Michigan rides late rally to dramatic win
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Turn out the lights, the party's over.
And it was a rager.
The Michigan Wolverines waited until their 131st year of organized football to play a home night game. They might hesitate to schedule another one. When you've set the bar this high, it's tempting to quit while you're ahead.
Michigan could play another 131 years without winning a game as wild as its 35-31, back-from-the-dead, how-in-the-name-of-Fielding-Yost-did-that-happen victory over Notre Dame. Under a telltale full moon, the largest crowd to ever watch a college football game (114,804) was treated to a manic, magic mess of a contest.
There were six touchdowns and three turnovers in the final 17 minutes and 13 seconds. Half of those touchdowns were scored in an incomprehensible final 72 seconds. Both teams had the game won and lost, until Michigan got the last points and the last laugh.
"That's the most exciting game I've ever played in," Wolverines defensive tackle Mike Martin said.
The excitement was certainly back-loaded, with shockingly open receivers and mind-blowing defensive breakdowns and massive mood swings as the tension rose.
The Wolverines scored with 1 minute, 12 seconds left to take their first lead of the game on a throwback screen to Vincent Smith. After entering the fourth quarter down 24-7, it looked like they had the game won.
Then the Fighting Irish scored with 30 seconds left to retake the lead, when Michigan simply neglected to cover Theo Riddick on a 29-yard pass. After appearing beaten entering the final minute, it looked like they had the game won.
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Then the Wolverines actually won it on Denard Robinson's 16-yard touchdown pass to Roy Roundtree. They scored with two seconds left when coach Brady Hoke channeled Les Miles' gambler streak, throwing for the end zone and risking running out the clock without attempting a tying field goal. Even if that play had gone incomplete, Hoke said he might have done the same thing on the final one.
"I may have gone for the touchdown and gone for the win," he said. "Why not? I mean, you play to win."
For the longest time, Michigan appeared doomed to lose. Then it went from impotent for three quarters to unstoppable at the end. Robinson struggled as badly as at any point in his thrill-packed career -- until he ran for one touchdown and threw for three in the final quarter alone.
"We ain't stopping till the clock says zero-zero," Robinson said.
The Irish, meanwhile, established their identity as the Lindsay Lohan of college football -- bewitching to behold but chronically self-destructive.
Notre Dame's offense is dazzling with the football but prone to giving it away at the worst possible times and places. In Game 1, the Irish beat themselves against South Florida with five turnovers, nullifying an offense that racked up 508 yards on the Bulls. In Game 2, they repeated the stunning script, with five giveaways and 513 total yards. Most of those 10 turnovers have killed drives deep into opposing territory.
The Irish are averaging 20 yards gained per point scored -- a massively inefficient number. Last year, their first under Brian Kelly, the average was 14.4 yards per point. In 2009, Kelly's final season at Cincinnati, the average was 11.6.
"We're not good enough," Kelly said. "There's not one individual in that locker room, including all of the coaches, that are good enough right now. And consequently, we lost the football game. And I mean across the board. It's turnovers, it's subpar special teams play, it's the inability to make a stop, it's all of those things. So I pretty much told our football team that when we're better as a football team we'll start winning."
That's the thing -- it wasn't just Tommy Rees having the ball slip out of his hand for a fumble inside the 10-yard line, or throwing into double coverage near the goal line. It was also a 25-yard punt at a key time, and a botched kickoff return. And it was all those wide-open Michigan receivers in the final 17 minutes.
There was a 77-yard pass to Junior Hemingway while Notre Dame defensive tackle Louis Nix clung to Robinson's ankles. There was a 45-yard bomb to Hemingway a couple of possessions later. There were consecutive passes of 27 and 21 yards on the possession in which Michigan took its first lead at 28-24. And there was the crazily open 64-yard pass to Jeremy Gallon on the final possession.
Roundtree watched Robinson throw the pass, looked at Gallon all by himself near the sidelines and said, "Whoa, how did this happen?"
Notre Dame fans had to be asking the same thing.
The Irish's fourth-quarter defensive collapse then culminated in the winning pass to Roundtree. On a night when Michigan receivers repeatedly beat the Notre Dame secondary for jump-ball passes, Roundtree finished the game with a masterpiece.
With corner Gary Gray actively interfering with him, Roundtree soared into the night sky to cradle the ball. It was the only catch of the game for the team's leading receiver in 2010.
"I just jumped up in the air and focused on it," Roundtree said. "I made sure I got one foot down. When I came down I was like, 'Man, I just scored a touchdown.' "
It was a touchdown that beat Notre Dame in gut-wreching fashion for the third straight year. In 2009, Michigan scored the winning TD against the Irish with 11 seconds left. In 2010, it scored the winning TD against the Irish with 27 seconds left. This time the Wolverines really pushed it, waiting until just two ticks remained on the clock.
I asked Robinson whether he could find any pity in his heart for the Irish after this traumatic trilogy.
"I don't know, man," he said with a smile. "That's why we play the game of football. Somebody's got to lose, somebody's got to win."
While the result of this game has been predictable, so will be the reaction. There will be an urge to proclaim Michigan back as a national contender, and to bury the Irish.
Both reactions will be premature.
Notre Dame has the talent to win a lot of games, if it will stop giving games away in brutal fashion. And it needs to stop now. With Michigan State and Pittsburgh in the next two weeks, a continuation of this pattern could mean an 0-4 start.
For Michigan, just think of the past two years. After winning the '09 thriller to start 2-0, the Wolverines slumped to a 5-7 finish. Last year they also started 2-0 but finished 7-6, which got Rich Rodriguez fired.
The nature of this comeback speaks well for Michigan's moxie and the will being instilled by Hoke. But there were enough deficiencies on display to know this is not the time for any sweeping declarations. Which is why the Wolverines avoided doing any such thing postgame.
"We're moving on to Eastern Michigan," linebacker Jordan Kovacs said, with a straight face.
Nobody believed him. Eastern Michigan can wait. The Michigan Wolverines and their fans will be reliving this historic night all day Sunday, and for many years to come.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.