NCAA Football: Michigan at Notre Dame

The road to 12-0: Michigan


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.


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.


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.”


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.

The good, the bad and the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Clemson

Will Fuller, B.J. Goodson

For a variety of reasons, Notre Dame’s 24-22 loss stings a little bit more than usual. The self-inflicted mistakes. The horrible start in an electric environment. The dropped passes and the missed blocks. Not to mention the two failed two-point conversions.

On a night where Notre Dame needed to bring close to their best to leave Death Valley a victor, they brought nothing near it for the game’s first 45 minutes. And while they very nearly fought their way into overtime, it wasn’t enough to emerge victorious.

“If you told me we were going to turn the ball over four times, I would tell you that we were going to lose,” Kelly said to open his postgame comments. “You wouldn’t have to be a genius to figure that out. We turned the ball over four times and we lost.”

With that, the Irish drop to 4-1 on the season, and need to immediately turn their focus to Navy and their triple-option maestro Keenan Reynolds. So let’s put this one in a body bag and do our best to move on as we tackle the good, bad and ugly.



DeShone Kizer. The sophomore quarterback showed a lot of pose and resiliency on Saturday night, able to keep his cool when many of his teammates couldn’t seem to do the same. Kizer lead the Irish to a furious fourth quarter comeback that came up just short when he called his own number on a run-pass option play on Notre Dame’s second failed two-point conversion play.

“At the end of the day, we want to be a championship team, but champions don’t lose,” Kizer said after the game. “It sucks that we end the game the way we do after fighting back the way we fought back.”

Kelly had positive things to say about his sophomore quarterback, who threw for 321 yards, a large portion of those coming in the fourth quarter, when everybody in the stadium knew he’d be throwing the ball.

“I’m really proud of him. I’m proud of the way he competed,” Kelly said. “He played well enough for us to win, let’s put it that way.”


C.J. ProsiseNo, he couldn’t get on track in the running game—held to just three yards in the first half. But Prosise once again showed he was the team’s most reliable playmaker, getting loose out of the backfield and notching a 100-yard receiving game on just four catches.

Yes, his fumble to begin the second half didn’t help. But Prosise’s evolution as a football player—contributing big things even when the ground game was stuck in neutral—was a nice step forward. Keeping him involved in the short passing game could be a huge part of this offense moving forward.


Max Redfield. We’ve spent a lot of time demanding the former 5-star recruit start playing like one. And on Saturday night, I thought he did. Redfield led Notre Dame in tackles notching 14, including an astounding 11 solo stops. Kelly talked about Redfield’s performance on Sunday.

“This past weekend [was] probably played his best game since he’s been here at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “There’s a standard for him now on film for how he can play this game and hopefully we can continue on this track.”

Most wondered if the safety play was going to be Notre Dame’s demise on Saturday evening, especially matched up against Clemson’s talented skill talent. Redfield took a major step forward on Saturday night, playing physical as a tackler, a nice step forward considering the cast on his hand.


Resiliency. No moral victories. But I was impressed by the resolve this football team showed, especially when they seemed so overwhelmed early in the football game.

If the Irish end up getting into a beauty pageant for a spot in the College Football Playoff, it’s worth noting that their one loss is a narrow defeat on the road, against what looks like one of the ACC’s top teams.

Of course, a close loss doesn’t matter if Notre Dame loses again. And Kelly shared that message with his captains postgame, acknowledging that there’s zero margin for error now.

“I met with the captains after the game and told them what they need to do to continue to work towards their goals and what their vision is for this football team,” Kelly said. “You can’t lose another game. You know, you’re on the clock now. Every single weekend you’re playing elimination football.”


Fifty-three minutes of defense. We touched on the play of the defense in our Five Things, but it’d be unfair to not mention it here. Outside of the first two series, Notre Dame’s defense played very well.

Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochell were tough in the trenches. Jaylon Smith was active at linebacker. Cole Luke made up for some early missed tackles with a game-turning interception and when Clemson got conservative in the fourth quarter protecting a lead, the Irish defense held strong.

“We can’t go on the road and be tentative defensively to start a game. After that, we played the kind of defense we expect to play here,” Kelly said postgame. “We played well enough after that first quarter, if you don’t have four turnovers.”



The first seven minutes. Notre Dame lost this football game not because Brian Kelly made a few controversial decisions on two-point conversions, but rather because the Irish showed zero composure in the game’s opening minutes.

