An inauspicious start to the night gave way to a brief glimmer of hope. It was dim, sure, and it felt more like a mirage than a possible oasis, but it was there. This is Michigan-Notre Dame, after all, and there seemed to be some rule of the natural world that pushed close games in this series Michigan’s way. And then, on a play prior to which the stadium scoreboard had to pipe in some rawk music and remind fans to, in glittering all-caps, “GET LOUD,” hope died. Shea Patterson avoided pressure for as long as he could but encountered a group of two rushers coming free from the left side. The ball hit the turf, Te’Von Coney recovered, and the stadium whose volume hadn’t risen above a din in hours shook the press box.
That Michigan was even in the game late in the fourth quarter was a surprise give the way Notre Dame’s first two drives went. Notre Dame’s seemingly shaky quarterback situation was solved within three plays, as Brandon Wimbush found Chase Claypool for 16 yards on 3rd-and-10 and followed that with a 28-yard bomb to Miles Boykin, who was held by Lavert Hill. A facemask by Tyree Kinnel helped move Notre Dame from the 26-yard line to the 13, where Jafar Armstrong gashed Michigan’s defense for 13 yards and a touchdown.
Notre Dame started on their own four-yard line after a Higdon-powered Michigan drive stalled. They again converted on third-and-long, with Wimbush dropping a 26-yard dime to Alize Mack that resulted in 15 extra yards after Josh Metellus was called, and subsequently ejected, for targeting. Wimbush converted ND’s next third down with his feet, rushing for seven yards on 3rd-and-6. He heaved up a 43-yard bomb to the end zone for 5’10” Chris Finke on the next play, who leapt over Metellus’ replacement, 6’2” Brad Hawkins. Michigan was down two scores with three minutes left in the first quarter and the defense, the unit with so many exclamation marks and so few question marks, looked as out of sorts as they have in two years.
The defense’s problems lasted one more drive. Michigan allowed Notre Dame to march from their own 25-yard line to Michigan’s 45 when a holding penalty on Josh Ross helped Notre Dame convert on 3rd-and-3. Notre Dame then drove to Michigan’s nine-yard line when Chase Winovich sacked Wimbush on first down, pushing ND back to Michigan’s 17 on second-and-goal. Notre Dame picked up nine yards on a screen before getting a fresh set of downs when, on third-and-goal, Wimbush’s incomplete pass to Miles Boykin was erased by a Chase Winovich late hit. Notre Dame’s drive chart after that, however, looked like what we’ve come to expect from a Don Brown defense: punt, interception, punt, field goal, punt, punt, punt.
Michigan’s offensive drive chart, much to the consternation of the fan base, looked familiar, particularly in the second half: turnover on downs, turnover on downs, punt, interception, turnover on downs, touchdown, fumble. Even so, there were bright spots. Shea Patterson evaded a deluge of Notre Dame defensive linemen play after play and looked comfortable making plays outside of the pocket. Considering the pass protection, this is as vital a characteristic as can be found on this year’s team. Thankfully for Michigan, Dylan McCaffrey seems similarly talented in this area. The redshirt freshman QB was elevated to the no. 2 spot after Brandon Peters tweaked his knee in practice this week and looked good in relief of an injured Patterson (who later re-entered the game). McCaffrey entered the game early in the fourth quarter and moved Michigan from their four-yard line to Notre Dame’s 44 before pressure forced him out of the pocket on fourth down; he tried to find Karan Higdon downfield but the pass fell incomplete.
Higdon had a good game otherwise, regularly making good first cuts to eek out a few extra yards. The receiving corps was effective, snagging everything within reason Patterson and McCaffrey threw their way. Nico Collins had just three catches, though one was a 52-yard Patterson bomb on a post that breathed new life into Michigan’s opening drive of the second half; the first play of the half ended with a delay of game call on the offense, and the long reception was a one-play ticket to field goal territory (which UM botched, with a bad hold turning a likely three points into a Will Hart rush for –11 yards).
Questions abound, the most pressing of which are the result of another underwhelming performance from the offensive line. Michigan encountered a quality defensive line and made them look like a squad of four Khalil Mack clones; pass protection was less protection and more improvisation. Michigan gets a chance to work things out on the fly next weekend, when they return home to face a Western Michigan team that picked up just one sack against Syracuse.