Noie: Notre Dame embraces, excels in moment against Michigan

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Amid the sea of green in the stands and the hoopla surrounding the rekindling of a once-magical matchup, a step was there to be taken Saturday night.

The opportunity was right there for No. 12 Notre Dame. Seemingly gift-wrapped. Home opener. Under the lights. Time to take a big step. A needed step.

Away from last year’s 10-win effort and the constant concerns about the starting quarterback. About how they could replace two first-round NFL draft picks on the offensive line. About how the defense would respond to its third coordinator in as many years. About the safety spot  and if a steadying play-maker might finally emerge.

The Irish indeed took that step, one away from last year and what was. Or wasn’t. A small one into a long season, but a needed one following a 24-17 victory over No. 14 Michigan in a game that few likely saw coming.

Seriously. Who called this one? It was supposed to be a defensive struggle. A battle of field position and field goals. Notre Dame then racked up two scores, eight first downs and 143 yards in the first 7:51. Some may not have expected those numbers the entire game. But there the Irish were — rolling early behind quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

Wimbush was crisp and confident and clean through the first nine plays scripted by coordinator Chip Long. No looking over his shoulder; no looking back at the past. Backup Ian Book was supposed to be at the ready in case of emergency, but coach Brian Kelly never had to break that glass and pull that fire alarm. Wimbush received the game ball after running for a team-high 59 yards and throwing for 170 yards and one score — a 43-yarder to Chris Finke. Those finance guys, they’re money on and off the field.

The Irish offense sputtered for stretches after the sizzling start, but Kelly was OK with it. He looked at the final numbers of 302 total yards and 21 first downs and believes there still were plays to made left on the field. But he also sees a big effort by Wimbush and by first-time starter Liam Eichenberg at left tackle and Jafar Armstrong at running back against a defense that’s pretty darn good.

Which means his offense can be good. Maybe better than what people first figured. From the quarterback on down.

“The numbers aren’t going to jump off the page,” Kelly said. “But we did what we needed to do against arguably the best defense we’ll see this year.”

This one was about more than just numbers. It was about the swagger with which Wimbush played. It trickled down to the rest of the offense. The defense. The team. That wasn’t the case at key times last season. But this is the new and improved Wimbush, someone who carried more confidence from the opening kick to the final whistle. No over-analysis about it. Just go and play. Make plays.

Little bothered Wimbush, though the Wolverines brought a collection of blitzes and bull-rushes from all angles. He was flushed from the pocket, but never seemingly flustered.

Wimbush was Wimbush, someone who can carry the offense with his right arm or runs. Someone who would end up carrying former quarterback DeShone Kizer on his back in the post-game celebration.

“Brandon Wimbush for Heisman!” yelled Kizer, wearing a Joe Montana No. 16 jersey.

Not quite yet. That’s a bold statement, and not one Wimbush was looking to make.

“I think I made a statement, but that’s not what I was trying to do,” he said.

What he was trying to do was go and play well enough to win the game. Whatever it took.

A beaten bunch

As for Michigan, head coach Jim Harbaugh continues to be a guy who makes a lot of money ($9 million per year), but not a lot of difference. At least when it really matters. In games that matter a little more. Like Saturday. He can do all that wacky stuff off the field — where he often acts like your weird uncle — but when will he deliver on it? In a big game? Hasn’t happened against either of Michigan’s two rivals in Michigan State and Ohio State. Didn’t happen Saturday.

He may have done it at Stanford. He may have done in the NFL. But this isn’t the Pac-12. This isn’t the NFC West.

The Wolverines at times looked ill-prepared to handle the atmosphere and environment they walked into Saturday night. It was a lot hot. It sometimes was hostile. It was the Wolverines losing starting strong safety Josh Metellus on the second Irish series to a targeting hit. It was the Wolverines eating a delay of game penalty on the first play from scrimmage to start the second half.

That’s high school stuff.

The deeper this game got, the more it became about survival. Temperatures were in the low 80s at kickoff, but nightfall and the lack of sun didn’t do much to decrease the humidity. Guys cramped up. Found it hard to keep the motor revved for four quarters. But as the humidity took its toll, Notre Dame defensive lineman Khalid Kareem noticed something.

The guys in the blue jerseys were good to go. The guys in the white jerseys? How ‘bout a white flag? They were gassed and ready to get back on the bus to Ann Arbor. Travel through the night. Take the loss and start over.

“You saw it in their body language that they were kind of defeated,” Kareem said. “We just stepped on the throat and kept it on.”

At home, at night, against a ranked opponent last September, it was Notre Dame fumbling away its final drive against Georgia. This year, at home, at night, against a ranked opponent, it was Notre Dame forcing the fumble on the Michigan’s final drive.

Different year. Different team.

Notre Dame limited Michigan to 58 rushing yards on 33 carries. That’s 1.8 yards per carry. That’s not going to get it done. It will for the Irish.

“That’s something you should expect from our defense, especially our defense line,” Kareem said. “We’re coming after it every day.”

They’ll keep coming after it. Next up Ball State. Then Vanderbilt. One down, 11 to go. Notre Dame took a big first step. Next week, take another one.

“It’s a good win,” Kareem said. “But it’s just one win on our way to a national championship.”

Kelly mentioned earlier in the week that he had note after note after note about Michigan. About their defense. About their skill guys. About their team. Kelly then said that all the intel was warranted, that Michigan was really good.

So, he said, were his guys. They were Saturday.

Notre Dame’s Khalid Kareem (53) breaks through the Michigan offensive line during the Notre Dame-Michigan NCAA college football game on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.