Nothing went right in the game’s first seven minutes. Not on offense, not on defense, nor on special teams. And the result was a 14-point hole that Notre Dame just couldn’t dig itself out from.

This didn’t seem like a football team capable of a horrendous start. But Notre Dame didn’t answer the bell, and allowed Clemson’s crowd—and aggressive defense—to dictate terms for the first 30 minutes.


The turnovers. Kelly’s comments said it best. Notre Dame wasn’t winning a game where they turned it over four times. Worst still, it seemed like Irish ball security was faulty in critical times, with youngsters and veterans alike making the mistakes.

“If I knew, we certainly would’ve coached it more. But you’re talking about veteran players and rookies,” Kelly said. “[C.J. Sanders] looks dynamic on the first return, then turns it over…  Arguably two of your most veteran and decorated players, C.J. [Prosise] and Chris Brown, they know how to hold onto a ball, and they turn it over. And then DeShone tries to force a ball in there… If you turn it over, we’re not going to win games.”


The Drops. Yes, it was slippery and miserable out there. But it was for both teams. Notre Dame’s heralded receiving corps dropped a half-dozen passes, a crippling set of miscues that left a lot of yards (and points) out there.

Kelly calculated that the Irish left roughly 125 yards on the field, a number that certainly would’ve added to DeShone Kizer’s yardage total and would’ve turned Saturday night into a different outcome.

Corey Robinson has been known for his velcro hands. On Saturday, two drops arguably cost the Irish a touchdown and a must-have two-point conversion. Will Fuller was held to two catches, letting a third down conversion go through his hands. Fuller’s drop highlighted the one deficiency in his game, something former NFL director of college scouting Greg Gabriel pointed out on Twitter last night.

It was Fuller and Chris Brown who started some of the trash-talk opportunities with their Twitter comments. They couldn’t back it up this week.


The Offensive Line. This was probably the most disappointing part of Saturday night. Notre Dame’s offensive front got absolutely mauled in the first half, getting zero push and giving up nine tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Clemson’s defensive ends had seven TFLs themselves. Yes, the Tigers loaded the box and played aggressively downhill. But there wasn’t a single soul inside or out of the Notre Dame program that didn’t expect that.

After being able to dictate terms through four games, the Irish turned into a one-dimensional, finesse front five. We spent all offseason saying that wouldn’t be the case with this group. While they were playing in mud and slop and in conditions that were deafening, the Irish just couldn’t establish the running game early, a necessity to winning.

With the game on the line and Kizer showing confidence in his offensive front, Notre Dame chose to run for the tie. They couldn’t get it done.



The pain of losing. It’s been since November since Notre Dame lost a football game. And in those 10-plus months, we forgot what it was like to watch a team fail to win.

If you’re looking for people to blame, you had a fun night. Most have turned to the man atop the program. They’ll say Kelly failed to prepare his team, or blew the game by chasing points. They’ll cite a seven-figure salary when complaining about unoriginality near the goal line or a failure to read a two-point conversion chart.

In hindsight, it’s certainly hard to argue with the detractors, especially when two Justin Yoon extra points would’ve pushed the game into overtime. (Then again, if Corey Robinson reels in a wide-open two point try, Yoon’s kicking for the win.)

Yet in torrents of rain and a game that seemingly went wrong at every early turn, Notre Dame nearly pulled it out. And that says a lot about the program Kelly has built, as much anything Kelly did wrong from his spot on the sidelines.

In a close football game, many of the 50-50 decisions that are made determine the difference between winning and losing. But focusing on the minutiae distracts you from the autopsy results.

Notre Dame lost because of the blunt force trauma that comes from four turnovers. And from a half-dozen dropped passes. Not to mention an offensive line that couldn’t win at the point of attack and a slow start by the defense.

So while everybody’s looking for someone to blame, that’s the pain of losing. And we might have all forgotten that over the last 10 months.



Five things we learned: Clemson 24, Notre Dame 22

CLEMSON, SC - OCTOBER 3: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish is sacked during the game against the Clemson Tigers at Clemson Memorial Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina. (Photo by Tyler Smith/Getty Images)

Notre Dame walked into Memorial Stadium saying they weren’t worried about Hurricane Joaquin. But they sure should have been more worried about the Clemson Tigers.

