It’s been more than a century since Notre Dame has held both Michigan and Michigan State out of end zone in the same season. On the strength of six turnovers the Irish defense did just that Saturday night at home, suffocating the Wolverines (2-2) and star quarterback Denard Robinson in a 13-6 victory.
Stephon Tuitt and the Irish defense kept Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson in check Saturday night.
No. 11 Notre Dame flipped the script from last year’s five-turnover performance in Ann Arbor by dominating the turnover battle this time around. For three straight years Michigan has tortured the Irish with last-second, come-from-behind victories. There would be no dramatic comebacks for the Wolverines this night. Nor did Notre Dame shy away from the spotlight or drown in distractions like it did when it last hosted a primetime game a year ago against USC. There’s a different vibe building around this 2012 edition of the Notre Dame football team as they head into their bye week with an unblemished 4-0 record.
“This team is different from last year,” said Irish captain Manti Te’o. “We’re just constantly getting better. I think the strength of the team is that camaraderie we have, that brotherhood that we demonstrate out there.”
That camaraderie spread to the entire lei-clad crowd Saturday night for Te’o as he approaches the end of an emotionally draining two weeks. And the Hawaiian superstar gave them plenty of reasons to cheer. Te’o made eight tackles and intercepted two of Robinson passes in the first half to set up both of Notre Dame’s early scoring drives.
In all, the defense picked off five passes against the Wolverines and recovered a fumble. Their 13 turnovers through four games almost matches the 15 created by last year’s team for the entire season. The mistakes cost Michigan several points and allowed Notre Dame to hang on to its lead from start to finish.
“What can I say?” said Irish coach Brian Kelly. “Six turnovers, [we] limited who we felt is one of the most dynamic offensive players in the country to no touchdowns. Just an incredible performance by our defense.”
Notre Dame struggled to hang on to the football itself during the first half. Sophomore Everett Golson threw an interception on his first play of the game and another midway through the second quarter. He completed only three of his eight passes before Kelly turned to his reliever, junior Tommy Rees, in the second quarter.
Rees was efficient for the Irish, leading the offense to a touchdown on his first drive and protecting the ball throughout the second half. He connected on eight of his 11 pass attempts for a total of 115 yards through the air. His biggest play of the game came not through the air, but on a two-yard run that shocked the Wolverines and provided the game’s only touchdown.
Working with good field position after the second of Te’o’s interceptions, Rees entered the game and immediately connected with sophomore DaVaris Daniels and junior TJ Jones. The pair of passing plays covered 40 yards and brought Notre Dame inside the 10-yard line. After two Irish penalties, Michigan was flagged for pass interference to give Notre Dame a fresh set of downs within arm’s reach of the goal line. Rees finished the drive from there, tucking the ball away on a designed quarterback draw and diving into the end zone with as much emotion as he has shown in a blue and gold uniform.
“It was a good feeling. Any time you score, let alone run one in, it’s pretty high emotions. I think I let the emotions get the best of me there,” Rees said.
Notre Dame picked up only one yard on its first initial scoring drive, but Te’o put them in a position where that was good enough after his first pick and a 28-yard runback. Sophomore Kyle Brindza kicked a 33-yard field goal four plays later to put the first points on the board five minutes into the second quarter.
Brindza stretched his streak to six straight field goals made after pulling his first career attempt wide against Purdue. He also kicked a 39-yarder in the fourth quarter to cap the longest drive of the night for Notre Dame.
Michigan placekicker Brendan Gibbons converted two of his three attempts, both in the final quarter, to keep Michigan’s hopes alive. He missed an important chance early in the game to put the Wolverines up when he failed to connect on a 43-yard chance after Golson’s first interception.
Michigan started that drive on the 10-yard line, but moved backward on three straight plays. Junior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint lost two yards on a sweep play. Then the Notre Dame defense sacked Denard Robinson on back-to-back plays to push the ball outside of the red zone.
Twice during the first half Michigan crept within spitting distance of the end zone and failed to score. Robinson drove his team down to the 10 again before a trick play derailed what looked like a sure scoring opportunity. Michigan coach Brady Hoke dialed up a halfback pass, but senior Vincent Smith’s ill-advised throw was plucked from the air by freshman Nicky Baratti on his first collegiate defensive series.
“If we get behind the guy and throw the ball a little bit deeper, it’s a pretty good play call,” Hoke said.
But they didn’t, and it wasn’t. That play set off an unprecedented rash of turnovers for Robinson and the Wolverines. All four of their possessions in the second quarter ended with Irish interceptions. Junior Bennett Jackson sandwiched his pick between Te’o’s pair and freshman KeiVarae Russell ended the first half by snatching a deep ball and returning it 31 yards as time expired. In all, Notre Dame ended up with the ball on five consecutive passing attempts by the Wolverines.
Robinson started the second half with a fumble, ending another lengthy, promising run in the red zone. Danny Spond, who had seven tackles in the best performance on his college career, pried the ball loose and Jackson, who led the team with nine tackles, pounced on it.
“We want to make plays,” Jackson said. ”Obviously we want to make a play and it feels great to get turnovers.”
Michigan hung onto the ball from there on out. The offense plodded down the field for its first points of the game early in the fourth quarter. It took Robinson and his offense 14 plays to cover 42 yards, but that was enough to put Gibbons in position for a 32-yard field goal. The Wolverines never gained more than six yards on a single play during that drive, but did convert to third down attempts and one on fourth-and-short.
Notre Dame responded with two deliberate possessions of its own. They hung on to the ball for nearly 10 minutes in the final quarter behind a well-orchestrated attack in the hands of Rees and senior running back Theo Riddick.
Notre Dame tallied only 239 total yards Saturday night, but dealing with a short field for much of the night and a second straight game without letting a team score a touchdown provided more than its high-flying 500 yards per game offense did in a loss last season.
The Irish now head into their bye week riding a wave of confidence that comes from its best start in a decade. They’ll have a week to lick their wounds and gather themselves for another daunting month stacked with difficult opponents, including what will likely be a pair of top-ten battles against Stanford and Oklahoma.