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Week Two: Michigan

Allan Joseph | Monday, September 12, 2011

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — It seemed the Irish had won. Then, improbably, all seemed lost. Somehow, Notre Dame regained the lead with merely 30 seconds left – and then, shockingly, stunningly, astonishingly, it was gone again. Through all of that, Irish coach Brian Kelly was left with only one thought after Notre Dame’s 35-31 loss at Michigan.

“We’re not good enough,” Kelly said. “There’s not one individual in that locker room, coaches included, who is good enough right now. Consequently, we lost the game … When we’re better as a football team, we’ll start winning.”

Notre Dame (0-2) entered Michigan Stadium for the first night game in “Big House” history to face the Wolverines (2-0) and an NCAA-record crowd of 114,808. The Irish, however, used an effective opening drive to open up a quick 7-0 lead and take the crowd out of the game early. After the defense forced a three-and-out, Notre Dame again marched down the field on a 10-play, 83-yard drive to take a 14-0 lead just 5:55 into the contest. Despite the fast start, the Irish could not put the game out of the Wolverines’ reach.

“We started well,” Kelly said. “We’ve stumbled by making mistakes.”

The teams traded the ball a number of times before Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson found receiver Junior Hemingway for a 43-yard touchdown pass. Robinson accounted for 338 passing yards, 108 rushing yards, four passing touchdowns and one rushing touchdown by the end of the night.

“Obviously he’s a great player,” Irish sophomore quarterback Tommy Rees said. “He did a good job fighting back and leading his team.”

The Irish took a 17-7 lead into halftime, but the lead seemed small considering the Irish dominance on the statistical sheet. In the first half, Notre Dame had 15 first downs, 268 yards and 19:17 of possession while the Wolverines had only 3 first downs, 90 yards and 10:43 of possession. Irish junior running back Cierre Wood had 75 yards in the first half on his way to 134 total yards.

“[Cierre] ran the ball well,” Kelly said. “I thought we gave him an opportunity to run the ball effectively in a number of different looks.”

Notre Dame extended its lead to 24-7 near the end of the third quarter, and with 17 minutes left in the game, it seemed the Irish had the game solidly in hand. Robinson, however, led Michigan on a quick scoring drive. The Wolverine drive was highlighted by a 77-yard pass from Robinson to Hemingway and a bizarre scoring play on which the Irish forced a goal-line fumble only to see the dreadlocked quarterback pick up the ball and scamper into the end zone untouched on the first play of the fourth quarter.

“There was no complacency,” Kelly said. “[The Irish] were locked into the game … [Michigan] made some plays when they needed to.”

The unusual scoring play was only the first chapter in a wild fourth quarter.

After Michigan scored another touchdown to tighten the Irish margin to 24-21, Rees efficiently led Notre Dame to the Michigan 7-yard line before losing a fumble in a play that energized the Michigan faithful.

“The fumble, the interceptions — all of those were critical turnovers when we were moving the football,” Kelly said. “That’s not how we need to play.”

Robinson found Hemingway again for a 45-yard gain and moved the Wolverines to within 30 yards of the end zone before Irish cornerback Robert Blanton seemingly sealed the game with an interception in the end zone with just 4:23 remaining. But it was not that simple, as Wood could not convert on third-and-one just three plays later, and Michigan got the ball back with 2:16 left in the game.

“In that scenario, we’ve got to check out of the play and we’ve got to throw the football because they had nine guys on the line of scrimmage,” Kelly said Sunday in his postgame teleconference. “We’ve got to continue to develop our third-and-short package with [Rees.]

Robinson wasted no time in taking the lead, finding junior running back Vincent Smith for a 21-yard touchdown pass to put Michigan up 28-24 with merely 1:12 left on the clock.

But, with 72 seconds still on the clock, Rees would not let the Irish go down without a fight.

“We were confident we could go down the field,” he said. “The guys did a great job of hanging together and sticking with it after my turnover.”

The sophomore gunslinger took advantage of good field position and a Michigan pass-interference penalty to find junior receiver Theo Riddick for a 29-yard touchdown pass with merely 30 seconds remaining on the clock.

“I was proud of [Rees] after he made the big mistake … He came back and led our football team to a key drive on the road,” Kelly said. “He kept battling, and at the end you’re looking for your quarterback to lead you on the road, and he did a good job.”

While a three-point lead seemed secure with only half a minute remaining, Kelly said he was not comfortable even at that juncture in the game.

“I’m always thinking about the next situation and talking about making a stop,” Kelly said. “At 30 seconds, I wasn’t feeling comfortable.”

Kelly’s discomfort was justified in a turn of events that electrified the home crowd. Robinson found receiver Jeremy Gallon all alone on the right side of the field for a 64-yard pass, which placed the Wolverines at the Notre Dame 16-yard line with just eight seconds remaining. Rather than go for a tying field goal, Michigan coach Brady Hoke elected to go for the end zone.

“They’re an explosive team and they want to make plays,” senior linebacker Darius Fleming said. “It didn’t shock me [that Michigan went for a touchdown.]”

Robinson found receiver Roy Roundtree in the corner of the end zone with just two seconds remaining to set off a raucous celebration in Michigan Stadium and cap off another rollicking edition of the Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry.

“Every time you see this game, you’re going to know that both teams are going to fight to the end,” Robinson said. “It’s never over until you see zeroes on the clock.”

After two disappointing losses, Irish junior linebacker Manti Te’o was nearly despondent after the game. But when asked if his team would be able to bounce back in time for next week’s matchup with Michigan State, Te’o had one, resolute response.

“We have to,” he said. “It’s not ‘will we’ or ‘can we.’ We have to.”