- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan told tradition to take a hike on Saturday, turning the Big House into a night club and even breaking out some funky, glow-in-the-dark dancers at halftime.
Yet the Wolverines' 35-31 victory over Notre Dame, as crazy and exciting as it was, had a distinctly reminiscent feel amidst the all-new atmosphere. We've seen Michigan win wild shootouts before. We've seen Denard Robinson go crazy and will his team to victory. We've certainly seen the maize and blue take advantage of a Notre Dame self-detonation and begin the season 2-0, as they've done now three straight years.
The question is whether or not this team is actually any different than the Rich Rodriguez editions which started fast and then fell apart during Big Ten play. First-year coach Brady Hoke made sure to sober up a joyous locker room by saying this win represents one small step in the journey.
"We've got a lot of things we can do better on both sides of the ball and in the kicking game," Hoke said. "We're not near where we need to be."
One thing that hasn't changed, thankfully, is Robinson's ability to pull off late-game magic. For all the talk in the preseason about how the star quarterback would have to adjust to a pro system under new coordinator Al Borges, the second game of the new era sure looked like a vintage Shoelace scene-stealer.
After an opening-week victory over Western Michigan in which Robinson ceded many of his carries to the running backs, he was back carrying the bulk of the load on Saturday. Of the Wolverines' 452 total net yards, Robinson accounted for 446 of them.
Feel any different than last year?
"No," he said. "I'm still playing football. I'm still going out there having fun."
However, Robinson didn't look comfortable in the new system early on. He was just 2-for-9 passing in the first half and had only one big run. He threw three interceptions in the game, and his lone rushing touchdown came on a freak bounce after running back Stephen Hopkins fumbled at the goal line. It was unclear whether Notre Dame's defense had bottled up Robinson, or if Michigan's new offense did. Or maybe Robinson was just too caffeinated for the night time.
"At halftime, I needed to calm him down," center David Molk said. "Sometimes he just speeds everything up. Once he got back out there in the second half, he was ready to go."
Robinson threw three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, including two in the final, ludicrous 1:12. While he had some success passing the ball from under center, he also lobbed a lot of jump balls that his receivers simply came down with, especially Junior Hemingway (three catches for 165 yards).
"All summer during workouts and everything, one thing I noticed about all our receivers is they know how to go and get the ball," he said. "I know with Junior, if I throw it up there, he's going to get it."
Hoke and Borges said several times in the preseason that they wanted to lighten the burden on Robinson, both to diversify the offense and to keep him healthy. Yet when Michigan fell behind on Saturday, it relied on Robinson just as much as ever in the running game. The three tailbacks Michigan used combined for a total of 10 yards.
"Give [Notre Dame] some credit, because I think they're more stout up front," Hoke said. "But I also would say we've got to be better at the point of attack. I didn't see a whole lot of room, and maybe there were a couple times where we didn't have the greatest vision in the world. But it all starts up front on both sides, and we've got a lot of work to do up there."
That especially goes for the defense. The much-maligned, Greg Robinson-coached unit from 2010 allowed an average of 450 yards per game and surrendered 532 to Notre Dame in South Bend last season. The Irish had 513 total yards on Saturday and consistently gashed the middle of the Wolverines' defensive interior for a healthy average of 6 yards per rush.
There's not much in the statistics to suggest Michigan has suddenly turned a corner defensively under new coordinator Greg Mattison. Well, except for turnovers. With five turnovers gained against Notre Dame, the Wolverines have created eight takeaways this year (against three giveaways). Last year, they finished last in the Big Ten in turnover margin and tied for the third-fewest takeaways in the league.
So maybe that is a change. And maybe there is more resiliency in this group, one that managed to score not one but two apparent game-winning touchdowns in the final 72 seconds.
"I think it just comes down to our mental toughness as team," defensive tackle Mike Martin said when asked to identify where this team has improved. "Coach has always stressed that since he got here. Whatever the situation is, whether it's a positive or a negative for us at the time, we're going to keep playing as hard as we can."
Michigan beat Notre Dame in a thriller. That's nothing new, no matter whether it's day or night. It remains to be seen whether this is the dawn of a different type of Wolverines team.
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