Magical night at the Big House

Wolverines look back at first night game, an epic win over Notre Dame

Updated: September 19, 2012, 2:35 PM ET
By Michael Rothstein | WolverineNation

Denard RobinsonGregory Shamus/Getty ImageDenard Robinson celebrated with Taylor Lewan after the TD that lifted Michigan over Notre Dame.
Michigan and Notre Dame have had some classic games over the past three seasons, all coming down to the final minute, all Michigan victories by four points. None, though, was as jaw-dropping as the 2011 version, the first night game in Michigan Stadium history.

It ended with a flurry of excitement that, for once, left a night with as much excitement as it started. The teams will meet again Saturday, at night, this time in South Bend, Ind.

ESPN.com and WolverineNation look back at last season's Michigan-Notre Dame game, which the Wolverines won 35-31 in the final two seconds, in the words of those who participated.

Part I: Putting the game together

Dave Brandon took over the job as Michigan athletic director in March 2010, and the former CEO of Domino's Pizza immediately started working on projects he felt would be innovative for the Wolverines. Among them, adding lights to Michigan Stadium in preparation for a potential night game on the schedule. Brandon quickly identified Notre Dame as the likely opponent for the first night game both because of the rivalry aspect and its early-season position on the schedule.

Dave Brandon: You can create a different atmosphere at night. We had never had a night game, and for a long time it was suggested we would never do that because that wasn't Michigan. For me, it seemed like a really interesting and effective way to say, You know what? We're going to try some new things.

Hunter Lochmann, Michigan's chief marketing officer: The night-game planning, it started almost immediately. On the campus there was some concern and apprehension on their part, so there was a lot of working with them to make sure the students behaved themselves. There were a thousand and one things we had planned from an event standpoint.

Jack Swarbrick, Notre Dame athletic director: It reaffirmed the specialness of the relationship of the rivalry. It's more than football; it's two great Midwest academic institutions with long histories working together. ... It drew great national attention to the game.

Brandon: It wasn't just a night game for the first time; it was also the concept of putting the kids in throwback or legacy uniforms and trying to make it a very special and unique event. Jack Swarbrick at Notre Dame was terrific, very cooperative and thought it was a great idea. The rest was history.

Denard Robinson, Michigan quarterback: We were looking around, and it was a different environment in Ann Arbor at night. All of us were looking around like, Man, we're going to have a night game in Ann Arbor. It's kind of hard to explain with words what it was like being on that bus.

Jordan Kovacs, Michigan safety: A noon game, the stands are empty until the game starts. Let's be real. When we went out there just for warm-up [for the night game], all 110,000 people were in the stands, and that was unreal.

Al Borges, Michigan offensive coordinator: Coaching in a lot of the stadiums in the SEC, a lot at night, there are some I remember well, the LSU and Florida games, and boy, it was rocking. But I don't remember any of them being as electric, 100,000-some pom-poms and the chants. Even in the press box, as focused as we are as coaches, you can't help but hear the house rock.

Part II: The Legends jersey ceremony

[+] EnlargeJunior Hemingway
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireJunior Hemingway donned the No. 21 Desmond Howard Legends Patch for the night game against Notre Dame.
Michigan also unveiled a new tradition before the game, using a Legends Patch to denote certain players in school history. The first patch was brought out before this game, dedicated to Desmond Howard -- who wore No. 21 -- and was given to Junior Hemingway. It also was the beginning of a new tradition at Michigan, as four more jerseys are receiving Legends Patch designations this season.

Desmond Howard: I knew they wanted to do something, and I had an idea that it was involving the jersey, but I wasn't for sure how they were going to execute it or honor it with the video. It was just tremendous.

Brandon: One of the moving parts was the whole Michigan Football Legend ceremony and taking No. 21 and putting a patch on it. Junior was going to run out of the locker room with the patch, and we're going to do the video to honor Desmond. I'm standing there and we're playing the video, and I look over at Desmond, and there are tears running down his face. I walked to the sideline, and the sun was setting and the lights were on and things were starting to twinkle in the stadium, and every seat in that stadium was full.

Howard: I was in the back talking to Charles Woodson and said, 'You know what? I've got to go out there and speak.' He's like, 'Speak to who?' I'm like, 'Uhh, 115,000, that's who.' He's like, 'For real?' So I'm like, 'Yeah, what should I say?' We joked back and forth and he said, 'Whatever you do, make sure you say, Go Blue!' It was impromptu.

Hemingway (said in 2011): An honor to wear it. I talked to [Howard] before the game in the locker room and he said, 'Keep your emotions down during the game. Stay composed and let everything come to you.'

Roy Roundtree (who now wears No. 21): It was big motivation for him for Desmond Howard to honor him and have that patch on his jersey and the special locker that he had. Just to see that jersey put on, it was like, 'Let's go.'

Howard: It was one of the greatest individual honors I ever received, and emotionally, that's how I felt. That's exactly how I felt. I really don't think there are words to really describe how I felt. If there are, I'm not aware of them.

