Six plays that changed the game
Written by Matt Pargoff   

Michigan fell 13-6 to Notre Dame on Saturday evening in an ugly game filled with turnovers, dropping to 2-2 on the season. Introducing a new weekly feature in which we break down the five plays that changed the game, so much went wrong for the Wolverines in this contest that we had to add a sixth play.

Bad Pitch Changes Complexion: Just three minutes into the game, Michigan was presented with a golden opportunity. Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson threw an interception to Michigan sophomore corner Raymon Taylor and the Wolverines were set up at the 10 yard line with a chance to punch it in. On first down, the Maize and Blue attempted to outflank the Notre Dame defense on a pitch out sweep to the left side.

Unfortunately for the Wolverines, Denard Robinson’s pitch was off target behind running back Fitzgerald Toussaint. This forced Toussaint to slow down and reach back for the ball, which threw off the timing of the play. He probably would not have scored, but there was room there for him to pick up three to five yards. Instead, he lost two. That completely changed the second and third down calls. Both of those plays were called pass plays, both resulting in sacks. The Wolverines were pushed all the way back to the 25 yard line, and Brendan Gibbons missed a 43 yard field goal attempt. But had the first down call been executed better, that drive could have unfolded very differently.

Pitch Pass Pick: Many will say that Al Borges outthought himself on Vincent Smith’s interception late in the first quarter. It would not be a surprise to hear the offensive coordinator say as much at his Tuesday press conference as well. He could make the point that the play was there and execution lacking, but it was definitely an unusual call. Prior to the play, the Wolverines had spent 11 plays marching from their own 12 yard line to the Notre Dame 10. Robinson had completed five of six passes on the drive and added 17 more rushing yards.

The intended receiver, junior Drew Dileo, was open if the ball led him to the corner of the endzone, but with Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o quickly closing on Smith, the senior running back jumped and heaved a free ball that was picked off by the Irish. For the second time in a row, Michigan had an excellent opportunity to put points on the board, but came away empty.

Third Pick's the Charm: While Robinson threw three consecutive interceptions, the Michigan defense weathered the first two mistakes fairly well, giving up just three points on the ensuing possessions. But a defense can only stay out on the field so long and be put in so many bad positions before it ultimately cracks. The Wolverines gave up only one touchdown on the evening – it came off Robinson’s third interception.

Thrown into double coverage, the ball was tipped up and intercepted by Te’o at midfield. That sparked an eight play, 48 yard drive, with quarterback Tommy Rees being the only player to reach the endzone in the game.

Freshman Interference: On Notre Dame’s touchdown drive, the Irish moved the ball all the way down to the one yard line, but Michigan’s defense held its ground. Back-to-back penalties pushed the Irish beyond the 10 yard line where they were facing a third down. The Wolverines have been relying heavily on true freshmen this season, and on that critical play, one such rookie made a big mistake. Safety Jarrod Wilson interfered with tight end Tyler Eifert and was called for a penalty. Instead of the stop and attempted field goal, Notre Dame got the ball on the two yard line with a first down. The Fighting Irish punched it in on the next play.

Rumbling, Stumbling, Fumbling: While Michigan’s best drive of the first half relied heavily on the pass, the struggles with interceptions prompted the Maize and Blue to turn to their running game early in the third quarter. The Wolverines’ first drive of the second half was an impressive showing, marching 10 plays for 63 yards and eating up nearly six minutes of game clock. The drive consisted of eight runs and only two passes.

Moving once again into the shadow of Notre Dame’s goal posts, the Wolverines continued to shoot themselves in the foot. On a third down and three play from the 16 yard line, Robinson dashed for eight yards. While the play started out great for the Maize and Blue, the signal caller fumbled the ball, giving it back to Notre Dame. It marked the third time in the game that Michigan reached the opponent 10 yard line without scoring any points.

Tight End Open: Despite the Wolverines struggles in completing drives and hanging onto the football, they were never out of the game. With 2:35 left on the clock and trailing by just seven points, Michigan had an opportunity to get the ball back. Given the recent history of the series, hopes were understandably high on the Michigan side of the field.

Notre Dame came out in a spread formation, isolating Eifert on Michigan quarterback J.T. Floyd at the right of the formation. Floyd took a step inside to defend against a potential slant pass, but otherwise remained completely flat footed. This allowed Eifert to beat him cleanly on an outside release for a deep fade. Floyd slipped in coverage, which added some yards to the play, but he was already beaten at that point. The tight end picked up 38 yards on the play, but far more importantly, he gained a first down, which allowed the Irish to run out the clock.

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