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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.

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