Dec 30, 2012, 9:39 PM EDT
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.”
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.
Jul 27, 2014, 12:59 PM EDT
It didn’t take long for Brian VanGorder to put his stamp on the Notre Dame defense. And before he coached a single game or practice for Brian Kelly, VanGorder went out and identified freshman defensive tackle Pete Mokwuah. Irish A-to-Z continues as we profile the Staten Island native.
Jul 26, 2014, 11:17 AM EDT
Notre Dame will continue to recruit Chicago for top football talent. And in sophomore Colin McGovern, the Irish landed one of the area’s top offensive linemen. Irish A-to-Z continues with a look at one of the bigger surprises on the Irish roster.
Jul 24, 2014, 5:42 PM EDT
Notre Dame broke the mold when they signed offensive lineman Mike McGlinchey. With a body better suited for Mike Brey’s hardwood, the Philadelphia native looked like a developmental project when he pledged his commitment to Brian Kelly and the Fighting Irish. Irish A-to-Z continues with a look at Notre Dame’s starting right tackle.
Jul 24, 2014, 3:54 PM EDT
Wide receiver Will Mahone, whose future at Notre Dame is still uncertain, was sentenced to 10 days in Mahoning County jail on Wednesday stemming from an arrest in June. Mahone has been indefinitely suspended from the football team by Brian Kelly and is not enrolled at the university.
Jul 23, 2014, 9:25 PM EDT
Against just about all odds, senior Cam McDaniel led the Irish in rushing in 2013. Our latest installment in the Irish A-to-Z looks at the veteran running back, who now battles sophomores Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston for carries.
Jul 23, 2014, 5:00 PM EDT
In case you haven’t been following along on social media, the installation of Notre Dame’s new synthetic surface is nearly complete. With the team from FieldTurf working this week to lay down the playing field, the Irish will have a playable field to practice on when camp begins on August 4
Jul 22, 2014, 7:17 PM EDT
A recruiting cycle before Notre Dame went hunting late for big bodies to play along the defensive line, they signed a player who might be able to fit that mold in 2014. Fresh off a redshirt, Jacob Matuska has the chance to add some much needed size and strength to Brian VanGorder’s defensive line.
Jul 22, 2014, 12:30 PM EDT
The founding member of the 2014 recruiting class, linebacker Greer Martini enters a football program that looks decidedly different than the one he committed to back in July of 2012. Irish A-to-Z continues as we look at the freshman inside linebacker.
Jul 21, 2014, 3:22 PM EDT
No, he’s not his brother. But center Nick Martin should solidify his standing as one of the top centers in the country in 2014. After an injury ended his debut season in the starting lineup early, Martin returns healthy after knee surgery, giving Notre Dame a key anchor in the middle of Harry Hiestand’s offensive line.
Jul 21, 2014, 10:00 AM EDT
After losing Troy Niklas and Alex Welch from the depth chart, Notre Dame needed to restock a position that’s been very kind to the Irish over the past few years. Irish A-to-Z continues with freshman tight end Tyler Luatua.
Jul 20, 2014, 4:46 PM EDT
A year after contributing as a freshman, Cole Luke’s assignment will be a bit more ambitious in 2014. One of three cornerbacks who is expected to play major minutes, Irish A-to-Z continues with the sophomore cover man.
Jul 19, 2014, 5:01 PM EDT
One of four graduate students on the Irish roster, Christian Lombard feels like he’s been a part of the Notre Dame football program for a long time. As one of Charlie Weis’ earliest commitments in the 2010 class, Lombard has seen coaching changes, position switches and injury challenges in his five years in South Bend.
Jul 19, 2014, 3:24 PM EDT
After two underwhelming seasons in South Bend, Ben Koyack finally emerged as a legitimate threat late last season. And with Troy Niklas’ unexpected departure to the NFL, Koyack has a chance to be the next in a line of impressive tight ends playing on Sundays. The Irish A-to-Z continues with a look at Notre Dame’s starting tight end.
Jul 17, 2014, 3:04 PM EDT
With just two other scholarship quarterbacks on the roster, incoming freshman DeShone Kizer begins his college career a bit closer to the playing field than any head coach would like. Our latest in Irish A-to-Z looks at Notre Dame’s quarterback from the 2014 recruiting class.
Jul 17, 2014, 12:27 PM EDT
Injuries to Louis Nix and Kona Schwenke gave Jarron Jones his shot at a new position. The rising junior took advantage of his opportunities. Our next installment in Irish A-to-Z takes a look at Notre Dame’s new starting defensive tackle.
Jul 16, 2014, 6:06 PM EDT
When Notre Dame added Torii Hunter Jr. to the roster on Signing Day 2013, the Irish did more than just add another famous father to the family section at Notre Dame Stadium. Our next installment on Irish A-to-Z looks at a rising sophomore who is healthy after entering Notre Dame with a major injury.
Jul 16, 2014, 5:17 PM EDT
Few football programs need a press release to discuss the markings on their home football field. But after months of wonderment by certain segments of the Irish football fanbase, the athletic department gave us an early “look” at what the new synthetic playing surface will look like when Notre Dame takes the field this fall.
Jul 15, 2014, 12:43 PM EDT
Entering his senior season, Chase Hounshell’s career has been defined by what’s kept him off the field, not his performance on it. Our next installment in Irish A-to-Z looks closer at the Ohio native who has battled back from multiple shoulder injuries.