For the better part of three quarters, Notre Dame looked like the team Irish fans had hoped for entering the season.
At the end of 60 minutes, they simply proved to be the undisciplined unit Irish fans have followed since the dawn of the Brian Kelly era, and for what seems like an extended 15-season bad dream prior to his arrival: sloppy, rudderless, mentally weak…unable to handle even a modicum of relative success.
After seeing a 24-7 lead disappear, unflappable sophomore Tommy Rees led the Irish offense downfield with a crisp, five-play, 61-yard touchdown drive that culminated in a 29-yard touchdown pass to Theo Riddick – the second connection between the pair on the historic evening.
The Irish led 31-28, 30 seconds remained, the Wolverines stood 80 yards from their end zone with two timeouts in tow. From there, and in keeping with the better part of the last two decades, Notre Dame folded like a cheap suit It took Michigan just three plays to travel the full field, the oldest passing play in football – a wheel-route down the far sideline – doing the bulk of the damage as a blown assignment by Irish cornerback Gary Gray gave Michigan wide receiver a 64-yard gain down to the Irish 16-yard line.
With eight seconds remaining the ensuing snap offered a jump ball into the corner of the end zone (it had already worked twice, why not go back to the well?) with Gray again the victim – the fifth major coverage era by the formerly formidable cornerback resulted in blatant pass interference in the end zone. The rub? Wolverines' wide receiver Roy Roundtree caught the lobbed fade pass anyway – the game-winning touchdown and a 35-31 final score in a game neither defense deserved.
Individual EffortsLost in his four victories as a starter prior to his first loss, was the fact that quarterback Tommy Rees' repertoire generally included the needless turnover. Saturday that tendency reared its ugly head, with a pair of interceptions including an ill-advised end zone throw into double coverage, coupled with an unforced fumble at the Michigan 7-yard line in which the ball fell from his unmolested hand as he prepared to pass.
The errors resulted in drives of 58 and 51 yards by the Irish providing zero points, and marked the fourth and fifth red zone turnovers of the season for the Irish in eight quarters of football.
Rees threw for 315 yards, Notre Dame possessed the football for more than 37 of the game's 60 minutes, and the Irish dropped to 0-6 when passing for 300 yards in 15 games under the new staff.
Predictably, senior standout Michael Floyd was the recipient of the bulk of Rees' 27 completions, collecting 13 passes (a career-high) for 159 yards while receiving support from fellow targets Theo Riddick (six receptions, two touchdowns) and T.J. Jones (3 receptions, a touchdown, and two key pass interference penalties drawn).
Junior running back Cierre Wood had a career day as well, dancing for 134 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries, though he committed one of the team's five turnovers with a third quarter fumble inside the Michigan 30-yard line.
The Irish out-gained their hosts 513 yards to 452; the 198 rushing yards marking a Kelly-era high, but also snapping a 27-game, six-plus season winning streak for Notre Dame when it out-rushes its foe.
The only number that matters, of course, is what seemed an unfathomable "0" on the wrong side of the win-loss ledger.
It's the second 0-2 start at the school in the last five seasons; the third in the last 10. The first in which the Irish gained more than 1,000 yards of total offense in the process.
Short-changedLast Saturday's loss to South Florida left the Irish staff and fans scratching their collective heads. Tonight's shocking defeat at the hands of a bitter rival was far more damaging to the team's fragile psyche, the fan-base's waning faith, and the head coach's standing in a city that embraced him readily despite a disjointed debut last fall.
Tonight in Ann Arbor, 43 minutes of clinical precision were waylaid by a final 17 of a Keystone Cops routine reminiscent of former Irish fan foils Davie, Willingham, and Weis.
The Wolverines 28-point fourth quarter sent temporarily giddy Irish invaders of the Big House home with a familiar, empty feeling. It likewise served as a painful reinforcement of the decade's repeated lesson: Don't give a Notre Dame team a dollar – you'll only get three quarters back…
In the midst of the team's apparent rebirth last November, head coach Brian Kelly noted the 2010 season's worst and most puzzling defeat at Navy was, "an aberration."
Last week's five turnover fiasco vs. South Florida was therefore the Perfect Storm, Murphy's Law, and a nonsensical second aberration rolled into one.
Saturday in Ann Arbor was apparently par for the course, the team's seventh game in 15 contests when it committed at least three turnovers and the fourth in which it surrendered a fourth quarter lead in defeat.
Kelly was wrong about one thing: Navy wasn't the aberration. Neither was Saturday night.