Five things we’ve learned: Notre Dame 13, Michigan 6

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You never expected it to be easy. If Notre Dame was going to finally beat Michigan after three years of heart-stopping defeats, you didn’t think the Wolverines were going to lay down and go quietly into the night, did you?

That’s why in spite of six turnovers — four interceptions and a fumble by Denard Robinson — Michigan kept coming after the Irish, picking themselves off the ground like a villain you can’t kill in an action movie. But Notre Dame’s defense stood tall, pushing back the Wolverines’ attack until the Irish offense did just enough, and the No. 11 Fighting Irish escaped Notre Dame Stadium with a hard fought victory over No. 18 Michigan 13-6.

“I thought both football teams played awfully hard,” Michigan head coach Brady Hoke said after the game. “I think one played better when it came to execution and taking care of the football.”

Better was a relative term on Saturday night, as Notre Dame’s offense did the defense no favor. Everett Golson threw an interception deep in Notre Dame territory on his first snap of the evening. The Irish only managed 14 first downs on 239 yards of total offense. The running game the Irish hoped to rely on was shut down, running for just 94 yards on 31 carries.

But a win is a win, especially over Michigan. On another Saturday where two teams in the top ten lost (future Irish opponent Oklahoma being one of them) and LSU hung on for an ugly 12-10 victory over an Auburn team that was taken to overtime last week by Louisiana-Monroe, Notre Dame doesn’t need to compete in college football’s beauty pageant. They’ll be happy winning and moving on to a well deserved bye week.

After holding both Michigan and Michigan State without touchdowns for the first time since 1909, let’s find out what else we learned in No. 11 Notre Dame’s victory over Denard Robinson and No. 18 Michigan.

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After letting Denard Robinson beat Notre Dame single-handedly for two straight years, the Irish defense shut down the heart of the Wolverines.

Denard Robinson has played football games that will be remembered forever in Michigan lore. Saturday night was not one of them.

After propelling Michigan to dramatic victories the Irish the past two seasons, the Irish absolutely shut down Michigan’s Heisman Trophy candidate, forcing five turnovers from Robinson as the Irish defense shut down the Michigan offense.

“Defensively, what can I say,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “Six turnovers. Limited who we felt is one of the most dynamic offensive players in the country to no touchdowns. Just an incredible performance by our defense.”

After giving up almost 1,000 yards of offense to Robinson the past two seasons, Notre Dame shut down the quarterback, holding him to 13 of 24 passing for just 138 with four interceptions. On the ground, the Irish limited Robinson to just one run of 20 yards, and he needed 26 carries to gain 90 yards, a pedestrian 3.5 yards a carry. In a match-up many thought favored Michigan, the Irish defense absolutely killed the Wolverines, at one point intercepting five straight Michigan passes, and the inexperienced Notre Dame secondary stood strong.

“I think the key to stopping such a dynamic player like denard is everybody has to get to him,” Manti Te’o said after the game. “Everybody has to get to the ball. You have to really emphasize eleven guys to the ball and I think our coaches have done a great job in stressing the importance of everybody getting the ball.”

The ball was certainly up for grabs Saturday night and the Irish capitalized. Notre Dame held Robinson to the lowest passer rating of his career as a starter, all while holding him below 100 yards rushing. While nobody is ready to put the Irish defense in the same class as Alabama’s, the numbers are worth comparing.

Robinson vs. Alabama
11 of 26 for 200 yards. 1 TD, 2 INT (104.2 QB Rating). 10 rushes for 27 yards, 1 TD.

Robinson vs. Notre Dame
13 of 24 for 138. 0 TD, 4 INT (69.1 QB Rating). 26 rushes for 90 yards, 0 TD, 1 fumble.

After crumbling at the end of two straight losses to Michigan, Robinson was unable to do anything against the Irish, and it was a crushing blow to the senior quarterback that’s had so much success against Notre Dame.

“I’m disappointed in myself,” Robinson said. “The 22 years I’ve been living, this is the most disappointed I’ve been in myself.”

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Notre Dame’s secondary is proving that you’d rather have a lack of experience than a lack of talent.

Saturday night was the night Notre Dame’s green secondary was going to get exposed. A running back (KeiVarae Russell) and wide receiver (Bennett Jackson) were starting at cornerback. A safety (Matthias Farley) that redshirted last year as a wide receiver was filling in for one of the defense’s best players. And anchoring the unit was a guy (Zeke Motta) many thought should turn into a linebacker. On paper, this was a disaster waiting to happen. In reality? Well, it might be the most talented secondary Notre Dame’s had in quite some time.

“I think after tonight, we all feel that we’ve got some young guys back there that can play at a high level,” Kelly said after the game. “I think our coaches have done a great job of getting the back end of our defense to the point where there’s a lot of confidence.”

Notre Dame went into the season with a secondary that many believed needed to stay healthy just to play serviceable football. But that didn’t happen. Tee Shepard, who many expected to battle for a starting job, didn’t make it to spring ball in South Bend. Austin Collinsworth, Lo Wood and Jamoris Slaughter are all lost for the season. Yet Kerry Cooks and Bob Elliott have turned a talented but untested  group of players into a confident group, encapsulated by freshman Nicky Baratti, a high school quarterback learning defense on the fly, stepping in front of a halfback pass and making a huge interception in the end zone.

