Michigan drubs Notre Dame as Irish identity comes into question

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — After another Notre Dame blunder late in the fourth quarter, Queen’s “We Will Rock You” blasted inside Michigan Stadium.

The Michigan crowd, which earlier started to disperse to escape a never-ending rain, sang along as the officials reviewed a fumble by backup quarterback Phil Jurkovec.

The Irish had already been rocked.

No. 19 Michigan (6-2) outmatched No. 8 Notre Dame (5-2) in every phase of a 45-14 drubbing Saturday night in Ann Arbor.

“Clearly a very disappointing night for Notre Dame,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “Congratulations to Michigan. They were the better team (Saturday). In all phases they were better.”

The 31-point loss marked Notre Dame’s largest margin of defeat since the 33-point loss at Miami (41-8). Michigan’s 45 points scored are the most allowed by the Irish since a 45-14 loss at USC to end the 2016 regular season.

The mishaps started early for the Irish. Their first drive stalled after center Jarrett Patterson hit tight end Cole Kmet with a snap while Kmet was in motion, which quarterback Ian Book recovered for a four-yard loss. Then Kmet was flagged for a false start on the next play.

The drive had only continued in the first place thanks to a roughing the kicker penalty on Michigan’s Cam McGrone diving into punter Jay Bramblett. Three plays later, Bramblett punted again.

Notre Dame’s defense appeared to stop Michigan’s first drive with a three-and-out until Irish linebacker Jonathan Jones tried to recover a partially blocked punt by fellow linebacker Bo Bauer. Because the punt from Michigan’s Will Hart still traveled beyond the line of scrimmage, Jones didn’t have to cover up the ball for the Irish to gain possession.

Instead, when Jones tried to fall on the ball, it squirted away when he touched it and allowed Michigan to recover the loose ball. Notre Dame wide receiver Braden Lenzy also couldn't come up with the loose ball after Jones touched it and Michigan’s Daxton Hill recovered. If no Notre Dame player touched the ball after Bauer blocked it, Michigan could have only downed it to give the Irish possession.

“What happens in the moment, there seems to have an effect on somebody’s judgment at that time,” Kelly said of the punt return error. “Everybody knows what they’re supposed to do at that time. But that’s where you have to over-communicate and over-coach. Unfortunately, we touched that ball in that situation and caused it to become a free ball again.”

Michigan converted on the mistake with a nine-play, 65-yard drive capped by a 21-yard field goal by Jake Moody. Notre Dame safety Alohi Gilman extended the drive with a defensive pass interference on wide receiver Nico Collins on a third-and-7 incomplete pass.

The Irish couldn’t seem to get out of their own way. An off week on the schedule followed by a week off from class to prepare for Michigan apparently wasn’t enough.

“We had talked about getting off to a fast start for about two weeks, and we didn’t get off to a fast start,” Kelly said. “That was concerning.”

The rest of the game boiled down to Michigan being more physical on offense — the Wolverines rushed for 303 yards and three touchdowns — and shutting down nearly everything the Irish tried to do offensively.

Notre Dame’s starting offense only managed 103 yards and seven points with quarterback Ian Book in the game. The Irish added 77 yards and one touchdown when Jurkovec entered in the fourth quarter.

Michigan built a 17-0 lead in the second quarter with two run-dominant drives. Freshman running back Zach Charbonnet finished an eight-play, 59-yard drive of all rushes with a seven-yard touchdown. Then Charbonnet punched in a one-yard touchdown run at the end of Michigan’s next drive, which spanned 60 yards in seven plays.

Even though Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson completed just two passes in the first half, the rain didn’t slow down the Wolverines. Patterson finished 6-of-12 passing for 100 yards and two touchdowns. Michigan running backs Hassan Haskins (20 carries for 149 yards) and Zach Charbonnet (15 carries for 74 yards and two touchdowns had their way.

“How about the elements?” said Wolverine head coach Jim Harbaugh. “Our guys had fun with it. They really relished playing in this game.”

Kelly said Notre Dame’s offensive plan of attack remained the same as usual: to run the football to set up throws down the field. But with a 17-0 lead in the second quarter and the running game providing little (47 yards by game’s end), Book still attempted 25 passes of which he completed only eight for 73 yards.

Book’s lone touchdown pass came on a seven-yard completion to Kmet for Notre Dame’s first points with 5:27 remaining in the third quarter. Michigan bracketed Kmet in coverage most of the night, Kelly said, which limited Kmet to two catches for 25 yards.

“That defense is set up with a very aggressive tilt towards making it difficult to run the football,” Kelly said. “But 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.”

The offense played the majority of the game without starting running back Tony Jones Jr. and right guard Tommy Kraemer. Both left the game in the second quarter. Jones, who rushed eight times for 14 yards, suffered a cartilage issue in his ribs, Kelly said after the game. Kraemer, who was replaced by Trevor Ruhland, sprained his knee, Kelly said.

The Irish were also without junior wide receiver Michael Young. Reports surfaced Friday, first from Irish Illustrated, that Young would sit out the rest of the season to pursue a transfer. Young did not travel with Notre Dame to Michigan.

“We will have a discussion about his status with our team moving forward,” Kelly said of Young.

Michigan poured on the points in the second half. Patterson threw touchdown passes to wide receivers Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins. Third-string running back Tru Wilson broke free for a 27-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.

Harbaugh didn’t pull back the offense much when backup quarterback Dylan McCaffrey entered the game either. Wide receiver Mike Sainristil caught a 26-yard touchdown pass from McCaffrey with 4:23 left in the game.

With the next Notre Dame-Michigan game not scheduled until 2033, a consecutive two-year agreement announced by both schools before Saturday’s game, the Wolverines showed little let up late.

Whatever Michigan discovered in the second half of its 28-21 loss to Penn State the week before, in which it trailed 21-0 at half, appeared to have carried over for the Wolverines.

“I saw it coming,” Harbaugh said of his team’s performance. “Watching (my team) prepare, watching them practice, watching the detail in the meeting and how important it was to them. Day in and day out, the work in practice and the growth, I could see it.”

On the other sideline, Kelly may have had more questions than answers. Only he, safety Alohi Gilman and right tackle Robert Hainsey, two of the team’s seven captains, spoke to reporters following the loss.

“We got beat,” Gilman said. “They’re a better team than us. It’s not a good feeling, but we’re going to learn from this. Guys like me and Robert take accountability of what we have to do to be a better team, play to our standard and to our true identity. We’re going to work on that going forward.”

But Notre Dame’s identity can’t just be something it’s striving to be. The results dictate the identity too.

“Our identity was not on display tonight,” Kelly said. ‘We’re a physical team. We weren’t physical.

“We have to look at all the things that went on tonight as to what kind of preparation did I put them in. Did I put them in the right place? Did we coach them to be in the right fits offensively, defensively?

“Players have to look at their performance. This is an all-in situation with players and coaches any time you have a defeat like this.”

Michigan’s Cameron McGrone (44) celebrates making a stop during the Notre Dame-Michigan NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Notre Dame’s Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (6) and Alohi Gilman (11) stop Michigan’s Hassan Haskins (25) during the Notre Dame-Michigan NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan.