Potent Michigan offense shreds Irish defense
ANN ARBOR, Mich.
The most pungent told-you-so moment that escorted Notre Dame and its newly defrocked defense off the field at still pulsating Michigan Stadium Saturday night, came not from the victorious Wolverines, but from the facility’s speaker system.
Yes, they really did play the Chicken Dance.
As if an Alabama-esque 460 yards in total offense by No. 17 Michigan, dominating performances by number-switchers Devin Gardner and Jeremy Gallon and an awkward interview on ESPN of rapper Eminem weren’t enough to add to the rancor stirred up by the coming hiatus in a 41-30 subduing of No. 14 Notre Dame.
“I want my football teams to play smarter and more disciplined,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “That's what we need to get to.”
Michigan coach Brady Hoke, said Notre Dame “chickened out” in ending the series after 2014, while talking to a group of boosters last May, but he claimed Saturday night that neither he or his team carried those feelings into the penultimate clash for the foreseeable future. And he said he never brought up Kelly’s reference to a “regional rivalry” specifically.
“I don’t think there was any kind of anger,” he said. “We want to win. We want to win every week.”
Offensively, they look the part of a team that might be able to carry that out. The Wolverines (2-0) all but sealed the 400th Wolverine win in Michigan Stadium history with a four-yard pass from Gardner to Drew Dileo with 4:57 left, capping a 75-yard drive that included two critical -- and perhaps criticized by the ND sideline – pass-interference penalties.
Both came on third down, and the first wiped out an interception by Irish cornerback Bennett Jackson.
What hope the Irish (1-1) had of silencing the largest crowd in college football history (115,109) one more time fluttered away with 1:29 left when a Tommy Rees pass into the end zone deflected off cornerback Raymon Taylor and into the arms of fellow corner Blake Countess.
“I felt like we had opportunities to score,” Kelly said. “We've got to make those plays. This was one of those games that our offense needed to carry the day for us. We just came up short in a couple of key plays for us -- one of those games you gotta win and we weren't able to come up with the key plays offensively.”
The Irish defense did have its moments, despite yielding 376 total yards to Gardner and eight catches for a career-high 188 receiving yards and three touchdowns to Gallon. Both players were recently awarded “Legend” jerseys – Gallon swapping out his old No. 10 for Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard’s 21 in late August and Gardner donning another Heisman winner, Tom Harmon’s, No. 98, starting Saturday night.
Then they proceeded to play like legends for the most part in racking up 35 more points than Michigan scored last year in South Bend and the second-highest total by either team in the 41 game-history of the series.
“Jeremy is a very, very tough kid,” Hoke said. “How he comes to work every day and how he competes probably are his strengths.”
The surge by the Irish defense came early in the fourth quarter with Michigan holding a 34-20 command and possessing the ball.
But safety Elijah Shumate’s sack of Gardner set up a third-and-11 from the Michigan 16.
On the ensuing play a blitzing Irish safety Austin Collinsworth and outside linebacker Prince Shembo chased Gardner into the end zone. As he was falling backward toward the end line, he tried to throw the ball away, which likely would have resulted in an intentional grounding penalty and a safety.
But Irish defensive end Stephon Tuitt corralled the floater in the end zone for a touchdown, and the Irish trailed, 34-27, with 12:06 left. Hoke, now 16-0 at home in his Wolverine reign, challenged the call on the field, but the ACC officiating crew upheld it.
Notre Dame’s defense held on five plays on Michigan’s next possession. The Irish answered with a Kyle Brindza 40-yard field goal, his third of the game. That was preceeded by a dropped interception by Michigan linebacker James Ross.
But Gardner and company found a second wind and sealed the victory that kept the Wolverines alone at the top of college football’s all-time win percentage list.
The game for Notre Dame wasn’t so much about milestones, though the Irish had been chasing that one since it was surrendered nine years ago. It was supposed to be about redemption, a perceptual nudge to the college football world that the Alabama game was more aberration than a rude awakening.
ND’s offense looked the part for the most part Saturday night. Rees put together back-to-back 300-yard passing games for the first time in his four-year career, throwing for 314 on 29-of-51 accuracy with two TDs – one to TJ Jones and one to tight end Troy Niklas.
But his two interceptions helped mitigate the 410 yards in total offense.
The defense was another story. The most yards the Irish gave up last season was 379, to Oklahoma, but by halftime Michigan had racked up 27 points more than any team scored in four quarters (and in overtimes) against the Irish defense last season.
“That doesn’t mean our defense is not as good,” Kelly maintained. “It’s just that we went up against a really good quarterback tonight that really made a lot of plays. He's difficult to defend.”
And with a relatively soft schedule ahead, Gardner has also nudged his team into the periphery of the national championship discussion, at least as a sleeper. Not that the notion was foremost on the Wolverines’ minds late Saturday night.
“This game is bragging rights for life,” Michigan All-America offensive tackle Taylor Lewan said. “And that’s what we got.”