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Week 4: Michigan

Conor Kelly | Monday, September 24, 2012

On a cool night at Notre Dame Stadium, No. 11 Notre Dame’s defense finally removed a massive weight from its collective shoulders by keeping Michigan senior quarterback Denard Robinson out of the end zone and causing six turnovers as the Irish defeated the No. 18 Wolverines 13-6.

The Irish defense proved to be dominant for the fourth straight week and the offense, led by junior quarterback Tommy Rees, put up just enough points to win and put the game away with two sustained drives in the fourth quarter. Rees replaced starting sophomore quarterback Everett Golson in the second quarter.

Despite Michigan’s struggles moving the ball and with turnovers, the Irish did not put the game away until late in the fourth quarter. With Notre Dame (4-0) leading 13-3 and Michigan (2-2) driving, freshman defensive end Sheldon Day sacked Robinson with 3:36 remaining, forcing the Wolverines to a 31-yard field goal. The sack helped quell memories of losses to Michigan in 2009, 2010 and 2011.

From there, Rees and the Irish offense ran out the clock, converting two third downs in the process. Rees connected with senior tight end Tyler Eifert on a route down the right sideline for a 38-yard gain on third-and-four and senior tailback Theo Riddick busted through the line for an 8-yard run on third-and-eight that iced the game for the Irish.

“You’ve got to run into what you’ve got,” Riddick said. “They stacked the box. I was basically, ‘boxed in’ is the term we use. You’ve just got to put your foot in the ground.”

After the game, Irish coach Brian Kelly had to deny the possibility of a brewing quarterback controversy for the second time in three weeks after he yanked Golson for Rees. The sophomore completed just three of eight passes for 30 yards to start the game. He was intercepted twice, once on his first attempt of the day and again on his last as he scrambled to his right and lobbed an underthrown ball in the direction of sophomore receiver DaVaris Daniels that Michigan safety Thomas Gordon picked off in the end zone.

“Everett is our starter,” Kelly said after the game. “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 just settle down a little bit, and he’s going to be fine. He’ll have a week off to evaluate all the things.”

Rees continued to play the role of closer and experienced backup for the Irish, managing the offense efficiently on eight of 11 passing with no completion bigger than his toss third-down toss to Eifert on Notre Dame’s final drive of the game. Rees also scored the team’s lone touchdown of the day, a 2-yard designed right out of an empty set formation at 4:13 of the second quarter. It was the first rushing touchdown of his career.

“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, we’ll continue to go that route. We’d like to continue to develop Everett so that we don’t have to do that, but we’re still going to try to win football games anyway possible.”

Despite the seeming ambiguity of his role, Rees said he is comfortable with helping out Golson and coming in whenever he is needed.

“You just have to be prepared throughout the week,” Rees said. “You have to do the little things throughout the week and prepare like you’re going to play and stay ready and engaged while the game is going on.”

Though the quarterback situation garnered a lot of attention, the Irish defense picked off five Michigan passes, caused a fumble and limited the Wolverines to just 299 yards of total offense.

While Notre Dame’s defensive front has been much lauded early this season, the young Irish defensive backfield came up huge under the brightest lights, accounting for three interceptions and limiting the big play ability of Robinson and the Wolverines.

Senior safety Zeke Motta stepped into the role of elder statesmen in the Irish secondary and directed a unit that helped pick off Michigan on five consecutive pass attempts in the first half. Freshman safety Nicky Baratti stepped in front of a halfback pass in the end zone in the first quarter while junior cornerback Bennett Jackson and freshman cornerback KeiVarae Russell both picked off Robinson in the second.

“The young defensive backs showed they had the capability to rise up in games like this. Bennett obviously had a hell of a game. Everybody played great,” Motta said. “It was just the beastliness of the defense imposing its will on Denard and his mentality.”

Senior captain and linebacker Manti Te’o had a career performance on a night that Notre Dame fans honored the Hawaii native by wearing a leis a just over a week after Te’o lost his girlfriend and grandmother within 24 hours. The senior recorded eight tackles and two interceptions. Te’o is now tied with Jackson for the team lead in interceptions with three.

“[Manti] is the guy in there,” Kelly said. “I mean, it all evolves around him, his personality, his strength. He’s a special guy. Take advantage of him while you’ve got him now, because I’ve never been around a kid like that.”

Te’o keyed an Irish front seven that limited the explosive Robinson to 90 rushing yards on 26 carries and got pressure on him all night, a vast improvement over a year ago when Robinson torched the Irish for 446 yards in Michigan’s 34-30 victory over Notre Dame in Ann Arbor. Junior linebacker Danny Spond had seven tackles, and sophomore defensive tackle Stephon Tuitt continued to terrorize opposing quarterbacks, recording a sack of Robinson in the first quarter that brought his season total to six.

In his continued starting role following the injury of senior Nick Tausch, sophomore kicker Kyle Brindza was perfect for the Irish, knocking home field goals of 33 and 39 yards.

The Irish now move into their bye week at 4-0 for the first time since 2002 and will face Miami at Soldier Field in Chicago on Oct. 6.

Contact Conor Kelly at ckelly17@nd.edu