Week 2: Michigan
Mike Monaco | Sunday, September 8, 2013
ANN ARBOR, MICH. – It was only fitting.
With Notre Dame and Michigan playing for the final time for the foreseeable future at Michigan Stadium, the game came down to the wire in thrilling fashion before a record crowd of 115,109 on Saturday night. The No. 17 Wolverines defeated the No. 14 Irish, 41-30.
“It’s always nice to win,” Michigan head coach Brady Hoke said. “This is such a great rivalry and to be able to be on the right side of it, it always feels good.”
“We were really, really close but not good enough, not good enough,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly added.
In the 41st rendition of the historic rivalry, it was the Michigan players donning historic numbers who came up with the historic offensive performances.
Redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner – who switched to No. 98 before the game in honor of Michigan’s first Heisman Trophy winner, Tom Harmon – threw for 294 yards and four touchdowns and added 82 yards and a score on the ground. Senior receiver Jeremy Gallon, who is wearing No. 21 this season to honor former Michigan Heisman winner Desmond Howard, set career highs with 184 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
“We knew that Gardner is a very difficult quarterback to defend, and we knew offensively that we were in a position that we needed to score more points,” Kelly said. “I didn’t think this would be like last year; I thought it was going to be something of a higher-scoring football game.”
The first 40 matchups in the series had been decided by an average of 4.1 points. So with Michigan (2-0) leading 34-20 at the beginning of the fourth quarter, it was only appropriate the Irish (1-1) worked it back to a four-point game. But the Wolverines drove down the field and scored with 4:18 remaining when Gardner fired a touchdown pass to senior receiver Drew Dileo to make it 41-30 Michigan.
Prior to Dileo’s touchdown, it looked as if Notre Dame might hold the Wolverines to a field goal. But two defensive pass-interference penalties against the Irish gave Michigan first-and-goal from the two-yard line, from where Gardner found Dileo.
“We’ve got to be smarter and more disciplined,” Kelly said. “We don’t coach penalties, but we want to coach guys to be smarter and more disciplined on a day-to-day basis, and that falls on me. I don’t want my football team to be in a situation where games have to be decided [on a penalty].”
The Irish had regained the momentum after a pivotal play at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Facing third-and-11 from the Michigan 16-yard line, Gardner scrambled backward trying to avoid a sack. He backtracked deep into his own end zone and, as he was being brought down for what would have been a safety, Gardner threw the ball away into the waiting arms of Irish junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt in the end zone for a miraculous Notre Dame touchdown to make it 34-27 Michigan.
The Irish then added a field goal to cut it to 34-30. But the Wolverines countered and embarked on the 10-play, 75-yard drive, capped off by Dileo’s touchdown. On the ensuing possession, Notre Dame rolled down the field, but Irish senior quarterback Tommy Rees was picked off in the end zone to seal the Michigan victory. Rees also threw an interception in the waning minutes of the first half that set up a Gardner-to-Gallon touchdown to spur Michigan to a 27-13 halftime lead.
“There were a number of [missed opportunities],” Rees said. “I have to take accountability for some of those missed opportunities, and there are plays you want to have back, but I have to be better and give our team a better chance to win a game. I take full accountability for that.”
Kelly said while Notre Dame’s defense allowed 41 points, he felt the game was lost on the offensive side of the ball.
“This was one of those games that our offense needed to carry the day for us,” he said. “And we just came up short on a couple of key plays for us. It was one of those games you’ve got to win, and we weren’t able to come up with the key plays offensively.”
Michigan stormed out to a 10-0 lead on a field goal from senior kicker Brendan Gibbons and a 61-yard catch and run by Gallon. The Irish, however, battled back with 10 straight points of their own. Rees fired a pass toward the end zone that tipped off the hands of junior running back George Atkinson and skipped into the mitts of senior receiver TJ Jones for the touchdown with just over two minutes remaining in the first quarter. Junior kicker Kyle Brindza, who was a perfect three-for-three on field goal bids, stepped up and buried a 44-yard field goal on Notre Dame’s next possession.
But Michigan thundered right back with a 12-play, 75-yard scoring drive, highlighted by a two-yard option keeper by Gardner for the touchdown. The Wolverines got down to the two after Gardner threw to the end zone on third down and Irish sophomore Elijah Shumate was flagged for defensive pass interference.
Brindza and Gibbons then exchanged field goals, and Michigan maintained a 20-13 lead with 1:56 left in the half.
The Irish began with great field position after a late-hit penalty against Michigan on the kickoff. On the second play from scrimmage, Rees rolled to his left and threw an interception – the first Notre Dame turnover of the season – to Michigan junior cornerback Blake Countess, who returned it to the Irish 23-yard line to set up the Gallon score, which gave Michigan the 14-point halftime advantage.
On its first drive of the second half, Notre Dame’s offense drove 90 yards in 12 plays, the final one a 20-yard touchdown pass from Rees to junior tight end Troy Niklas to cut the Wolverine lead in half.
But Michigan came right back. Gardner completed a 41-yard pass downfield to Gallon, and the two connected again three plays later, as Gardner dumped it off to his elusive receiver for their third score. Michigan again made it a two-score game, 34-20.
Notre Dame then drove down into Wolverine territory. The Irish went for it on fourth-and-four from the 17-yard line but Rees’ pass intended for senior receiver TJ Jones fell incomplete.
“We were down two touchdowns and … it felt like at that time we needed to score a touchdown,” Kelly said. “Kicking three at that time is like laying up when you need a birdie.”
The 27 points surrendered by Notre Dame in the first half were more than the Irish allowed in any game last season. Michigan’s 41 points were the second-most scored by either team in series history.
On the other side of the ball, the Irish tallied 410 yards of total offense. Rees finished 29-for-51 with 314 yards, two touchdowns and the two interceptions. Jones tied a career-high with nine grabs and racked up 94 yards and a score.
The loss was just the second in the regular-season for Notre Dame since October 2011.
“I think it’s a loss of focus,” Jones said. “Last year, we went 12-1, and I feel some people may think we did that easily, that they didn’t have to pay attention to the details when a lot of those games were battles to the very last second.”
Notre Dame is back in action Saturday when it travels to West Lafayette, Ind., to square off with Purdue. Kickoff is scheduled for 8 p.m. at Ross-Ade Stadium.
Contact Mike Monaco at email@example.com