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The road to 12-0: Michigan

Dec 30, 2012, 9:39 PM EDT

NCAA Football: Michigan at Notre Dame

The fourth in a series that looks back at Notre Dame’s 12-0 regular season. For more, read entries on Navy, Purdue and Michigan State.

No question about it, Notre Dame faced judgment day when Michigan came to town. Ascending to No. 11 in the country after an impressive victory against Michigan State, the Irish now needed to vanquish public enemy No. 1: Denard Robinson and the Wolverines.

Monumental games like this one maintain drama on multiple levels. Get the win and the Irish continue a sparkling start to the season, likely ascending into the top ten with one of the most impressive Septembers in the country. But from a program building perspective, a victory would be a true data point towards restoration, the first 4-0 start in a decade.

Night game. Hated rival. Opportunity for vengeance. It didn’t get much bigger than this one.

STATUS CHECK

Irish fans had to feel cautiously optimistic. Everett Golson just showed himself to be up to the task on a very big stage against an impressive defense. The Wolverines looked to be one of the Big Ten’s biggest paper lions, a preseason top ten team that got undressed against Alabama and barely escaped against Air Force.

But against Michigan, you could throw any logic out the window. Greg Mattison, the Wolverines’ defensive coordinator, has long tormented young quarterbacks with exotic pressure schemes. And Denard Robinson played the archenemy better than anybody — with the Irish defense having him all but dead until he came alive to steal the previous installment in Ann Arbor.

PRESSING QUESTIONS

With Golson laying an egg, a quarterback controversy was starting to brew.

Once again, Brian Kelly had to turn to Tommy Rees to pilot the Irish offense. Golson started the game with a horrible interception and piled up scary numbers — just 3 of 8 for 30 yards with two interceptions. A week after managing the game and doing so in a hostile environment, Golson couldn’t keep his cool when the team desperately needed it.

“I don’t really believe it’s a matter of confidence as much as he just has to settle down,” Kelly said of Golson. “He was not as comfortable as I would have liked after playing the Michigan State game where he was in an incredible environment. He needs to settle down a bit and he’s going to be just fine.”

Rees came in and completed 8 of his 11 throws for a tidy 115 yards. He found Tyler Eifert for a huge 38 yard reception that iced the game. After a sophomore season where Rees gave the ball away far too, the junior looked like a guy that could manage the Irish offense, especially with a defense that was playing elite football. But there was no doubting the promise of Golson, whose ceiling was undoubtedly more intriguing.

“I think we’re fairly comfortable if we need Tommy to come in and handle some of the offense for us, if we feel like it’s necessary, we will,” Kelly said. “He’s a great asset to have if you need him to close out a game, and we’ll continue to go that route. We’d like to continue to develop Everett so we don’t have to do that, but we’re still going to try to win football games anyway possible.”

Notre Dame’s defense drove a stake through the heart of the Wolverines.

While the offense was stuck largely in neutral, the Irish defense swallowed Denard Robinson whole. After watching Alabama’s defense destroy Michigan, the Irish put up an even more impressive effort, forcing an astounding six turnovers as the Irish held the Wolverines to under 300 yards and turned Denard Robinson’s birthday into a nightmare.

Bob Diaco’s defense played tremendously, and led by Manti Te’o, they just refused to let the Wolverines beat them. With an Irish offense willing to simply not get in the way, the defense played a magical game.

What would the offensive identity of this football team be?

If we learned anything after the Irish’s ugly-but-glorious 13-6 victory, it’s that Notre Dame’s head coach learned something this offseason. After committing to Golson as the quarterback, Kelly also committed to playing team-first football, unwilling to let the Irish beat themselves with turnovers.

In game’s like this one, that meant pulling Golson in favor of Rees, and playing an incredibly vanilla offense while struggling to run the football. Once again, Theo Riddick was stuck in neutral, gaining just 3.1 yards a carry on 17 totes. Yet Kelly trusted Riddick more than Cierre Wood, who picked up 5.6 yards a touch.

But the discipline of Kelly paid off, and in the end, Riddick picked up a few key yards down the stretch and Rees made one more play than Michigan did, hitting Tyler Eifert on a clutch third down conversion that iced the game.

Is Manti Te’o a Heisman Trophy candidate?

With Notre Dame Stadium filled with leis, the Irish’s emotional leader allowed a stadium of supporters to lift him up as his heart weighed him down with grief. Te’o’s performance — two key interceptions of Robinson and eight tackles — all done on one of the most watched football games of the year — powered the Irish victory.

Fifteen years after Michigan’s Charles Woodson won college football’s most prestigious award, Te’o’s name rightfully joined the conversation.

“He’s the guy in there,” Kelly said of his Te’o’s candidacy. “I mean, it all evolves around him, his personality, his strength. He’s a special guy. Take advantage of him when you’ve got him now, because I’ve never been around a kid like that.”

Was the magic returning to Notre Dame?

Games like this help redefine a school and its pursuits. With Te’o as Notre Dame’s fearless catalyst, perhaps this was the year that the stars would eventually align. After years of toxicity from a frustrated fanbase overwhelmed anything that was happening on the field, Notre Dame community’s overwhelming support of Te’o as he battled immense grief helped turn a tide that had been overwhelmingly negative for years.

