Turnovers obviously played a huge role in Notre Dame's 35-17 victory over Michigan. Coaches always talk about how games can be decided by turnovers, but few provide a better example than Saturday's.
The Wolverines had more rushing yards, more passing yards and more first downs. They controlled the ball longer, they averaged more yards per rush, more yards per pass attempt, had a higher pass completion percentage and better third and fourth down conversion rates.
But Notre Dame won the turnover battle and even more important than that was what the Irish did with them. Notre Dame scored 28 of its 35 points off of Michigan turnovers, including three quick touchdowns after takeaways to start the game.
The Irish recovered two fumbles inside the Wolverines' 15-yard line on Michigan's first two drives and when Michigan finally started to move the ball on its third drive, the Wolverines turned it over on downs. The Irish took advantage of all three to get on top 21-0 just 10 minutes into the first quarter.
On their first possession, the Irish went for the score right away but Jimmy Clausen missed Duval Kamara on a pass in the end zone. After a Clausen scramble on second down, Michael Floyd drew a pass interference penalty to give the Irish a first down at the 2-yard line. Robert Hughes ran it in from there to give the Irish an early lead.
Following Michigan's second fumble, Clausen was able to connect with Kamara for a score on a 10-yard fade to put the Irish up 14-0.
Notre Dame got its first chance to run the plays on its script after taking over on downs at their own 37 following a fourth-down stop on Michigan's third possession. The game plan became clear when Floyd drew another pass interference penalty on deep ball to put the Irish just across midfield before Clausen's 48-yard scoring bomb to Golden Tate gave the Irish a 21-0 lead.
"It's been well-documented about our slow first-quarter production, slow/low first-quarter production, so coming out touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, that's a good way to start," Charlie Weis said. "Even though the field position was great for the first two, I mean, still, you could end up settling for field goals and then field position and turnovers would have gone for naught."
The only Michigan fumble that did not lead to an Irish touchdown was the one that Sergio Brown recovered after a David Bruton strip that kept the Wolverines off the board when they had moved the ball to the Notre Dame 5-yard line in the third.
With Notre Dame leading 35-17 in the fourth, Michigan had its final chance to make it interesting taken away. The Wolverines had moved the ball into the Irish red zone again, but Bruton intercepted a pass at the 5 to thwart that threat.
Sophomore cornerback Gary Gray added another interception on the next Michigan possession. Altogether, Notre Dame recovered four Michigan fumbles and picked off two passes to go along with the fourth-down stop in the first quarter.
"I think that any time your defense can start ball hawking and come up with three fumbles and a couple interceptions, not even including our cult hero Mike Anello making another fumble recovery on special teams," Weis said. "You get six turnovers, that's usually a sign that good things are going to end up happening."
No one needed to ask Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez a question before he offered his opinion on the game. As Rodriguez strolled into the Notre Dame postgame interview he grabbed a stat sheet.
"Turnovers, that's the only stat matters," he said unprovoked. "Just look at the turnovers, are you kidding me?"
Rodriguez did not give the Irish defense too much credit for those turnovers, saying that many of them were unforced.
"Turnovers will hurt you anytime but the ones that are really discouraging are the unforced errors," Rodriguez said. "I mean, it wasn't anybody knocking the ball out or stripping the ball out. It's just dropping the ball."
Weis acknowledged that some of the turnovers were more Michigan than Notre Dame, but the Irish were there to take advantage of them and their pressure caused more than a few.
"Some of (them are) them dropping the ball, but a lot of them is our play too," Weis said. "I mean those two (Bruton) plays in the red zone, that wasn't them dropping the ball. That was stripping a running back that was trying to get extra yardage and that was the free safety coming and making a play down there on the 5-yard line. There was no weather that was involved in those plays, that was just guys making good plays."
After the game, Weis could not put his finger on how Bruton, who saved the game against San Diego State with a fumble recovery, was causing all of the turnovers.
"I don't know, but tell him to keep doing it," he laughed. "The defensive coaches have done a nice job in the red zone."
Michigan wasn't the only team that had trouble handling the ball in the rain on Saturday either as the Irish fumbled the ball three times themselves.
"We laid the ball on the ground three times," Weis said. "Fortunately we came up with all three of them."
Clausen was picked off twice and while his first interception led to a Michigan field goal, his second came with the Irish already up 18 with less than five minutes to play.
And Weis did everything he could to be certain that his team understood how important ball security was going to be in the game.
"The one thing that was on every board in that locker room as they walked in (Saturday) was ball possession/turnovers. I told them Friday night, I told them Saturday morning, I told them Saturday before they went out," he said. "I felt that any time you have weather in a game like this where there's two top competitive programs, turnovers are usually something else that determine the outcome of the game. Fortunately we were on the long end of that instead of on the short end of that."