A fist pump, a shutout, a touchdown taken off the scoreboard. FieldTurf, a smoke-filled entrance, a student-section serenade.
The dramatic memories of Notre Dame’s 31-0 shutout of Michigan in 2014 have outlasted the Irish worries of that evening, and understandably so. Their visuals are hard to top.
In chronological order …
Notre Dame warmed up on a field with artificial turf for the second time in the Stadium’s history, the first being the previous week’s opener. After years of unnecessary angst about such a modern switch, the pitiful state of the grass to end 2013 sealed the coming reality. It was not the difference for the Irish against the Wolverines, but the improved surface did help showcase a speed advantage.
Notre Dame took the field beneath smoke pumped into the tunnel, another piece of college football in the 21st century that took a while to get to South Bend.
And then came the fist pump. In only his second game as Irish defensive coordinator, Brian VanGorder was the toast of Brian Kelly’s coaching staff, brought in to replace Bob Diaco (freshly-departed to a doomed tenure at Connecticut) and maintain defensive excellence. He had kept things close to the vest in the 48-17 season-opening win against Rice, but with playmakers like Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day at his disposal, VanGorder was off to a strong enough start.
When freshman defensive end Kolin Hill combined with then-safety Drue Tranquill for a second-quarter sack to force a punt, Notre Dame held a 14-0 lead, in command but not yet dominating, but it stood out for Hill’s contribution as an unheralded recruit suddenly finding playing time. It also bought the Irish time, as they hardly dominated this rout anywhere but the scoreboard and the turnover margin, out-gained by the Wolverines 289 yards to 280. Plays like Hill’s, however, played a part in Notre Dame starting its possessions an average of 15 yards better than Michigan did.
When Hill sacked Gardner again to halt a Wolverines drive late int he fourth quarter just shy of the Irish red zone, it seemed to seal the shut out. VanGorder’s excitement was understandable. His manic celebration raised no eyebrows.
That defense had forced four turnovers from Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner, the year after he torched it for five touchdowns. Handing Michigan its first shutout in 30 years set a dangerously high precedent for VanGorder, a height he never again reached. To be fair, Notre Dame did not shut out another opponent until Bowling Green in 2019.
“Shutting out any opponent in college football is an enormous task with offenses today,” Kelly said. “A great performance by our defense, great performance by our coaches, the preparation was outstanding.”
Praise like that led this space, then authored by the esteemed Keith Arnold, to write, “That preparation included a masterful job by VanGorder, who received a gigantic bear hug from athletic director Jack Swarbrick on the field after the game.”
Hindsight being 20/20, one might argue “masterful” was a bit strong, particularly since the Wolverines missed two first-quarter field goal attempts that would have at least ruined a shutout and at most changed the momentum of the final scheduled game in the rivalry dating back to 1887. Then again, VanGorder’s defense controlled a game in which the Irish offense rushed for only 54 yards on just 1.7 yards per carry. It deserved applause.
“Give Notre Dame credit for how they played,” Michigan head coach Brady Hoke said, presumably not yet realizing that would be his final season in that role. “It was a total butt-kicking all the way around that we all took.”
That butt-kicking would not have been complete without a blow to Gardner’s chest. The Irish student section was already deep into its third minute of the refrain to Steam’s “Kiss Him Goodbye” when Elijah Shumate intercepted Gardner’s final pass attempt. You know the refrain; you just never knew it was by a one-hit-wonder band like Steam.
Na na na na
Na na na na
Hey hey hey
A notable cheer from the student section for its sustained longevity alone, it was a fan base’s retribution for Michigan Stadium playing the “Chicken Dance” after beating Notre Dame 41-30 the year before. Two years earlier, in 2012, Swarbrick had delivered his counterpart a letter just before kickoff, executing an Irish exit from the series with three-games notice (with not much time to spare before the first of the three) to free up scheduling space to fulfill Notre Dame’s newly-agreed upon five-game ACC commitment. Hoke told some boosters that was the Irish “chickening out” of the series.
“After you guys interviewed me about the Chicken Dance, I actually asked some of the players that actually heard it, and they told me about it,” Smith said after racking up 10 tackles that evening. “So hearing the ‘Na, na, na, na’ tonight, it was just a great revenge.”
Na na na na
Na na na na
Hey hey hey
In saying goodbye, Irish safety Max Redfield had an idea for a parting gift, turning upfield to provide Shumate a sideline escort to the end zone. The closest Wolverine to Redfield happened to be Gardner, wearing No. 98, a Michigan honor that has since gone by the wayside. If Redfield had squared up any other player, a personal foul flag likely does not get thrown after his aggressive block. If Gardner had been wearing a single digit, perhaps Redfield does not size him up. All the same, Shumate was sprinting down the sideline to put an exclamation point on the rout.
“I was running down the sideline screaming my head off,” Notre Dame linebacker Joe Schmidt said. “Then I was completely discombobulated in the end zone, punching the air. I was not sure if Elijah thought we were losing because he was moving so fast.
“I met him in the end zone, and then he got mauled. I just took off my helmet and took it all in. It was an incredible way to finish the game.”
No one had much idea what was happening anymore, a personal statement as much as anything else, having been standing on the 15-yard line as Shumate dashed by. The student section was too delirious to resume its anthem. The Irish sideline had moved to the back of the end zone. The scoreboard read 37-0.
The referees were called back the return thanks to Redfield’s roughing of Gardner.
The scoreboard returned to 31-0, where it ended.
A reasonable mind could argue taking that touchdown off the scoreboard made the game all the more memorable for Notre Dame fans, giving them a rallying cry of “Remember the Six,” somehow assuming Kyle Brindza would miss the PAT.
Headlined by that mantra and the visual of VanGorder’s fist pump, the dramatic memories indeed overshadow such practicalities. Others jump off the screen when going through the box score. The Irish were without five players, including three starters, due to an academic scandal that would preclude them from playing at all that season, sapping VanGorder’s defense of depth it never had, a weakness exposed in November as Notre Dame lost its last four regular-season games, giving up 44.5 points per game in that stretch.
Suffice it to say, VanGorder’s honeymoon was short-lived.
Senior quarterback Everett Golson’s second game back from a 2013 suspension due to his own academic issues featured him throwing for 226 yards and three touchdowns on 23-of-34 passing; Irish hype was increasing across the country — this win would jump Notre Dame from No. 16 in the polls to No. 11 — largely thanks to Golson. Arnold wrote, “Don’t look now, but Notre Dame has a star quarterback.”
That star’s collegiate career ended turnover-prone wearing Florida State’s garnet-and-gold.
Redfield’s block foreshadowed a career spent stubbing his toe, a turn of phrase chosen only because “shooting himself in the foot” feels too on the nose for a player later arrested in a car with a handgun along with four underclassmen, part of 2016’s undoing.
But for one final night, VanGorder, Golson, Redfield and the Irish gave Michigan a raucous sendoff complete with a soundtrack and a coda.
“It only counts for one,” Kelly said. “I’d be lying if I told you that it didn’t feel great to shut out Michigan, 31 to nothing.”
Kelly stressed the 31, thus acknowledging a different number might have been more accurate.
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