“Man, I said it before. Four years ago when I decided to come here, I didn’t know why,” Te’o said in an impromptu pep rally speech. “It’s starting to unveil itself why, why I felt that I was told to come here. I can’t thank my team enough. I can’t thank the students and just the fan base around the world, Notre Dame and non-Notre Dame fans. They’ve just been great. It’s very humbling for me and my family.”

WHAT DID WE LEARN?

Notre Dame 13, Michigan 6.

Put simply, the Irish refused to lose. While Everett Golson had a crisis of confidence that put the offensive future of the Irish up for grabs, the defense put the team on its shoulders, and repeatedly held back Michigan as it knocked on the door.

The Irish offense was truly abysmal, racking up just 239 yards of offense as it continually put the defense in a next to impossible spot. Yet Te’o and company rose to the occasion time and again, dominated in possession but unwilling to break. The Wolverines entered the red zone five times. They exited with no touchdowns. Denard Robinson pointedly called that Saturday night the worst he’s ever had on a football field.

While the victory against Michigan State was considered a signature win by Kelly, the Irish head coach almost raised the bar in his post game comments.

“I think this is another step in the process of consistency that I’ve talked about,” Kelly said after the game. “Before you can go from being a good team to a great team, you have to exhibit some form of consistency in performance, and you have to play week in and week out.”

While it was difficult to notice then, this Irish team was showing one true characteristic of a great team. The ability to win ugly and close games. In beating Purdue, the Irish won without their best. While cruising against the Spartans, the offense converted just a single third down. Now stopping the Wolverines, the Irish dispatched another key opponent while letting Everett Golson go through some painful growing pains.

Coaches often say an ugly win is the best teaching moment. Constructive criticism holds its grip much stronger after a victory, teachable moments ring much truer after snatching victory from near defeat. With a bye week to get the quarterback situation straightened out, Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin would continue to find plays that Golson could execute. But nothing bonded this group more than learning that this team had the mental and physical toughness necessary to win close games.

And nothing helps build that confidence like stopping Denard Robinson and the Wolverines offense in its tracks.

  1. nudeman - Dec 30, 2012 at 11:17 PM

    Mixed bag, this game.
    I had this in ink as a W b4 the season, that thinking that for certain ND was still royally pissed about spitting the bit last year. Not so fast my friend.

    Golson was simply awful; offense wasn’t really a whole better with you-know-who, and though they won, my confidence was shaken.

    So I had a couple shots of whiskey and headed down to Minglewood.

    $5 to the person who gets that obscure musical/pop culture reference.

    • bernhtp - Dec 30, 2012 at 11:42 PM

      Too easy for an old blues fan. My roommate ran the Midwest Blues Festival at Notre Dame.

      • nudeman - Dec 31, 2012 at 12:32 AM

        bern.
        That’s nice about your roomie.
        On an equally unrelated note, I have an uncle in the carpeting business.

        Tell me the name of the SONG and ARTIST, man!!!

      • bernhtp - Dec 31, 2012 at 9:21 AM

        The best known version of Minglewood Blues was a regular staple of The Dead.

        This is an interesting history of the song. I remembered my roommate playing the original, albeit lyrically disconnected from the original (I had to look this up).

        http://www.taco.com/roots/minglewood.html

    • jerseyshorendfan1 - Dec 31, 2012 at 1:26 AM

      A: Who is Muddy Waters?

      Re UM game, 13-6 ain’t necessarily a beat down, but I’ll take it. I had always construed DRob’s comments after that game to be more in the nature of “I played like sh*t tonight” as opposed to ” The Irish made me hand in my worst performance ever.” In other words, I lost this game folks, you didn’t really win it. Truth be told, I think he really had an off night because we have seen what he is capable of. In my mind, this is just further indicia of the magical season we are having. There’s a lot of luck involved in going 12-0 and it really helps when a truly dangerous opponent just has a really bad night.

      • jerseyshorendfan1 - Dec 31, 2012 at 1:28 AM

        Oh, and didn’t the Dead cover that song as well?

      • nudeman - Dec 31, 2012 at 1:38 AM

        BINGO!!!!!! (on the Dead)
        Never heard Muddy do it, though he did just about everything else, so maybe

        Text me your adds and I’ll send the $5
        Seriously
        480 717 9990

        Skip to the 2:55 mark for the line in question

      • nudeman - Dec 31, 2012 at 12:57 PM

        bern
        That was an awesome read. As George Costanza would say, “I think it just moved”.

        One of my all time favorite Dead numbers. But I only saw them 80-100 times, so …

        The line “Couple shots of whiskey and women ’round here start lookin’ good” growled by Bobby is a classic.

  2. nudeman - Dec 31, 2012 at 1:39 AM

    Not exactly sure why that posted twice
    Sorry

  3. 1historian - Dec 31, 2012 at 10:06 AM

    The next to last time I saw the Dead was at the Fillmore West in March of 1970. The opening act was Miles Davis. Amazing.

