Both likelihoods are rendered irrelevant if that team plays defense like Notre Dame.
For the second time in two weeks and for the first time in a previously painful history vs. Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, the Irish defense ruled the day, holding a second straight foe out of the end zone in a 13-6 victory over the #18 Wolverines Saturday night.
"Defensively, what can I say?" said Irish head coach Brian Kelly of his heroic unit. "Six turnovers, limited we felt one of the most dynamic offensive players in the country to no touchdowns. An incredible performance by our defense."
A yardage and point-producing machine in his first two meetings vs. the Irish, Robinson finished with 90 rushing yards on 26 carries with just 138 through the air. Four of his 24 passes were intercepted, the quartet in succession, at the end of the first half. He also suffered a red zone fumble.
"You have to really emphasize 11 guys to the ball and I think our coaches have done a great job in stressing the importance of everybody getting to the ball," said linebacker Manti Te'o of his unit's effort vs. Robinson.
Te'o finished with two interceptions and a tackle for lost yardage to go along with eight tackles. Both of his picks set up Irish scores.
"He's gotten me the past two years, and total, Michigan's got me three years, so I'm just glad on my last one, on my last hurrah, I was finally able to have something to celebrate about," Te'o said.
It took nearly 20 games minutes, but Notre Dame struck first, a 33-yard field goal by sophomore Kyle Brindza that followed Te'o's first interception. Nearly nine minutes later the Irish finally breeched the goal line, a 2-yard run by backup quarterback Tommy Rees who replaced struggling starter Everett Golson after the latter's floating interception at the goal line stifled an Irish threat.
Michigan didn't score until 13:10 remained and managed just two field goals in the second half despite three impressive drives that included a collective 35 snaps and 165 yards, but just six points as well as Robinson's aforementioned lost fumble.
Leading 10-3 after dominating the bulk of the contest, Notre Dame faced a starting point of its own 8-yard line with 13 minutes remaining in the contest. 11 plays and 53 yards later, the Irish led 13-3 putting MIchigan in scramble mode with 6:46 remaining.
The Wolverines managed a field gaol after an 11-play march of their own, but just 3:19 remained and Notre Dame was able to produce two first downs to run out the clock en route to its fourth victory of the season.
"What I was most pleased with our offense was their ability to close out the game," said Kelly. "You have to be able to close out hard-fought, close games. The two possessions we had in the fourth quarter pretty much took the ball away from Michigan when they needed it."
The key to both possessions was senior running back Theo Riddick, who carved out 65 all-purpose yards (52 rushing) on 14 snaps in the fourth quarter. His 8-yard burst on 3rd and 8 with just over a minute remaining sealed the contest for the Irish.
"We had to run the ball. They had two timeouts and we knew what our task was and we were able to accomplish it," Riddick said. "You have to run to what you see. They stacked the box; I was basically boxed in. That's the term that we use and you have to put your foot in the ground."
Aiding Riddick on the final drive were Rees and tight end Tyler Eifert, whose 38-yard catch-and-run from Rees gave the Irish the game's crucial first down with less than 2:30 remaining. The catch was Eifert's first since early in the third quarter of Game Two vs. Purdue and only the fourth pass thrown his way in the contest.
"Tyler Eifert's a tight end. You guys seem to think he needs 90 balls. He's a blocking tight end that has a unique ability at the end of a game to spread out to wide receiver and catch a pass," said Kelly of his pre-season All-America candidate. "The game was such that he was required to be inside blocking and he did a heck of a job. He continues to open everyone's eyes about his ability to be a wide receiver and a blocking tight end."
The Irish were out gained by just 60 yards despite 16 fewer offensive snaps than produced by the Wolverines. Notre Dame's 239 total yards was the lowest in victory during the 30-game Brian Kelly era.
"As much as we would have liked to have executed better on offense, I give Michigan a lot of credit, they did a very good job defensively," said Kelly of a Wolverines defensive effort that yielded a high-rush total of 15 yards and just two gains through the air in excess of 20 during the contest. "We knew we were going to be in for this kind of close, tough, hard-nosed football game and I'm proud of the way our guys pulled it off."
Asked post-game what this win means in the wake of his self-proclaimed "signature win" last week in East Lansing, Kelly offered, "I think its another step in the process of consistency that I've talked about. Before you can go from being a good team to a great team, you have to exhibit some type of consistency in performance. Our kids have had three tough opponents early in the season as we're trying to find our self offensively, and it definitely goes towards that consistent performance that we're looking for and this is another step toward that."
The next step is two weeks away in Soldier Field vs. Miami. In the short-term, the soon-to-be Top 10 Irish can celebrate a 4-0 start for the first time in 10 seasons.