SOUTH BEND, Ind. — A year ago, a last-minute strip-sack sealed Notre Dame’s first loss of the season. This time, the No. 12 Irish benefited from such dramatics to clinch a 24-17 victory over No. 14 Michigan.
Junior defensive end Khalid Kareem’s first sack came late in the first quarter. From that point on, it was inevitable he would be a part of another one, based on what he learned on that 16-yard loss. He had timed the Wolverines’ snap count. With less than a minute left in the game, Kareem recognized the count once more, timed his release accordingly, and looped around senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery’s intial pressure. Kareem beat his blocker and forced Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson up into the awaiting Tillery, who knocked the ball loose; senior linebacker Te’von Coney recovered to effectively end the game.
“I was getting a rhythm with their snap count,” Kareem said, describing it as two claps from Patterson to alert center Cesar Ruiz to start the count, a drop of the head by Ruiz, a brief pause and then the snap. “… I got a good jump on the ball, beat the tackle, made the play.”
As much as the Irish offense set the tone early with two touchdowns in the first eight minutes, it was defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s unit that controlled Saturday night. In his first game calling the shots, Lea’s defense allowed only 90 rushing yards (sacks adjusted) on an even 3.0 yards per rush. Through three quarters, the Wolverines had managed 178 total yards and converted just 3-of-9 third downs. It took desperate measures for Michigan’s offense to finally find traction in the fourth quarter, with Patterson completing 6-of-8 passes for 80 yards in the final frame.
“We have to have that kind of (defensive) depth,” Kelly said. “We’re not generally going to get that one singular star player, but we can develop depth in our group and have that kind of defensive structure where we roll out a lot of really good football players.”
The Wolverines needed to take to the air because Notre Dame started so strongly. In his first career start, sophomore running back Jafar Armstrong took his second career carry 13 yards to the end zone fewer than 90 seconds after the opening kickoff.
On the next Irish possession, senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush connected with senior receiver Chris Finke for a 43-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead. Another Armstrong touchdown in the second quarter made it 21-3 before Michigan’s Ambry Thomas returned the subsequent kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. The Wolverines would not score again until barely two minutes remained. An Irish three-and-out to follow seemed to offer hope for the maize-and-blue, until Kareem, Tillery and Coney counted otherwise.
“When you feel really good about the physicality of your football team, the offensive line and defensive line,” Kelly said, “your quarterback is a spark, and on the perimeter we won some 50/50 battles, that’s a pretty good football team.
“So I think we’ve got a pretty good football team.”
TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Neither Notre Dame nor Michigan began the second half with anything resembling efficiency. Wimbush overthrew junior receiver Chase Claypool and instead found Wolverines cornerback Brandon Watson’s breadbasket. The next Irish drive was the truest of three-and-outs, gaining no yards before a punt. Michigan, meanwhile, twice turned the ball over on downs before at least pondering field position with a punt after its own three-and-out.
Combined, the two bumbling offenses turned the first 19 offensive snaps of the third quarter into all of 59 yards. Then, Wolverines linebacker Devin Bush sacked Wimbush for a 10-yard loss to bring up third-and-18. The offensive ineptitude seemed primed to persist. Instead, the sack seemed to refocus Wimbush.
“I didn’t think we had enough energy coming out of halftime,” he said. “Somebody needed to change that.”
Wimbush took that third-down snap and immediately took it up the middle on a designed quarterback draw for 22 yards. Two plays later, he avoided two potential sacks, wheeled into some open space and found a wide open Claypool along the sideline for 19 yards. Two rushes from junior Tony Jones later, Wimbush appeared to throw an over-the-shoulder touchdown to senior receiver Miles Boykin, only for a penalty to wipe out the highlight-reel score. That led to a 48-yard field goal from senior Justin Yoon.
“I just felt we were backed up a little bit too often,” Wimbush said. “That was on my mind, but every time you get into a third-and-long situation, you have to be smart. Obviously, you want to make a great play. I think the offensive line, on the quarterback draw, did a great job of opening it up.”
That may seem to be an anti-climatic conclusion, a field goal to raise the lead to 24-10. In many ways, it was. But Wimbush’s response to Bush’s sack led Notre Dame down the field for the only time in the second half. Of the 69 Irish yards after halftime, 41 came on that drive. If not using the sack to draw from his stats, Wimbush accounted for 43 yards, missing out on 26 more due to that ineligible man downfield flag.
“He played with an edge to him,” Kelly said. “A confidence. He got the game ball tonight. He really had an energy to him, which brought the group with him.”
PLAY OF THE GAME
Notre Dame’s roster lists senior receiver Chris Finke at 5-foot-9 ½ and 180 pounds. Michigan’s puts sophomore defensive back Brad Hawkins at 6-foot-2 and 213 pounds. There is no situation in which Finke should be able to jump over Hawkins and take what appears to be a sure interception and turn it into a touchdown. Yet, he did.
It would have been a tough snag by Hawkins, needing to read both Finke’s route and Wimbush’s throw perfectly and make a catch in traffic. It was an even more impressive score from the former walk-on.
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Armstrong deserves mention. His debut was inarguably solid. Kareem’s day stands out even more, though. It is only amplified when briefly wondering if the entire defensive line warranted this nominal honor. Consider: Of the line’s 15 tackles, Kareem made eight. Of the line’s 3.5 tackles for loss, Kareem made 1.5 of them, and he combined with Tillery to force that fitting coda of a fumble.
Michigan’s offense spun its wheels for 54 minutes. Patterson was pressured six times total. The Wolverines gained 10 yards on a run just once. Kareem’s development against the run helped set that edge, becoming more of a complete player in the last nine months, knowing that role was awaiting him.
“As long as I go out there and do my job, I feel like I can be the best in the country,” Kareem said in what was actually a modest tone.
STAT OF THE GAME
Wimbush completed 12-of-22 passes for 170 yards with both a touchdown and an interception. Adjusting for sacks, he ran for 77 yards on 17 carries, an average of 4.53 yards per rush. It was not an inherently-explosive performance, but it included big plays both through the air (that Finke touchdown) and on the ground (the third-and-18 conversion). Seven of his 12 completions went for first downs. He rushed for five more.
Counting Armstrong’s four-yard score, the Irish had 22 first downs. Wimbush accounted for 12 of them.
QUOTE OF THE EVENING
Brian Kelly: “Our last two games that we’ve played, we’ve beaten really good defenses and really good personnel in close games, and winning close games against really good football teams, that usually lends itself to you’ve probably got a pretty good football program and keep building it and keep recruiting and keep a healthy culture and organization.
“You should be having the kind of atmosphere we had tonight. Wasn’t that cool? That was as good as I can remember.”
13:35 — Notre Dame touchdown. Jafar Armstrong 13-yard rush. Justin Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Michigan 0. (7 plays, 75 yards, 1:25)
7:09 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chris Finke 43-yard reception from Brandon Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Michigan 0. (7 plays, 96 yards, 3:07)
11:32 — Michigan field goal. Quinn Nordin 28 yards. Notre Dame 14, Michigan 3. (11 plays, 31 yards, 4:30)
3:55 — Notre Dame touchdown. Armstrong 4-yard run. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Michigan 3.
3:41 — Michigan touchdown. Ambry Thomas 99-yard kickoff return. Nordin PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Michigan 10.
3:07 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon 48 yards. Notre Dame 24, Michigan 10.
2:18 — Michigan touchdown. Karan Higdon 3-yard run. Quinn PAT good. Notre Dame 24, Michigan 17. (7 plays, 80 yards, 2:49)