by John Vannie
Despite a relentless, driving rain that deluged South Bend throughout the weekend, the dark clouds surrounding Notre Dame’s football program lifted suddenly on Saturday in a long-awaited and stunning reversal of fortune. The opportunistic Irish rolled over turnover prone Michigan by 35-17 and finally put to rest the ghosts of 2007. The victory righted the ship for head coach Charlie Weis, whose tenure was beginning to emit distress signals in the wake of a poor showing in the season opener last week.
This game against a bitter rival was circled by Notre Dame players, coaches and fans as a defining moment in Weis’ efforts to restore the program to elite status. The Wolverines followed the script to perfection by playing the role occupied by the Irish last season. The visitors fielded a struggling offense with young talent that shot itself in the foot from the opening whistle and could not stop pulling the trigger.
The Northern invaders uncharacteristically bestowed gifts on their hosts by fumbling on their initial possession. This first of six Wolverine turnovers set up a Robert Hughes touchdown. Irish special teams superhero Mike Anello recovered a fumble by Michigan’s Michael Shaw on the ensuing kickoff and Notre Dame had a 14-0 lead only four minutes into the contest.
The Irish extended the lead later in the opening period when a failed fourth down gamble by the Wolverines provided good field position. Jimmy Clausen launched a 48-yard bomb to a wide open Golden Tate, who waltzed into the end zone ahead of two beaten Michigan defenders. Notre Dame led 21-0 with barely ten minutes expired as 80,795 giddy fans grew raucous with joy.
Faced with the prospect of a blowout, Michigan’s offense collected itself momentarily and got back into the contest. Freshman running back Sam McGuffie scored by taking a short pass 40 yards for a quick score to cap a 75-yard march. Cornerback Morgan Trent then intercepted a Clausen pass, and McGuffie rambled 29 yards into scoring territory. After quarterback Steven Threet converted a third down with a 21 yard scramble, the Irish defense stiffened and forced a short field goal by K. C. Lopata.
Notre Dame fans became concerned as Armando Allen fielded the kickoff near the sideline and failed to stop his momentum before stepping out of bounds at his own 13. Clausen and Tate rescued the Irish by teaming up for a 60 yard play to the Michigan 25. James Aldridge and Hughes combined to push Notre Dame into the end zone with Hughes accounting for the final yard for a commanding 28-10 advantage.
The Wolverines kept things interesting with a touchdown run by Kevin Grady before halftime to cut the lead to 28-17, but turnovers and the Irish defense kept them off the scoreboard in the second half. Brian Smith scooped up a fumble and rambled 40 yards for the game’s final points early in the fourth quarter. Michigan tried to rally behind alternate quarterback Nick Sheridan, but Notre Dame’s Gary Gray picked off a long pass and returned it 40 yards to seal the win.
Although the Irish were outgained in terms of total yardage, the offense was not dominated by Michigan’s formidable front seven as had been predicted. The offensive line shook off an injury to guard Chris Stewart and ran the ball effectively enough to allow Clausen the time he needed to find his receivers. Tate showed that he has become an integral part of the attack as a deep threat instead of a mere decoy, and Michael Floyd is simply a thoroughbred with a bright future. Duval Kamara also bounced back from a poor performance last week to catch a touchdown pass.
Defensively, Notre Dame was gashed for quite a few long plays in the first half, but the secondary played well throughout and refused to allow the Wolverines to close the gap when it counted. Besides an outstanding all-around effort by David Bruton and Gray’s first career interception, Kyle McCarthy forced a fumble deep in Irish territory and Raeshon McNeil broke up a key third down pass.
The improvement by Notre Dame’s special teams was underscored by the slapstick efforts of Michigan’s return men to cleanly field and hold onto the ball. The Irish still have issues with the depth its kickoffs and the ability to get the most out of the return game, but the effort on coverage teams led by Bruton and Anello has provided a lift for the entire team.
The exultation by the Irish players and student body at the end of the game brought relief as much as joy to everyone connected with the team and its legions of fans. The miserable weather conditions inexplicably made the experience more satisfying, and the drenched Irish faithful seemed reluctant to leave the stadium even after the Notre Dame band had marched through the tunnel.
It is too soon to tell if the Irish can use this win as a springboard to a breakthrough season, but the players have experienced the depths of defeat frequently enough to avoid taking anything measure of success for granted. The players may have been helped by a visit from Coach Lou Holtz, whose statue was unveiled in the Stadium this weekend. Holtz was accompanied by his 1988 championship team, who obviously provided inspiration in the locker room.
Notre Dame did not emerge from the contest without a dose of adversity, and will now have to overcome a serious injury to Weis this week as they prepare for their first road game at Michigan State. The Irish head coach suffered torn knee ligaments when one of his own players was pushed out of bounds and crashed into him from behind. Weis will likely have surgery this week, but fans can expect to see him in East Lansing next Saturday.
A review of the key questions that determined the outcome:
Which team will control the line of scrimmage?
The Irish linemen did not win a clear victory, but they neutralized Michigan’s front four and enabled their skill position players on both sides of the ball to make winning plays.
Will Mike Haywood rebound from a forgettable debut as the Irish play caller?
The pass on second and goal from the one was awful, but Haywood improved this week.
Will the Irish defense hold up on the perimeter against runs from the spread option?
Michigan collapsed the perimeter for some big gains, but all’s well that ends well.
Will the Irish be willing and able to run the ball?
Yes, and that allowed Clausen time to make great throws when his receivers were open.
How well will Mike Turkovich protect Jimmy Clausen’s blind side?
The play of Turkovich at left tackle has been a pleasant surprise so far.
Can Notre Dame win the field position battle on special teams?
This was a key element in the game thanks to Bruton, Anello and bad hands by Michigan.
Which team will hit big plays over the top in the passing game?
Clausen and Tate won this round.
Cynical question of the week: At what point in the game will Weis take over the play calling duties?
I’ll bet Charlie wishes he coached the game from upstairs in the booth.
I did pick Michigan to win this game, but one of the voices in my head kept telling me that I might be all wet. Sure enough, I was soaked by halftime. Another voice told me to have some faith and make the trip to South Bend this weekend. That also turned out to be the right move because the win was very satisfying, and it was even more rewarding to see so many regulars from the Nation with smiles on their faces.