    The last time I saw the Dead was in SF (also at the Fillmore) in April 1970. It was a night entitled “3 bands for 3 dollars.” At 8 Quicksilver Messenger Service came on (with Nicky Hopkins) and played for 2 hours. They played ‘Edward The Mad Shirt-Grinder’ and it brought the house down.

    Jefferson Airplane came on around 10 and played until 12:15.

    15 minutes later the Dead came on and played until 4 in the morning. As was their wont they spent large amounts of time noodling around on stage between songs but we were all stoned to the bone so it was cool.

    Good memories

    • papadec - Dec 31, 2012 at 12:15 PM

      Ahhhhhhhhh……… New Year’s Eve. Time for us oldies to remember great times – & the younger crowd to go out and make their own. Everybody (including the trolls- it wouldn’t be the same without you) have a happy, healthy & safe New Year. God Bless & keep you & your families well.

    • nudeman - Dec 31, 2012 at 1:05 PM

      1histy
      You have a couple years on me, but not much.

      My first was Des Moines Fairgrounds, June 1974. Wall of sound.
      Bill Graham came out and announced “We’re gonna’ get started a little early”. That has NEVER happened before or since, any band, in my lifetime.

      20 minutes into the 1st set they stopped for about 10 min to change one tiny tweeter (out of about 1000)

      Then they played three 90 minute sets. I still listen to an old bootleg recording I have of it and it stands the test of time like a certain Tom Clements pass to Robin Weber.

      Moved to SF from Chi in ’79 and saw them regularly from thereon.

      What a band.

      • 1historian - Dec 31, 2012 at 2:07 PM

        When I was a freshman at ND in 1961 in Farley Hall there was a guy named Dave Clements who was from McKees Rocks, Pa. He was always talking about his little brother Tommy – said he was gonna be good some day.

        True story.

        Have you seen that clip of Tom Clements telling the story of driving back from Chicago with Ara a few months after that game? Funny.

        “Ara stop the show”.

      • nudeman - Dec 31, 2012 at 5:02 PM

        I was at the ND/Bama game and can STILL see the pass Clements threw to Weber. If I made a list of top 10 ND plays in my lifetime, that would have to be on there, along with
        Eric Penick 85 yard TD, 1973 vs USC
        INT against USC (Smagala?) in 1988 and someone just f’ing FLATTENING Rodney Peete, who I always thought was a softie
        Joe Montana/Kris Haines/Chicken Soup Bowl
        Either of Rocket’s 2 TD returns vs UM, whatever year that was. ’88?
        Joe Theismann/Jim Yoder (?)/TD pass/Cotton Bowl, 1971
        Luther Bradley emasculating a USC receiver (JK McKay?), 1973 on the first or second play of the game
        EVERY SINGLE PLAY of the 1966 USC beatdown

  4. harvupdyke - Dec 31, 2012 at 12:15 PM

    I’m sorry Rudy fans…..an even more astounding effort than Alabama?!?! How is 13-6 more astounding than 41-14?!?! Are you serious? Correct me if I’m wrong here, but Alabama did beat Michigan on a neutral field not at home.

    Y’all must be smokin the blue stuff…

    Coach Saban and Alabama are gonna give y’all a smack, much like y’all got from the nuns in them thare catholic schools.

    Roll dam tide.

    • papadec - Dec 31, 2012 at 12:18 PM

      harv – glad to see you’re up an’ about. Pass that blue stuff lad – you’ve had enough.

    • alsatiannd - Dec 31, 2012 at 1:05 PM

      Perfectly logical. Alabama barely beat Georgia (32-28) but Georgia got crushed by South Carolina (35-7). South Carolina would obviously kill Alabama. West Carolina is not South Carolina, by the way, so don’t be confused.

    • 1historian - Dec 31, 2012 at 2:01 PM

      harv – glad to see you there, son.

      If you guys win you get to show up here and crow “I TOLD YOU SO!!!” and then dance and do whatever you guys do when you are happy and we have to put up with it.

      BUT

      If (when) WE win, you have to show up and take your medicine.

      BTW – in Selma there is a soup kitchen run by the Edmundites for the African-American community. It’s been going for 75 years. Run by Catholics. You might check them out – they can always use a buck or two.

      BTW #2 – What do you think of the ND students who went to Tuscaloosa in the fall of 2011 to help you folks come back from the hurricane? Us Catholics try to do the right thing. We don’t always succeed but most of us do try.

      • papadec - Dec 31, 2012 at 4:22 PM

        1hist – right on! Someone will have to eat crow on the 8th. If it’s me – I’ll take it baked in a pie, thank you. GO IRISH!!!!!!!!!!

    • goirishgo - Dec 31, 2012 at 5:43 PM

      Harv,

      Shouldn’t you be preparing your insanity defense or are your posts here part of it?

    • jerseyshorendfan1 - Dec 31, 2012 at 7:49 PM

      Maybe if a Nun had smacked you once or twice, your grammar wouldn’t be so bad.

  5. domerhomer - Jan 1, 2013 at 1:01 AM

    Just watched lsu/Clem, great game!! Maybe sec isn’t the powerhouse it’s made out to be?

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