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Irish deliver final blow in Michigan rivalry

9/7/2014



SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Joe Schmidt is a former walk-on who worked his way to a scholarship before earning Notre Dame's starting middle linebacker role. He is a coach's dream who never makes one game or snap out to be bigger than it really is.

Yet when Schmidt entered the media room after Notre Dame's 31-0 win over Michigan, the optimist in him was outdone by the sheer absurdity of the goodbye his young and unproven defense had just delivered the Wolverines.

"You want to believe that this is something you can accomplish every time you go on the field," Schmidt said. "And there's still a lot of things we could've done better today, but …"

He paused for three seconds and collected himself with a deep breath.

"Shoot. This is a great feeling right now."

As finales go, this was more Sopranos than Breaking Bad, a much-hyped shootout that turned into a dramatic letdown. Notre Dame didn't just send Michigan back to Ann Arbor with a 1-1 record and a bad taste in its mouth from being on the losing end of these programs' final meeting. No, the Irish flat-out demoralized the Wolverines. They bullied their hapless offensive line, shredded their patchwork secondary and delivered one indignity after another following a week that did nothing but suggest the visitors would be the ones who would enter with chips on their shoulders.

Michigan had played 365 straight games in which they scored points before Saturday. These Irish met them in a dark alley here in Week 2, and they rendered them rudderless.

"I just got the stat from [SID Michael] Bertsch: 1984 was the last time these guys were shut out?" Schmidt said as he double-checked with reporters. "I think that kind of speaks for itself on how great this feels right now for me and for this defense and for this team."

Michigan left here last time feeling disrespected, with athletic director David Brandon on the receiving end of a cancellation letter from counterpart Jack Swarbrick. The Wolverines had said what Notre Dame did to them was a slap in the face. To add insult to injury, the Irish announced Thursday they would play a future series against Michigan's arch-rival, Ohio State.

What Notre Dame did to Michigan before a sellout crowd under the lights was far more humiliating.

The Wolverines seemingly dared Everett Golson to beat them with his arm. He looked every bit as lethal as he did last week against Conference USA member Rice and completed 23 of 34 passes for 226 yards with three touchdowns.

Michigan's quarterback, Devin Gardner, received help from no one but Devin Funchess, which led coach Brady Hoke to defend why he stuck with his signal caller after Gardner threw three interceptions and lost a third-quarter fumble on a reckless spin move Schmidt saw coming from a mile away.

"Sometimes it just opens up, and as a defensive player, that's the stuff you lay awake at night dreaming of," Schmidt said. "Quarterback's back, ball's right there, you know you can force the fumble."

Gardner's predecessor, Denard Robinson, had tossed four picks and lost one fumble in a 2012 loss to Notre Dame. That was against the No. 2 scoring defense in the country, the catalyst behind an Irish team that went all the way to the BCS title game.

This year's defense started eight new faces from a year ago in its second game under new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, who himself turned into an overnight internet celebrity for a raucous late-game celebration.

"I would say it really just ceases all the doubts about, We're young, 'Can we execute?'" Jaylon Smith (10 tackles) said.

VanGorder can be forgiven for his excitement, but the best was yet to come.

Whereas Hoke had quipped last year that Notre Dame was chickening-out of this rivalry — a brushfire Michigan threw gasoline on by playing the "Chicken Dance" after its win over Notre Dame in 2013 — Notre Dame fans took matters into their own hands in the closing minutes and started a stadium-wide rendition of "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye."

And that wasn't even the final indignity.

On what looked like it would be the final play of the game, Gardner was picked off one last time by Elijah Shumate, who returned it 61 yards for a touchdown. Michigan personnel had already made their way to the locker room, having escaped the hysteria engulfing Notre Dame Stadium — except the officials ruled Max Redfield had roughed the passer on the return, the touchdown didn't count and the game couldn't end on a defensive penalty. This made for an awkward delay, as the playing grounds cleared and a chunk of the Wolverines' roster made the long walk back through the tunnel and onto the FieldTurf before going right back up after the Irish showed mercy and took a knee.

"We temper it by knowing that we got a long season ahead of us, and it counts as one, it doesn't count as two," said coach Brian Kelly, who tried so hard all week to not give in to the hype. "If it counted as two, we would probably be a little bit happier, but it counts as one.

"But there's no question -- I would be lying if I told you that it doesn't feel great to shut out Michigan 31-0."