Te'von Coney, Notre Dame defense have a ball as Irish smother Michigan, 24-17

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly handed off the game ball to his mega-dissected quarterback, Brandon Wimbush.

Te’von Coney, meanwhile, helped himself to one of his own.

The most dominant figure on a defense that had an answer to Michigan’s ballyhooed transfer quarterback and the schematic surprises that came with him at almost every turn, fittingly put the finishing touches on 12th-ranked Notre Dame’s 24-17 season-opening dismissal of No. 14 Michigan on a muggy Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium.

Coney, a senior middle linebacker who decided in January to defer his NFL dream, amassed a game-high 10 tackles, two QB hurries — one of which led to an interception by defensive end Julian Okwara — and scooped up Michigan junior QB Shea Patterson’s fumble with 46 seconds left in Michigan’s 17th successive loss on the road to a ranked team.

As a team, the Irish defense thwarted three fourth-down conversion attempts, smothered the Michigan run game to the tune of 58 yards on 33 carries, and only got pushed backward and around on the Wolverines’ only offensive touchdown drive of the game, which came late in the fourth quarter.

And not too long before Coney’s exclamation point.

Defensive end Khalid Kareem capped a breakthrough performance, by reaching at Patterson, who had pushed the Wolverine offense to just short of midfield. Defensive tackle Jerry Tillery completed the strip of Patterson, and Coney picked up the loose ball in stride.

Kareem finished with nine tackles, including 2½ for losses. Navy transfer Alohi Gilman was another of the defense’s many stars with seven tackles and two pass breakups as the Irish starting free safety.

“I thought they played outstanding,” Wimbush said of an Irish defense four days removed from losing versatile cornerback Shaun Crawford for the season with a torn ACL in his left knee.

“You could say we have one of the better D-lines in the country. They’ll continue to grow and get better.”

Notre Dame head coach Kelly seemed convinced his reclamation project at quarterback is on his way to doing the same.

A largely poised Wimbush completed 12-of-22 passes for 170 yards with a 43-yard touchdown pass to Chris Finke and an interception on an overthrow. His 125.4 pass-efficiency grade was about four points better than his season rating in 2017 and slightly better than Patterson’s on the night (123.6).

And he did it against perhaps the best defense Notre Dame will see in the regular season.

Definitively, it was the third time in his 13 career starts that Wimbush faced a pass-efficiency defense that ranked among the top 10 nationally in 2017, the sixth in the top 25 of ’17 and the ninth in the top 45, essentially the top third.

Backup Ian Book, whom Kelly had hinted could fit in a tag-team role, did appear twice — for one down each time. The first relief appearance happened because Wimbush got poked in the eye on a play that ended with a facemask penalty against Michigan.

In both instances, Book handed off to sophomore Jafar Armstrong. And in both instances Armstrong scored touchdowns — a 13-yarder 85 seconds into game and four-yard blast 3:55 before halftime. The converted wide receiver ran for 35 yards on 15 carries in his running back debut.

“I told Book, whoever, whenever, whatever it takes, we're going to get this W,” Wimbush said. “Him and I are on the same team, and that's one of my best friends on the team.

“We had packages in for him, and we had packages in for me. And I think I did what I had to do to keep myself on the field. That's all I really wanted to do, and to make plays that were there, and I think I did.”

Wimbush was Notre Dame’s leading rusher with 59 yards on 19 carries. He converted seven of 15 third-down opportunities and a fourth-down try that eventually led to the second Armstrong touchdown.

“I thought he played with an edge to him,” Kelly said of the senior, Wimbush. “He really had an energy to him that brought the group with him. I thought the offensive line handled a lot, with a first-time starter at left tackle. We did what we needed to do.”

The next step is to evolve. And that’s particularly true of a running game that apparently will lean heavily on Armstrong.

The Irish lost four options at running back in the offseason, only one of which is set to return this season. ND’s leading rusher in 2017, Josh Adams went pro early. Third-leading rusher Deon McIntosh and promising freshman CJ Holmes were both dismissed by Kelly in January.

Senior Dexter Williams, meanwhile, sat out the first game of what is expected to be a four-game, university-imposed suspension.

Enter Armstrong, a 6-1, 218-pound spring experiment-gone-right with zero running back experience during his days as a record-breaking receiver at Bishop Miege High School in suburban Kansas City, Kan.

“It's going to be awhile before he really gets all the nuances, but he's an elite football player,” Kelly said. “He's just really raw. He runs, as you see, high, but he can catch it, and he's physical, and he's game.

“He'll go as long and as hard as he can, and you love that about players that just don't get tired. He just has that kind of cardiac ability.”

Had the NCAA in February not upheld its decision to vacate 21 wins and a loss by Notre Dame for its handling of an academic fraud case four years ago, the first meeting between these two rivals since that 2014 season would have flipped the Irish back on top of Michigan as the all-time leader in winning percentage in the FBS.

Instead, the Irish will have to settle for a perfectly executed green-out by its fan base and for shoving Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh back into a perception crisis when it comes to winning big games at his alma mater.

“It's a beginning for us. We're not treating it like the end,” insisted the fourth-year Wolverine coach, 9-9 in his last 18 games after a 19-3 spree to start his regime.

Patterson, who had to yield to backup Dylan McCaffrey for stretches in the second half because of cramping, parroted the line of his head coach.

“There's a lot of potential,” the Ole Miss transfer said. “Just gotta learn from it. It's a long season.”

Notre Dame has plenty to learn too, including on special teams, which coughed up a 99-yard kickoff return by sophomore Ambry Thomas. But at least the Irish seem to have a defense that will make the margin of error for doing so not quite so perilously thin.

“Winning close games against really good football teams, that usually lends itself to you've probably got a pretty good football program,” Kelly said.

“Keep building it and keep recruiting and keep a healthy culture and organization, and you should be having the kind of atmosphere we have tonight. Wasn't that cool?”

"The scariest part?" added Gilman. "We haven't even scratched our potential."

Te’von Coney (4) and Asmar Bilal (22) bring down Michigan’s Karan Higdon (22) during ND’s 24-17 victory over Michigan, Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.