For the third straight week, the Irish secondary has held a Big Ten opponent under 200 yards passing. Notre Dame’s seven interceptions is one less than the Irish had all last season with first round draft pick Harrison Smith roaming centerfield and returning starters Gary Gray and Robert Blanton at cornerback.

The young group certainly needs to keep learning and get better. But this game should put an end to the belief that there’s no talent in the back-end of the Irish defense.

***

While Everett Golson remains Notre Dame’s starting quarterback, it’s time for the youngster to grow up in a hurry.

After impressing on the big stage with a calm and collected performance against Michigan State, Everett Golson took a huge step backwards on Saturday night, failing to recover from the interception he threw on his first passing attempt. The future of the Irish is still very much in Golson’s hands, but it’s hard to fault Kelly for pulling the young quarterback and relieving him with junior Tommy Rees.

Golson’s stat line was a scary one: Just 3 of 8 passing for 30 yards with two interceptions. Golson’s second pick got him pulled, after the sophomore rolled right on second and goal and threw a jump ball into the end zone when throwing it away was the play the Irish coaching staff drilled into the quarterbacks’ heads all offseason. From there, Kelly kept the offense in Rees’ hands, and the junior completed 8 of 11 throws for 115 yards while running for the team’s only touchdown.

“I think we saw that the defense is such that we want to make sure that we limit turnovers,” Kelly said. “Early on we turned the ball over and that’s ultimately why we made the change at quarterback.”

Golson watched the games final 38 minutes on the sideline, a fate that has many wondering if the young quarterback will suffer a crisis of confidence. Kelly isn’t one of them.

“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.”

Kelly quickly named Golson his starter for Miami but didn’t take away the option to play Rees if he feels like the offense needs him.

“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.”

Winning games cures a lot of ills, and it’s also the key to keeping a potential thorny quarterbacking situation contained.

***

Notre Dame’s relentless front seven took Michigan out of its game plan early.

It didn’t take long for Al Borges to throw the kitchen sink at Notre Dame. Setting up a trick play from the first snap, the Wolverines relied on gimmicks from the start, hoping to catch Notre Dame’s defense out of position. It earned an early pass interference call against Danny Spond when wide receiver Devin Gardner tried to complete a throw-back pass, but it bit the Wolverines later, with Michigan relying on running back Vincent Smith to throw a halfback pass after a 12 play drive marched Michigan down to the Irish ten yard line.

Michigan’s first two trips into the Irish red zone netted zero points, thanks to the ferocious play of Notre Dame’s defensive front and Michigan’s unwillingness to go toe-to-toe in the red zone. After Golson’s early pick set up Michigan 1st and Goal at the Irish 10, the Wolverines proceeded to go backwards. First the Irish stuffed Fitzgerald Toussaint for a loss of two. Then it wasa  Prince Shembo sack of Robinson for a loss of three more. On 3rd and 15, it was Stephon Tuitt that made another big play, dropping Robinson for a 10 yard loss. First and Goal was now a 43-yard field goal attempt that Brendan Gibbons pushed wide.

With three more sacks tonight, the Irish now have 14 sacks on the year, averaging 3.5 a game through their first four. That rate would have been good for second nationally in 2011 and has the Irish more than half way past their total of 25 last season. (It’s also a rate that’s likely to improve, considering Navy, Purdue, Michigan State and Michigan were four of the stingier teams in the country when it comes to sacks — giving up an average of just 1.48 a game last year.)

More importantly, the Irish front seven is powering this football team as it grows. With an offense seeking an identity and a secondary learning on the fly, the physical front of the defense is powering this team to historic levels. The Irish haven’t won a football game scoring less points since 1990. They haven’t allowed six points or less to top-20 opponents in consecutive weeks since 1943. That’s a total of 36 points the Irish have given up in the first third of the season. That’s better than any Lou Holtz defense, and the best since 1975.

Many laughed when Bob Diaco openly stated that his goal was to have the best defense in America. The Irish might not be there yet, but they’re on pace to have one of the best defenses Notre Dame has fielded in over 20 years.

***

It might just be time to throw Manti Te’o’s name into the Heisman Trophy race.

It’s been 15 years since Charles Woodson was the only defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy. But it might be time to give Manti Te’o serious consideration for college football’s most prestigious award. Notre Dame’s star middle linebacker filled up the stat sheet once again, making eight tackles, one tackle-for-loss, and intercepting Denard Robinson twice on Saturday night. In a stadium where thousands of fans wore Hawaiian leis in support of Te’o after a horrible week of personal hardship, the senior linebacker from Hawaii followed up a dominant performance against Michigan State with another one against the Wolverines.

“He’s the guy in there,” Kelly said of his senior captain. “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.”

After turning down the opportunity to head to the NFL after his junior season, Te’o has returned with a vengeance, cleaning up an all-around game that was already considered to be one of the strongest in college football. Always known as a strong sideline to sideline player, Te’o fought the one knock on his game of not forcing turnovers, having never recovered a fumble nor intercepted a pass. Through four games, he’s got three interceptions and two fumble recoveries.

But perhaps more important than anything he’s done on the field, Te’o has taken over at the undeniable face of the Fighting Irish. After a decade filled with mostly offensive stars, the Irish take their cues and play to the likeness of their Hawaiian leader. His quiet strength and forceful will powering Notre Dame to their best start in a decade.

With thousands of fans chanting his name after the Irish’s victory, Te’o has also worked his way into a more hallowed status: Irish legend.

“Man, I said it before. Four years ago when I decided to come here, I didn’t know why,” Te’o said. “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.”