Critical mistakes in a season on life support

Excitement is relative. It all depends on one's point of view. Notre Dame football fans, with their team leading and seemingly in control down the stretch against Michigan, would have preferred a mundane finish. But the Wolverines had different ideas.

Notre Dame fans never really even had time to celebrate.

Theo Riddick cradled a Tommy Rees pass, took a hit and held on for dear life. Thirty seconds left. Touchdown from 29 yards out. Notre Dame 31, Michigan 28.

A kickoff for a touchback and an incomplete pass later, and the host Wolverines faced second and 10 from their 20, with 23 seconds left on the clock. Wheel route right: Denard Robinson heaves it for Jeremy Gallon. The wide-open receiver makes the grab, races left across the field, and steps out of bounds.

Eight seconds left.

A final Robinson heave finds Roy Roundtree in the end zone, hugging the right sideline. Roundtree battles Gary Gray for the ball, fighting through pass interference to secure the catch.

A review, and the touchdown is upheld. Two seconds left. Michigan 35, Notre Dame 31.

One final irrelevant kickoff, and that was it. Party time for Michigan fans in the inaugural night game at The Big House.

At 11:41 p.m. Ann Arbor time, the Brian Kelly honeymoon, if a Notre Dame football coach can ever be said to have one, officially came to a close.

How could the same team that surged ahead 14-0, that built a 24-7 lead with two minutes to go in the third quarter, in front of a stadium-record crowd of 114,804 hostile fans, self-destruct so completely?

The hows and whys will be analyzed in the days and weeks ahead, as will the numbers. At this moment, the only statistic that matters is 0-2.

Turnovers and penalties, those crucial mistakes that haunted the Irish in their 23-20 opening-game loss to South Florida, killed Notre Dame once again. Add to those miscues a series of critical, almost inexplicable defensive breakdowns that led to huge plays for the opposition.

Once again, Rees piled up yards through the air.

Once again, he threw two interceptions, and added a whiffed-pass-turned-lost-fumble on a dropback inside the Michigan 10.

Once again, Michael Floyd had a huge day, catching double-digit passes for more than 150 yards for the second week in a row.

Riddick came up big with two touchdown grabs and a clutch kickoff return to set up that late scoring drive after a subpar week one.

Cierre Wood stood out again with 134 rushing yards and a touchdown, though he did lose a fumble.

Backup Jonas Gray bounced back after losing a fumble that was returned for a touchdown against South Florida, running for 66 yards on six carries.

This is not one of the titanic battles of top Notre Dame-Michigan teams that fans lived and died for in years past. Michigan is rebuilding under new coach Brady Hoke. Its suspect-at-best defense collapsed as the Irish drove down to take the late lead.

What it does have is Denard Robinson, an always resourceful escape artist at quarterback who kept plays alive with his feet; opportunistic wide receivers who found the ball when Notre Dame defenders could not; and the ability to rise up and stuff the Irish on multiple third-and-short running plays.

"I thought both teams fought, and they fought for 60 minutes," Hoke said. But he wasn't overjoyed with his team's night. "We're a long way away. You're going to get sick of me saying that, but we are. We've got a lot of things we can do better on both sides of the ball, and in the kicking game."

Obviously, one could say the same of Notre Dame. There's not an area that doesn't deserve scrutiny: coaching, offense, defense, special teams.

It's been a stunning start to the 2011 season.

Objectively, this was as exciting a game as a football fan could hope for. Big plays, big mistakes, reversals of fortune, second-guessable coaching calls.

Exciting. The Notre Dame faithful could stand for a little less of this sort of excitement.

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