by John Vannie
Notre Dame’s swarming defense forced six Michigan turnovers and quarterback Tommy Rees came on in relief to engineer enough offense to give the 4-0 Irish a 13-6 victory over the Wolverines on Saturday. Both defenses dominated play, and each team frittered away scoring chances with costly turnovers in the red zone. Notre Dame nursed a narrow lead throughout the contest that its defense refused to surrender. Despite the heroics of Manti Te’o and a fearless secondary, the outcome was very much in doubt until Tyler Eifert caught his first pass in two games on a critical third down play with just over two minutes remaining.
Strange things have happened to the Irish in this series, and this time calamity struck early. Starting quarterback Everett Golson dropped back to throw on Notre Dame’s first offensive play, and he promptly tossed an interception to a team that had not picked off a pass yet this season. Raymon Taylor brought the ball back to the Irish nine yard line with the help of a facemask penalty on the return, and Michigan appeared ready to draw first blood. Instead, Notre Dame rose up with a pair of sacks to stop Denard Robinson in his tracks. Brendan Gibbons missed a 43-yard field goal attempt and the Irish took over.
Golson was unable to move the team, and it became obvious that Wolverine defensive Coordinator Greg Mattison’s plan to apply pressure and generate confusion at the snap was working. The Irish could not run the ball consistently and Golson rarely found an open receiver. Michigan drove the ball deep into Notre Dame territory once again late in the first quarter, but an ill-advised halfback pass by Vincent Smith was picked off by safety Nicky Baratti in the end zone.
On Michigan’s next possession, Robinson contributed to the comedy of errors by throwing the first of his four interceptions. Manti Te’o stepped in front of the intended receiver to grab the ball and returned it to the Wolverine 17. The Irish failed to advance but Kyle Brindza drilled a 33-yard field goal for the game’s first points with 10:09 left in the half. On the next play from scrimmage, Robinson made another poor throw to Notre Dame cornerback Bennett Jackson, and the Irish took over once again in plus territory. Golson connected with passes to Theo Riddick and DeVaris Daniels, but then made an awful decision by lofting the ball into the end zone under pressure. Thomas Gordon intercepted for Michigan and the score remained at 3-0.
Four plays later, yet another Robinson pass near midfield was tipped by safety Zeke Motta and clutched by Te’o before it hit the ground. Sensing Golson’s obvious discomfort and the need to capitalize on these opportunities, Coach Brian Kelly inserted Rees at quarterback. The junior hit Daniels and T.J. Jones to move the Irish to the Michigan six yard line. Another short pass advanced the ball inside the one, but consecutive penalties resulted in a ten yard retreat. Irish fortunes returned, however, when an obvious pass interference on Eifert placed the ball on the two with a new set of downs. Rees promptly dove over the goal line on a quarterback draw to score the game’s only touchdown with 1:21 remaining before intermission.
Robinson tried to rally his team by getting into field goal range as time ran short, but all he could muster was another interception by Notre Dame’s KeiVarae Russell on the final play of the half.
The Wolverines attempted to rejuvenate their running game in the third quarter as Fitz Toussaint ripped off a 31-yard gain on their first snap. Robinson seemed to have regained his composure as he lead the team down the field and even overcame a holding penalty to extend the drive. The bubble burst again for the speedy senior when he coughed up the football at the Irish eight yard line at the end of a run that would have resulted in a Michigan first down.
Rees could not move the offense in the third quarter, but the defense held fast despite being on the field for most of the period. The Wolverines finally broke through when Gibbons booted one from 33 yards to narrow the gap to 10-3 with 13 minutes left in the game. Notre Dame needed an answer to regain momentum and Theo Riddick answered the call for the Irish on the ensuing series. A time consuming drive ended with a 39-yard field goal by Brindza at the 6:46 mark.
The long march by the offense and the restoration of a ten point advantage gave the gritty Notre Dame defense a boost of energy. Although Robinson passed and ran to move the chains in the middle of the field, the Irish refused to break. Sheldon Day’s sack on a third down in the red zone put a sudden stop to yet another threat, and Michigan had to settle for another three pointer by Gibbons with 3:27 left to play.
With it’s lead cut to seven, Notre Dame did not want to leave Robinson with another chance for a miracle. Facing a third down and four, the Irish split three receivers in a stack to the left and isolated Eifert on the right side against Wolverine cornerback J.T. Floyd. Eifert won the battle down the sideline and achieved separation downfield. Rees floated a pass over Floyd for a 38-yard gain into Michigan territory. A clutch run by Riddick three plays later secured another first down and the ballgame for Notre Dame.
The win was hardly a thing of beauty from an offensive standpoint, but the Irish have a defense that can keep hope alive until Golson and the offense come of age. The bye week brings a welcome opportunity for rest and repair, and Kelly confirmed his commitment to Golson as his quarterback with Rees remaining in reserve for the time being. Since that formula has worked in two home victories and a 4-0 overall record, not one is going to utter the dreaded term “quarterback controversy” right now.
Let’s review the answers to the pregame questions:
Can Notre Dame continue to protect the football in exemplary fashion? Golson’s two early interceptions were anything but exemplary, but the bleeding stopped under Rees.
Will Robinson be able to generate enough big plays of more than 20 yards to tilt the outcome? Michigan had only one play longer than 20 yards, a 31-yard run by Toussaint early in the third quarter. Several long passes by Robinson either hit the ground or fell into Irish hands.
Can Notre Dame’s special teams secure favorable field position? Notre Dame’s punting was poor and the Irish allowed too many yards on kickoff returns. Of course, the Wolverines punted only once because they were too busy turning the ball over, and didn’t kick off very often because they didn’t score many points.
Will the young Irish secondary hold up against Michigan’s receivers? Another solid performance by this group, with interceptions by Baratti, Russell and Jackson as well as a stellar overall game by Motta.
Can the Wolverines get their running game going against Notre Dame’s massive front? Robinson was held under 100 yards and Toussaint was a non-factor aside from one lone escape.
Will Notre Dame’s defense be able to put Michigan in third and long situations? Not necessarily in the middle of the field, but the Irish owned the Wolverines in the red zone with sacks, pressure and turnovers.
Can the Irish control the time of possession and limit Robinson’s scoring chances? Michigan outgained the hosts and controlled the ball for much of the first and third periods, but Notre Dame’s two clutch fourth quarter drives resulted in a much-needed field goal and a victory formation to end the game.
October will start with another night game for the Irish. The team must travel west on the toll road to play the Miami Hurricanes at Soldier Field in Chicago. Rumor has it that Notre Dame will unveil a special Halloween costume for its players at this event, but no one can make fun of the way the defense is playing football right now.