The Irish may have lost when DeShone Kizer’s version of student-body right failed to convert a two-point conversion that would’ve forced overtime. But Notre Dame was beat in the game’s opening minutes, knocked woozy by two quick Clemson scores and a shocking lack of poise by all phases of the game.

In more than difficult conditions, the Irish struggled on offense, defense, and special teams, each digging a hole that turned out to be insurmountable. While the Irish never stopped fighting, Kizer’s failed two-point attempt was a fitting finish to an evening not soon forgotten in upstate South Carolina.

The Irish had their shot to steal back this victory. But instead, it was another devastating road loss that breaks an unbeaten season. With monsoon-like rains falling and the Death Valley crowd rocking, the Tigers suffocated the Irish for three quarters, but had to hold on for dear life as the Irish mounted a furious comeback, made even more miraculous considering the mistakes Notre Dame made.

As the Irish try to find a way home to South Bend amidst a tropical storm, Notre Dame leaves as a 4-1 team, battered and bruised. While they should be proud of the fight they put up at the end, they’ll likely spend the next few days wondering how a veteran and confident team failed to answer the opening bell.

Let’s find out what we learned in Notre Dame’s 24-22 loss to Clemson.


Notre Dame just couldn’t dig itself out after a completely horrific start. 

You can draw up the perfect start to a football game. Or you can take that game-plan, rip it to pieces, douse it with lighter fluid and set it on fire. Unfortunately, Notre Dame chose Option B on Saturday night.

For the first four games of the season, the Irish have gotten off to fast starts and followed a winning script. They’ve outscored opponents 47-6, giving up just one score, a touchdown on the final play of the first quarter against UMass.

But Saturday evening, the Irish dug themselves a deep hole from the start. They gave up a nice kickoff return to open the game. Deshaun Watson caught the Irish defense out of alignment on a run that went for 38 yards. A Cole Luke missed tackle allowed the Tigers to convert a 3rd-and-5 in the red zone. Three plays later, Clemson was winning 7-0.

Offensively, the Irish started miserably. Two predictable runs went backwards, the front five blown off the line en route to a three-and-out. A shanked punt by Tyler Newsome set up the Tigers on a short field and four plays later Clemson had a 14-point lead.

Brian Kelly said multiple times that his team needed to start quickly, not giving the Death Valley crowd any reason to make things even more difficult for the Irish. Well Notre Dame did the opposite and those early 14 points sure proved critical considering the Tigers only scored 10 more the rest of the night.



The Irish tried to put the game on the backs of their offensive line. It didn’t work. 

For the first four games of the season, Notre Dame’s offensive line was the engine that powered the Irish attack. With Malik Zaire and Tarean Folston out of the starting lineup, the Irish offense didn’t miss a beat, with Harry Hiestand’s gang creating huge running lanes for C.J. Prosise and plenty of time to throw for DeShone Kizer.

But it didn’t take long to see that things were very different on Saturday evening, with Clemson turning the Irish one-dimensional as an offense and completely shutting down the ground game. Prosise was held to just three rushing yards in the first half. The rebuilt Clemson front-four was swarming, collecting nine TFLs against the Irish, with defensive ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd combining for a ridiculous seven stops behind the line of scrimmage.

While the Irish offense rallied, mostly via the pass and checking down to underneath crossing routes, Notre Dame just couldn’t win the battle at the line of scrimmage. And after the game, when head coach Brian Kelly discussed the controversial two-point play call, he said there were both run and pass options in the call.

Kizer thought he had numbers in his favor up front, and he counted on his offensive line to get a push and help him bring the game into overtime. Instead the Tigers shut down another run and Notre Dame’s comeback was finished.


Notre Dame’s wide receivers came into the game talking a big game. They left it with some questions to answer. 

Clemson’s team made a mountain from a molehill this week, turning tweets by Chris Brown and Will Fuller into a rallying cry. So whether or not you understand what’s so inflammatory about tweeting #savage, it was up to Brown and Fuller—not to mention the entire receiving corps—to back up their words.

They didn’t.

On one of the wettest nights you’ll ever see a game played, only one team was plagued by the drops. Will Fuller let a huge gain slide through his hands, a critical first-half drop. Torii Hunter Jr., too.