Part III: The first three quarters

Michigan had set an entire atmosphere turning Sept. 10, 2011, into a big deal in Ann Arbor. When the game started, Notre Dame had become dominant over the first half, holding Michigan to 90 yards of offense, with Robinson accumulating 88 of them. By the end of the third quarter, Notre Dame held a 24-7 lead.

Borges: We were awful. I didn't think we played well at all. They played well defensively. They did a nice job of controlling Denard, and I knew that was going to be a priority because of what he did to them a year ago. But we were just not very good.

Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison: We had a lot of young guys who hadn't played in that system on defense. If you remember the Western [Michigan] game, we weren't exactly perfect in that one. Now this is just the second game. It was the improvement that had to take place. Now you have to improve against a big-time football program.

Michigan coach Brady Hoke: For three quarters, we did nothing on either side of the ball.

Swarbrick: For three quarters I felt really, really good. You could feel us leaving some points on the board, but if you look at the total yardage comparison of those first three quarters, we were playing really, really well.

Brandon: Tortuous. Tortuous. The storybook finish was we had to win the game, right?

Part IV: Michigan takes the lead

The second Michigan entered the fourth quarter, the game literally started to change. Robinson scored a touchdown after picking up a Stephen Hopkins fumble on the first play of the quarter.

[+] EnlargeKelly/Rees
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesTommy Rees' fourth-quarter fumble deep in Michigan territory was a turning point for the Wolverines.
Swarbrick: Having come off the South Florida game, where we fumbled on the goal line and had it returned for a touchdown, when Michigan fumbled on the goal line and the ball rolled to their best player who walked into the end zone, I couldn't help but think to myself, Eww, this has an element I don't like. I don't like the karma of that play.

Borges: We finally broke the dam in the fourth quarter. We ran a few plays that were successful.

Notre Dame went three-and-out. Michigan scored again. Notre Dame then had a chance to ice the game, but quarterback Tommy Rees fumbled on the Michigan 9, giving the Wolverines the ball.

Michigan turned the ball over and then forced Notre Dame into another three-and-out, giving the Wolverines the ball, trailing 24-21 with 2:16 left. Robinson then drove down the field, eventually finding Kelvin Grady for a 27-yard gain, setting up a first-and-10 from the Notre Dame 21. Robinson and Smith were lined up in the backfield.

Vincent Smith, Michigan running back: The energy, the momentum, everything was just going our way. That play, actually, it was supposed to be in shotgun.

Robinson: It was the right play. It was the wrong formation. I probably should have been in the gun, but it worked out. The formation was wrong. It was early in the season.

Smith: I was trying to tell Denard, but we were rolling, and anything was liable to happen. I knew the screen was supposed to go to the left and I was supposed to line up on the right. I was supposed to float to the left.

Robinson: I didn't know I was in the wrong formation.

Smith: Once I caught the ball and turned around, I ran. I saw two defenders. After I broke the second tackle, I knew it would be a big play.

Borges: That play was only going to get called in that part of the field. We can call that play in another part of the field, which in another game we did. But in that game, it was set up for that deal, that situation.

Robinson: Coach Borges, once I got to the sideline [after the touchdown], was like, 'What formation? You're supposed to be in the gun.' I'm like, 'Coach, I'm sorry, but we got a touchdown.'

Part V: Notre Dame strikes back

Michigan appeared to have come back to beat Notre Dame in the final minute or so of the game for the third consecutive year. Michigan kicked the ball off, leading 28-24 with 1:12 left.

Kenny Demens, Michigan linebacker: We're thinking, OK, guys, let's stop them here, get the ball to our offense and ease the pain and stress. Let's just keep it ahead. That was our thought. Right now we have it, let's keep the ball rolling.

Kovacs: They had a good pace to their offense. We didn't stop them on first down, they kept completing passes, short gains, and then the big play that ended up biting us.

Those short passes gave Notre Dame the ball on the Michigan 29 with 36 seconds to go on a third-and-5. Tommy Rees hit Theo Riddick for a 29-yard touchdown right between Michigan's coverage.

Mattison: I take the blame for that, I probably out-thought myself. We had gotten an interception earlier in the game showing an all-out blitz and coming out of it and disguising. I think it was the third quarter or second quarter. They were moving the ball, and you wanted to keep them out of the end zone. So I was showing a blitz, but when you do that, everyone has to come out of it the same way. We gave an opening, and they hit a pass right down that opening.

Kovacs: I remember leaving the field with a sickening feeling and looking at the offense and saying, 'OK, let's see what they can do, and hopefully they can dig us out of this hole.'

Swarbrick: The Boston College hockey game this year we scored with 1.7 [seconds] left or something on a shot that normally wouldn't have gone in. So you just never relax. Also the Stanford one, I remember 'The Play' very, very well. And so you have those thoughts in mind. Of course, Michigan had a pretty exceptional guy under center on the other team that could make things happen. Having said that, obviously the expectation is that you manage that last half-minute.

