Notre Dame didn't even need entire playbook against Michigan

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

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SOUTH BEND – Maybe it’s a good thing this series is coming to an end, after all.

Notre Dame needs a competitive football team to call its rival.

Michigan sure didn’t fill that bill Saturday night.

The 31-0 Irish victory was one of those “kick ‘em when they’re down, and then kick 'em again” type of performances.

Whatever happened to the Wolverines that used to scratch and claw for every yard? No “Chicken Dance” this time.

The Irish even piled on a bit, playing “Crazy Train” with 9:45 to play.

Oooooooooh, that hurt.

The Irish will walk away from this series with their heads held high, and plenty of optimism about the rest of the season.

Michigan, meanwhile…, better rely on a bad Big Ten to avoid a losing record.

Notre Dame unleashed a ferocious assault on the Wolverines. The Irish ran the ball when they had to eat up the clock, and threw the ball with little resistance.

Brian VanGorder passed his first major test as Notre Dame defensive coordinator. There were blitzes, there were stunts, and there were plenty of hard hits that were often missing last season.

Four turnovers – interceptions by Max Redfield, Cody Riggs and Elijah Shumate, and a fumble recovery by Isaac Rochell (after a jarring hit by Joe Schmidt) – were by-products of the Irish intensity.

They picked their spots to unleash the fury.

One dimension of the Notre Dame offense was hardly tapped. The option was used sparingly and quarterback Everett Golson didn’t carry the ball often.

Why bother?

After a solid first half, the only significant mistake Golson made was hanging onto the ball too long. After feeling some heat, he was flagged for an intentional grounding penalty early in the fourth quarter. Kyle Brindza bailed him out by connecting on the field goal from 43 yards, despite being pushed back.

Notre Dame’s 21-0 halftime lead was nothing short of impressive.

The preseason consensus was that the Irish were going to have an offense premised on the ground game. Add to that equation the fact that DaVaris Daniels, considered the returning go-to receiver, has been suspended as part of the academic fraud investigation, and three yards and a cloud of rubber pellets seemed even more likely.

Where’d Will Fuller come from? The sophomore caught six passes for 68 yards and a 24-yard TD in the first half.

Amir Carlisle, a guy without a position last year when he fumbled his way out of the running back position, has resurrected his Notre Dame career as a slot receiver. He had four receptions for 31 yards and a one-yard touchdown from Golson.

Air Kelly? Maybe. Toss in two pass interference calls along with those 16 completions for 169 yards and plenty of good things happened for the Irish.

This was the first time in five years that the Notre Dame offense truly fit head coach Brian Kelly’s vision. He had the proper personnel in place and, unlike the Rice game last week, had an opponent worthy of exposing the playbook.

At least that was the preconceived notion. As it turned out, it was hardly the case.

The first half told the story. Golson was an efficient 16-of-21 (169 yards). The Irish, who avoided a penalty and a turnover, had just one negative-yardage play the entire 30 minutes – a one-yard loss on a pass reception that Fuller bobbled.

Three “hidden” plays made all the difference in the world in the first half. All three had scoring implications.

• Michigan’s first possession, second-and-three on the Irish 30. Devin Gardner hit Dennis Norfleet with a pass at the line of scrimmage. Immediately, Matthias Farley delivered a blow and nailed Norfleet for a two-yard loss.

No way Farley makes that same hit last year. He’s playing with a new-found intensity and a tougher approach to defense.

A couple plays later, the Wolverines missed a field goal.

• Fourth down on the Michigan 38. Will Hagerup’s punt bounced to Irish returner Cody Riggs inside the Notre Dame 20. Riggs muffed the punt, but James Onwaulu picked up the loose ball and even made seven yards on the return.

Riggs definitely owes Onwaulu a dinner.

That was the start of a drive that ended in Carlisle’s touchdown reception.

• As the seconds trickled away at the end of the first half, Notre Dame was on the Michigan 29. Golson got plenty of heat. He was flushed out of the pocket and running for his life. At the last minute, before hitting the sideline, he stopped and hit tight end Ben Koyack with a five-yard pass.

Turning a potential big-time – out-of-field-goal-range – negative into a positive set the table for the 24-yard scoring pass to Fuller.

Those hidden plays led to one obvious revelation.

Only one team came to play Saturday night.

The Irish owned this one.

ALesar@SBTinfo.com | (574) 235-6318

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Notre Dame’s Everett Golson (5) passes to C.J. Prosise during the Notre Dame-Michigan game on Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN