer, he’d be on pace for 80 receptions, 13 touchdowns and nearly 1,400 yards over a full 13-game season.

That’s not just a weapon on the outside. That would make him the best wide receiver in the Big Ten.

Gallon, who is listed at 5-foot-8, has long been overlooked because of his size. Notre Dame inexplicably left him open across the middle of the field again, and he torched them for a 61-yard touchdown.

But he is just as dangerous in traffic. In the second quarter, Gardner hit Gallon on a back-shoulder pass in tight coverage. Gallon knew where the ball would be before he turned around. On his second touchdown catch, he used his body to shield the defender and make a diving catch.

He’ll command extra attention on the outside, or he’ll burn opponents for it.

3. The defense can use more playmakers.

First the good: Michigan held Notre Dame to a respectable 23 points and limited big plays. The longest gain for Notre Dame on the game was 23 yards. No back had a run longer than 16 yards.

That was the game plan. Redshirt sophomore cornerback Blake Countess said the defense knew Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees liked to air out the ball. He could exploit man coverage with long fades. So Michigan played loose.

The plan worked and Michigan won, but this was more bend-but-don’t-break than overpowering dominance. Notre Dame hardly ran, but when they did it was alarmingly effective. The top two Fighting Irish backs averaged 5.3 and 7.4 yards a rush. A cornerback, junior Raymon Taylor, led the team in tackles. Thomas Gordon, a safety, was second.

More concerning was the lack of big defensive plays. Sure, Countess had the two game-changing interceptions, but the first was a bad pass, and the second hit off Taylor’s leg. The Wolverines need to force the issue more.

They didn’t do that on Saturday. They had one sack and only one hurry. The hurry was provided by junior defensive end Frank Clark, who’s still searching for his first sack of the season. He’s only two weeks in, but he’s already behind on his prediction of double-digit sacks.

For all the talk coming out of camp about how formidable Clark is as a rusher, he looks not much off the Clark of 2012.

That’s still a pretty good player to have on the end, but he admitted he has plenty of room for improvement. The defense does too.

4. The rotation behind Toussaint doesn’t really matter.

Fitzgerald Toussaint was the undisputed No. 1 running back entering the season, but he had a stable of five eager backs behind him who looked like they could steal some carries.

Freshman Derrick Green, the highly-touted recruit, especially looked like he could challenge Toussaint for the starting job. But Toussaint was the workhorse Saturday.

He rushed 22 times for 83 yards. Green was the only other running back with a carry. He lost a yard.

Toussaint didn’t have a career performance, but he showed patience and vision. He turned losses into gains. And more importantly, he has the trust of his coaches.

5. Bold prediction: Michigan will be 9-0 heading into Northwestern.

OK, this has as much to do with what we learned about Michigan State and Nebraska as it does Michigan. But Notre Dame is likely the toughest team Michigan will face until Ohio State, and the Wolverines were clearly the better team.

Meanwhile, Michigan State’s offense is offensive. Even on the road, Michigan could be favored. Nebraska could give the Wolverines trouble, but the game is at home, where Hoke is undefeated. A game at Penn State will be difficult, but Michigan is more talented.

Don’t be surprised if Michigan is favored from here until at least Nov. 16. And don’t be surprised if they’re undefeated heading into that game, too.