Borges: They are driving the ball down at the end, and I told Roy Manning [then-graduate assistant coach] on the phone, there was 30 seconds left or something like that, I told him, 'If they score, get last three ready and tell Denard.' All that means is the last three or four plays of the game and we have to throw the ball down the field.

Part VI: One of the most memorable finishes in history

Notre Dame scored, giving the Irish a 31-28 lead with 30 seconds remaining, and Michigan got the ball on its own 30.

Robinson: When I stepped onto the field I said, 'All right, we've got to rock. Get the ball into the end zone or into field goal range.' Everybody in the huddle, they had faith. There was no doubting us, no quit in anybody's eyes. That quit look on your face, everybody was like, 'Let's go.' That gave me even more motivation.

Michigan's first pass was incomplete to Jeremy Gallon. The Wolverines, though, saw something and brought out a similar play.

Roundtree: We've got the five-wideout, we always do this play on a Thursday, it's kind of like a Hail Mary play, but I know my job is to go across the field and disguise the safety and if he goes outside then there is nobody over the middle, so I'm pretty sure he is staying on me. Gallon runs a little wheel route, and he's wide-open.

Gallon: The strong safety was down on me before the ball was snapped. When the play started, I saw him take off with Junior on a post, and I just sat and waited. Just waited and hoped Denard could throw me the ball and he found me.

[+] EnlargeCierre Wood
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesCierre Wood and the Irish were left stunned by the final outcome.
Robinson: I was like, 'Make a play, baby. Go ahead and make a play. Go. Go. Go. Make something happen.'

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly (in 2011): They ran a double post wheel. We squeezed hard on the curl. The wheel outflanked our defense. There's a couple of key coaching points on how you play that route. It's a very common route. It's not like it's something we haven't seen before.

Roundtree: He goes and cuts across the field. Me, I was like, 'OK, I got to go hit somebody.' So I did that, and thank God there was no flag, because he was out of bounds already.

Borges: All of me was thinking [get out of bounds]. Yeah. The problem is if he doesn't get out of bounds, I think we had one timeout. We didn't want to use that timeout.

Gallon: After the play I was thinking, 'Man, if I would have gotten tackled midfield, it would have been the worst thing ever.' I was just thinking about running and getting as close to the end zone as possible.

Borges: It was at the 16. More importantly how much time was left and then the decision by the head coach of, Are you going to take a shot for the touchdown or go and do what you've got to do?

Roundtree: Coach sent the play in. I was like, 'Lace, I know this play.' I knew he was going to bite on the inside route because he was inside leverage. I'm like 'Lace, throw it up.'

Robinson: I looked at Roy and told him, 'Hey, what's up? You think you can run a corner route?' He was like, 'I got it. I got it.' I was like, 'I'm pretty sure they are going to man up this play.' He's like, 'I can get it.'

Roundtree: Lace decided to throw it up. I ran my route. Boom. He ended up grabbing me, grabbing my jersey a little bit, so I had to keep swiping, keep swiping. I looked up, said 'OK,' swiped him a little bit and just jumped up in the air and grabbed the ball.

Robinson: I dropped back and went to my first read and got it covered by the safety and the cornerback in the slot. Junior was the first read with a post route, and he got sandwiched between the linebacker and the safety. That took the safety out of the play, so it was one-on-one with Roy. I threw it up to him, and that was it.

Borges: Even though he didn't run the route right out of a textbook, he got where he belonged, and Denard knew where he was and threw it up where only the good guy can get the ball, which is what you have to do. That was really it. Was it exactly how you draw it? No. It was not a pretty play. It was probably a microcosm of how we played the whole night. But it worked.

Roundtree: I knew it was a touchdown because once I laid down and let the ball go, I was already out of bounds. So I was just saying 'Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus!' And my teammates surrounded me.

Manti Te'o, Notre Dame linebacker (in 2011): Never [had that happen before]. And something that I hope I don't experience again.

Swarbrick: You're just heartbroken.

Roundtree: That catch will never get old. I watch it from time to time, but I have got it saved on my phone, a little screen saver.

Kovacs: Tree's catch, I was kind of in shock. We play one solid quarter of football, and we're going to steal this game.

Demens: It was, like, sparkles. It was like magic. Just watching that maize stand up and be so loud, and watching the reaction on Dave Brandon's face was priceless. I was next to Dave Brandon. As it happened, I watched him and his response. Of course we celebrated on the sideline.

Robinson: I was shocked. I was like, 'We just drove the ball with 30 seconds left.' That's when I jumped into Taylor [Lewan]'s hands and was like, 'Oh my God, this is crazy! This is one of the biggest games, craziest games I've ever played!'

ESPN.com Notre Dame blogger Matt Fortuna contributed to this story.

Michael Rothstein | email

ESPN Detroit Lions reporter