Notre Dame’s defensive players remained silent the past few days while the pundits hyped the greatness of Michigan’s defense. On Saturday, their performance showed the college football world that they are even better. The Irish suffocated Jim Harbaugh’s revamped offense for 58 minutes and rose to the occasion during the final moments when matters became tense to preserve a 24-17 victory in the opener for both teams.
Brandon Wimbush led a first half blitzkrieg that staked the hosts to 21 first half points, and made the plays necessary to set up a third quarter field goal that provided a 14-point cushion for the defense to work with down the stretch. Meanwhile, the Wolverine offense misfired on several critical plays during an attempted second half comeback as Notre Dame refused to buckle. Two fourth down passes by Shea Patterson in Irish territory fell incomplete, and the final drive ended when tackle Jerry Tillery separated Patterson from the ball and linebacker Tevonn Coney scooped it up to turn out the lights on Michigan.
In what was billed as a defensive slugfest, Notre Dame started fast to stun the Wolverines. Wimbush hit Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool with sharp passes before Jafar Armstrong burst up the middle for a 13-yard touchdown just 1:25 into the contest. On the next series, Michigan safety Josh Metellus was ejected for a nasty hit on Alize Mack and the resultant penalty gave Notre Dame a fresh set of downs. Wimbush then fired a deep strike to Chris Finke, who took the ball away from a Wolverine defender in the end zone for a 43-yard score at the 7:09 mark.
After a Michigan field goal early in the second period, Armstrong capped a long drive with a four yard touchdown that stretched the Irish advantage to 21-3 late in the half. Unfortunately, Notre Dame suffered yet another special teams letdown in the Brian Kelly era as Ambry Thomas returned the ensuing kickoff for a 99-yard score to make it 21-10 at intermission.
The Wolverine defense asserted itself in the third quarter, but the offense could not get out of its own way or Notre Dame’s way. Successive drives ended in a botched field goal attempt, a failed fourth down pass, a punt, an interception by Julian Okwara, and another fourth down incompletion. Wimbush set up the only third quarter points with a brilliant 22-yard quarterback draw on a third and 18 play. Justin Yoon came on to drill a 48-yarder for a 24-10 margin.
Michigan broke through with its only offensive touchdown with 2:18 remaining in the game on a three yard run by Karan Higdon. Although the Wolverines got the ball back after an Irish three and out, Tillery and Coney made sure they did not get very far. The defensive performance was a testament to the depth of the squad, as the starters were able to remain fresh despite very warm and humid conditions that took a toll on a number of players from both teams.
Winning a high stakes opener of this magnitude will provide a tremendous lift to Notre Dame and generate excitement for the season ahead. There are several areas where improvement can be realized, however, not the least of which are kick coverage and returns. The offensive line battled against a tough opponent but was beaten badly on several occasions at the point of attack and in pass protection. Tackly Robert Hainsey tried to play with a nagging leg injury, but had a rough time of it before coming off the field in the second half. Hopefully he will return to full strength soon.
Let’s review the answers to the pregame questions:
Which team will gain the most points off turnovers? No points were scored following the lone interception thrown by each quarterback, but Patterson’s fumble at the end sealed the final result.
Which offensive line will be able to generate a respectable running game? Notre Dame outrushed Michigan by 132-58, with Wimbush leading the way for the Irish.
Can either Wimbush or Patterson complete 60% of their passes? Patterson was 20 for 30, but they were predominantly short tosses and the key throws fell harmlessly to the ground. Wimbush was 12 of 22 but had higher impact completions.
Which secondary will live up to its high expectations? The Irish were more solid, allowing one big play that did not lead to a score. Michigan was shaky in the first half and took a few cheap shots.
Which defense will generate significant pressure on the passer? Both groups exerted considerable pressure, although Wimbush fared better due to his elite escapability.
Will any freshmen have a measurable impact on the outcome? Not really. This was a big boy game and the freshmen will have to wait for their chance.
Who will win the battle between the talented field goal kickers? Both kickers looked strong in converting their lone opportunity. Michigan’s Nordin watched as a second chance was fumbled by holder Will Hart.
Which head coach will have the worst post-game press conference? Kelly’s was filled with coachspeak and cliches, but it had to have been more intelligible than Harbaugh’s attempt to explain his horrific offense.
Next on the schedule for the Irish is Ball State, which should allow Kelly to utilize his bench and test a few freshmen. Buckle up, this could be an interesting ride if the team can find a running game and keep Wimbush from taking too many vicious hits.