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Defense handles Michigan, forces turnovers

Joseph Monardo | Monday, September 24, 2012

Against a team that has found about every possible way to beat Notre Dame over the past three years, one with a dynamic threat on offense, the No. 11 Irish put forth a stellar defensive performance to capture a 13-6 win Saturday.

The same Michigan and the same Denard Robinson that have run, passed and done whatever else they wanted to against the Irish in recent history were left without an answer.

Notre Dame (4-0) held No. 18 Michigan to 299 yards and forced the Wolverines (2-2) into six turnovers, while keeping them out of the end zone for the first time in the rivalry matchup since 1943.

“Defensively, what can I say, six turnovers, limited what we felt is one of the most dynamic offensive players in the country to no touchdowns,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “[It was] just an incredible performance by our defense.”

On a night when the Irish offense struggled to move the ball consistently and put points on the board, Notre Dame’s defense harassed Robinson, made plays on the back end and brought down more interceptions in the first half than during any full game since 1988. Never was Notre Dame’s control over Michigan’s aerial assault more noticeable than when the Irish intercepted five straight pass attempts in a span stretching from the final minute of the first quarter to the final play of the first half.

Freshman safety Nicky Baratti picked off Michigan senior running back Vincent Smith in the Notre Dame end zone with 51 seconds left in the first quarter to begin the stretch. Two interceptions by Irish senior linebacker Manti Te’o and one each from junior cornerback Bennett Jackson and freshman cornerback KeiVarae Russell continued the defensive assault.

Notre Dame’s ability to turn the Wolverines over was the result of a game plan different from those employed in previous matchups with Michigan, Kelly said.

“We got into a lot more zone [coverage], which we knew if we got into more zone we could be more susceptible to some of the runs [by Robinson], but we handled ourselves very well,” he said.

Jackson also pounced on a Robinson fumble early in the second half for Notre Dame’s sixth and final takeaway. For Notre Dame’s secondary, the red-letter day established the back end’s ability to keep up with Notre Dame’s much-hyped front seven.

“I think we wanted to make certain that we were going to be able to support our front seven in the back end of the defense, and 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.

Sophomore safety Matthias Farley was forced into the starting role against Michigan after a season-ending injury to graduate student safety Jamoris Slaughter. The first-time starter was just one of the highlights in Notre Dame’s secondary, as Jackson added nine tackles to his interception and fumble recovery. Senior safety Zeke Motta recorded six tackles and a pass breakup in the win.

After keeping Michigan State and Michigan out of the end zone in consecutive weeks, the Irish defense is off to one of the best starts in program history. The 36 points allowed through four games are the fewest allowed by Notre Dame during such a stretch since 1975. Before Saturday, Notre Dame had not allowed six points or less to a top-20 opponent since 1943.

“Look, when you limit Michigan and Michigan State to no touchdowns, the significance is it’s not just about one player,” Kelly said. “It’s 11 players brought into a scheme. … I mean, that’s a great feeling to have when you know your defense is playing at that level.”

But the early performances represent substantial steps of progress, not the ultimate achievement, Jackson said.

“We are trying to be the best defense in the nation and we are going to keep working at that,” he said.

Te’o, the emotional leader of the defense, said the unit’s high standards means the ceiling is the limit.

“I think, for us, we are trying to not let [the offense] get any points,” he said. “I think, you know, when your defense is disappointed that they kicked a field goal and made it, that’s when you know, like, ‘Dang, we are going to be good.’ “

Contact Joseph Monardo at jmonardo@nd.edu