Notre Dame finds revenge is sweet
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- For those who came to Notre Dame Stadium with revenge on their mind, this was perfect. Not only did Notre Dame end its three-year nightmare against Michigan, but the Fighting Irish didn't even allow the Wolverines to cross the goal line. Moreover, the man who had tormented them more than any other in the Brian Kelly era -- more than any opposing quarterback in recent memory -- ended his career against the Irish with his worst performance in a winged helmet. Notre Dame did it with stout defense, opportunistic play and just enough offense, thanks in part to backup quarterback Tommy Rees, to remove the Maize and Blue monkey from its back.
Michigan fans might have sneaked onto campus midweek and hung a blue banner on Notre Dame Stadium, but No. 11 Notre Dame defended its turf -- and especially its own end zone -- when it counted. The Irish left their field Saturday night at 4-0, still perfect after a 13-6 triumph, and with their eyes set on bigger and better things.
"It's a group that understands that they've got an opportunity to do something really big," Kelly said.
Big things would happen for the 2012 Irish only if they beat Michigan and, specifically, Denard Robinson, who almost single-handedly lifted the Wolverines to come-from-behind wins the past two seasons. A Notre Dame defense that the previous week held Michigan State without a touchdown on its home field for the first time in 21 years wouldn't truly be validated until it stopped Robinson.
Safe to say, the Irish can cross a very big item off of their to-do list. They recorded five takeaways against Robinson -- four interceptions and a third-quarter fumble in the red zone -- and six for the game. Michigan's magic man got exposed, completing just 13 of 24 passes for 138 yards. He came into the game with nearly 1,000 career yards against the Irish.
"This was the worst game of my career," Robinson said afterward.
Notre Dame's vengeance vision against its dreadlocked nemesis couldn't have been scripted better. But Kelly and his players made it about more than Michigan.
"It's another step in the process of consistency," Kelly said. "Before you can go from being a good team to a great team, you have to exhibit some form of consistency in performance." Consistency would be the last word to describe Notre Dame in recent years, but it's starting to take shape, thanks to a defense with an exceptional leader (senior linebacker Manti Te'o) and a clear-cut identity. Whether the defense is smothering a quarterback (Michigan State's Andrew Maxwell) or forcing one into repeated mistakes (Michigan's Robinson), the end result is few points on the board.
Saturday night's formula called for a more varied mix of defensive zone coverages, which left the Irish susceptible to runs. Although Michigan attacked the middle of the field early on, Notre Dame prevented big plays and eventually forced mistakes.
"When your defense is disappointed when they kicked a field goal and made it, that's when you know, like, dang, we're going to be good," Te'o said.
Notre Dame held consecutive top-20 opponents to six points or fewer for the first time since 1943, when it surrendered just 12 points during a three-week span against three top-10 foes (Navy, Army and Northwestern). That season also marked the last time Notre Dame kept Michigan out of the end zone.
"We know how good we can be," said Te'o, who recorded two interceptions, a tackle for loss, a quarterback hurry and eight tackles Saturday night. " The sky's the limit for not only this defense, but for this team."
Michigan had been the limit for Notre Dame the past three years. No opponent exposed Notre Dame's inconsistencies quite like the Wolverines. Great defensive stretches would be followed by inexplicable breakdowns. Solid quarterback play would be followed by mind-numbing decisions -- and Kelly sideline eruptions.
There were some hurdles Saturday night as well. Starting quarterback Everett Golson threw an interception deep in Notre Dame territory on the team's first play from scrimmage. The Irish defense logged more than 33 minutes on the field and spent most of the game on the wrong side of the 50-yard line. Rees, whose late-game struggles last year at Michigan foreshadowed more turbulence, had to come off the bench to steady the offense. But this time, the Irish came through, stifling Michigan in the red zone and keeping Robinson off the field in the closing minutes after Rees found tight end Tyler Eifert for a 38-yard gain.
"It's a great game to win, a huge rivalry," running back Theo Riddick said. "I've been 0-3 against them. This team showed great character, especially the last three minutes, to pull it out."
The last three minutes against Michigan in recent years have brought out the worst in Notre Dame. Saturday night told a different story.
An open week provides a chance for Notre Dame to exhale a bit. The Irish have checked off a big box, but they're nowhere near the end of their list.
"I don't think there's going to be a false sense of confidence after four games," Kelly said. "They know they've got a lot of work to do."