Corey Robinson could’ve reeled in a game-changing touchdown catch late in the first half, but he dropped it when he hit the ground. And after causing DeShone Kizer to waste a much-needed second half timeout when he wasn’t on the field for a two-point conversion attempt, Robinson could bring in Kizer’s high throw, either. Another pass, just sliding through an Irish receivers’ hands.

Brown broke loose for 83 yards, the most for any receiver in the game. But the South Carolina native fumbled the ball inside the 5-yard line late in the fourth quarter, jarred loose by safety Jayron Kearse (who also took offense to the tweets) with a little more than two minutes to play. While the Irish managed to get the ball back and score to have a chance to send the game to overtime, that’s the second time Brown has gotten to the shadow of the goal line and coughed it up, matching his back-breaking fumble against Northwestern last season.

Fuller’s absence was probably the most disappointing. Spending a lot of the evening going against Clemson’s Mackensie Alexander, Fuller only managed to catch two passes for 37 yards, his 23-yard big play coming on a screen pass. Alexander talked a big game this week and backed it up on the field.


The conditions were terrible. But big-time players make big plays in big games. And the Irish receiving corps just couldn’t do it.



After a terrible start, Notre Dame’s defense held its ground… and made enough big plays to keep the Irish in the game. 

Lost in the disappointment of the evening was a solid performance by Brian VanGorder’s defense. No, you can’t throw away the first two series of the game. But after settling in against the Tigers impressive array of skill talent, Notre Dame’s defense did everything it could to will the team back into the game, nearly pulling off the comeback.

Deshaun Watson was held to under 100 passing yards, completing just 50 percent of his passes. The Tigers ground game didn’t have a 100 yard rusher. The entire offense was limited to just 296 yards.

And after Notre Dame exited halftime and turning over the football on their first touch of the half and then followed it up by doing it again on their first play from scrimmage, it’s a credit to this defense that the Irish weren’t buried by the middle of the third quarter.

Notre Dame forced six three-and-outs tonight when Clemson only forced two. And while I wondered aloud on Twitter when the last time a VanGorder defense came up with a big, game-changing play, Cole Luke pulled in an interception in the end zone, essentially triggering Notre Dame’s rally.

Junior safety Max Redfield led the Irish with 14 tackles, including 11 solo stops. Jaylon Smith was productive while Isaac Rochell (seven stops) and Sheldon Day (two more TFLs) were disruptive in the trenches.

While there were missed opportunities and some breakdowns that’ll likely haunt this team, it’s tough to pin this loss on the defense.


There’s no such thing as a moral victory for this team. So we’ll see if the veteran leadership on this roster can stop this loss from being a season-ruiner. 

That the Irish even had a chance to pull even in the game’s final seconds is rather amazing. If you look at the root causes for losing in college football, Notre Dame’s game was littered with them.

Four turnovers, all but cementing Notre Dame’s fate. A dreadfully slow start. A run game that was stuck in neutral and a receiving corps that dropped a half-dozen easy catches.

So while the Irish managed to storm back and have a shot at victory in the end, Brian Kelly wasn’t willing to take any type of glass-half-full approach in the immediate aftermath.

“We’re not here for moral victories. We’re too far along in our program,” Kelly said.

But that’s not to say the season is lost.

Last year, Notre Dame went down to Tallahassee and nearly pulled off a season-defining victory. Instead, a controversial pass interference call turned a comeback win into a gutting loss. And the Irish never recovered.

Notre Dame absolutely can’t let a loss to Clemson derail their season. And after an offseason spent hammering leadership, resilience and and fortifying the attitude of his roster, it’ll be up to Kelly and his five captains to make sure this loss doesn’t sink the season.

Navy arrives in South Bend undefeated next weekend, coming off an impressive 22-point win over Air Force. A week later, USC arrives, with memories of an Irish curb-stomping in the Coliseum still fresh in their minds last November.

The Irish have managed to fight through six season-ending injuries. After doing just as much to beat themselves Saturday night as Clemson did, it’s up to the veteran leadership of this team to make sure they’re able to rally the troops and get this season back on track.

There is still so much football to be played. And with a Top 25 that looks as jumbled as ever, all the Irish can control is their own fate.

So save the oxygen, it’s not time to debate whether or not a one-loss Notre Dame team will make the playoff. It’s time for this team to prove they can dust themselves off and get back to winning. Everything else will take care of itself.