ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The most perplexing result for Notre Dame this season felt like the expectation for the other side.
That’s how No. 19 Michigan (6-2) treated its 45-14 rout over No. 8 Notre Dame (5-2) on Saturday at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. The first victory in nine attempts for the Wolverines as an underdog under fifth-year head football coach Jim Harbaugh hardly felt like a first.
“Yeah, I saw it coming,” said Harbaugh on Michigan's turnaround. “Watching them prepare, watching them practice, watching the detail in the meetings and how important it was to them. Day in and day out, the work in practice and the growth, I could see it.”
How Harbaugh nonchalantly answered questions in his 11-minute postgame press conference seemed to confirm that confidence. Maybe last week’s spark at Penn State provided Harbaugh the assurance that the Wolverines were trending upward. Michigan nearly completed a comeback from its 21-0 first-half deficit but fell 28-21 in the Oct. 19 contest.
The speculation regarding Harbaugh's future may have been quieted in the short term. Especially with how the Wolverines collected their second victory over an Associated Press top 10 team in 12 attempts under Harbaugh.
“That’s why I have so much respect for our players,” Harbaugh said. “A wonderful job by them. They’ve had some tests. They’ve taken some criticism. But to have the mindset of keep working, keep growing, that leads to really great victories and success like our players had tonight.
"A great lesson for them, because not everyone can do that.”
Rainy conditions with eastward winds topping out near 20 miles per hour played as an advantage for Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown. The Wolverines stonewalled the Irish running game to 47 rushing yards on 31 carries.
Top tight end Cole Kmet faced double coverage and garnered a season-low two targets on the night, turning them into a pair of receptions for 25 yards and a touchdown. Wide receiver Chase Claypool hauled in two of the nine passes thrown his direction for 42 yards.
“Yeah, it was going to be difficult, but that defense is set up with a very aggressive tilt toward making it difficult to run the football,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “You still have to find ways to throw the football. We just weren’t effective in doing so. When we had chances, we weren’t able to execute.”
Seven of Notre Dame’s 11 drives with Ian Book at quarterback resulted in three-and-outs. The Irish turned to backup Phil Jurkovec for the final three possessions after Book completed 8-of-25 passes for 73 yards and a touchdown.
Brown’s scheme tends to generate confusion and pressure through defensive line stunts and exotic blitzes. Neutralizing the running game and forcing the Irish into third-and-long situations with frequency helped the Wolverines exploit Book’s weaknesses.
“The type of offense that they run, they try to stick to the same type of script,” said Michigan defensive back Josh Metellus. “Get the same guys that ball. They don’t really like going outside of their frame in the type of stuff they like to do in their scheme.
“We got after the quarterback. We knew that once we hit him a couple times, he was going to get jumpy in the pocket and not want to throw the ball down the field. I feel like our defensive line did a great job of pressuring him.”
The Irish won the opening toss and elected to receive the ball first. They orchestrated a nine-play, 34-yard opening drive that resulted in a punt from Wolverine territory. Notre Dame then didn’t register a first down until midway through the third quarter.
That first down came on a questionable pass interference penalty on third-and-10, extending a drive that produced Book’s lone touchdown. Book threw eight consecutive incompletions in the first half prior to that possession.
In total, the Irish gained 103 yards on 47 plays with Book, and 34 of those snaps resulted in gains of two yards or fewer.
“Us as a defense kind of saw it as disrespect with them thinking they could take the ball first and make something happen,” said Wolverine linebacker Cameron McGrone. “From the start, we had to show them that we were here to play.
“I think they thought we couldn’t read our keys as well. They definitely didn’t believe in our speed.”
The same could be said for the Irish run defense. Michigan amassed 303 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 57 carries. Running backs Hassan Haskins (20 carries for 149 yards) and Zach Charbonnet (74 yards and two touchdowns on 15 attempts) led the rushing effort.
“We expected to run the ball a lot on Notre Dame,” Michigan center Michael Onwenu said, “but a lot of holes were open. More so than we thought.”
The weather conditions influenced the Wolverines to restrain from a healthy dose of the passing game. Quarterback Shea Patterson’s first completion didn’t come until midway through the second quarter. He operated as a game manager of sorts, finishing with 100 yards and two touchdowns on 6-of-12 passing.
Just as they expected.
“The second half of the Penn State game, I think we caught our stride,” Patterson said. “We realized after that game and coming into this week for Monday’s practice that the offense had to come out there from start to finish.
“We couldn’t come out flat and expect a comeback in the end. We had to help out our defense. Our defense played lights out (Saturday).”