The first occurred in October of 2005 against (likely) the best runner-up national champion in college football history. The second ended a few hours ago against an eminently beatable team, though one that has improved greatly over a 12-month span.
And for the 15th season over a 16-year span dating back to 1994 (and current Irish quarterback coach Ron Powlus' second career start at the University), the Notre Dame Football Program will exit September with at least one loss on its ledger.
The latest blemish came courtesy of a slippery freshman signal-caller who defines the sporting phrase, "puncher's chance," as elusive quarterback Tate Forcier dealt the bulk of the devastating blows that felled the Irish in Michigan's 38-34 upset victory today in The Big House.
"I thought the quarterback managed the game for them pretty well…I don't know what his final stats were but I thought he did a fairly nice job for a freshman for managing the game," explained Irish head coach Charlie Weis in the understatement of the weekend.
The game featured five lead changes, more than 900 yards of total offense, a kick return touchdown, three touchdowns and a two-point conversion in the final 10 minutes. All of which equated to 72 points, the highest combined total in the 37-game history of this season-defining rivalry.
Notre Dame began the contest with a 10-play, 69-yard drive that ended with a missed 28-yard field goal by freshman kicker Nick Tausch. After the teams traded punts, Forcier led Michigan on a 9-play, 79-yard drive the culminated in a two-yard touchdown plunge by senior running back Brandon Minor.
The Irish answered with an 8-play drive and Tausch field goal to cut the deficit to 7-3 but Michigan sophomore Darryl Stonum brought the ensuing kick-off back 94-yards for a touchdown and 14-3 advantage. As would be the case for the duration of the contest, the Notre Dame offense responded, as junior quarterback Jimmy Clausen marched the Irish downfield, covering 76 yards on 7 plays, the bulk of which came courtesy of a 37-yard sideline completion to sophomore receiver Michael Floyd. A Clausen to Golden Tate 4-yard touchdown passes followed three plays later and the Irish cut the Michigan lead to 14-10.
After the Irish forced a three-and-out, Clausen again burned the Wolverines secondary, finding Floyd for 33 yards; Tate for 11; and Floyd again for an 11-yard score and 17-14 advantage with just over seven minutes remaining in the first half.
Both teams tacked on a field goal and the Irish took a 20-17 lead into the break.
But after a first half that saw the Notre Dame offense pile up 302 yards of total offense (not including a 59-yard screen pass touchdown that was overturned when the replay official determined Irish half back Armando Allen had stepped out of bounds at the UM 22), the Irish stagnated, managing just 22 yards on 9 third-quarter plays.
Michigan capitalized on the suddenly human Irish offense and on a fumbled exchange between Clausen and sophomore half back Jonas Gray, recovering the fumble at the Notre Dame 26-yard line. Four Wolverines runs and Forcier roll-out touchdown pass to tight end Kevin Koger afforded the Wolverines a 24-20 advantage with 7:42 remaining in the third period
Michigan held that one-score advantage until the third play of the fourth quarter. Faced with a 4th and 3 at the Notre Dame 31-yard line, Forcier cut inside the pass rush of sophomore Darius Fleming and caught the rest of the Irish defense in a perfect situation, splitting the perimeter run blitz of safeties Harrison Smith and Kyle McCarthy through a vacated middle for a 31-yard score and 11-point lead, 31-20 with just under a quarter remaining.
Clausen brought the Irish back, throwing three touchdown passes to Golden Tate…on one series. Tate dropped the first two but corralled the third to cut the lead to 31-26 (Notre Dame's two-point conversion attempt failed).
McCarthy gained a measure of revenge, intercepting Forcier and bringing the freshman's offering back to the Michigan 36-yard line. Seven plays later, Allen burst through the middle behind a crushing block from center Eric Olsen to give the visitors a 32-31 lead. Clausen and Allen fooled the defense with a "Statue of Liberty" two-point conversion run for a 34-31 advantage but Allen was called for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for making the "shhh" sign to north end zone faithful.
The Irish held Forcier and the Wolverines to 9 total yards on five plays but the damage of the questionable unsportsmanlike call could not be undone as a Michigan punt trapped the visitors at their own 16-yard line with 3:07 remaining.
After a 13-yard gain by Allen, backup halfback Robert Hughes carried for no gain, forcing the Wolverines to burn their first time out. Weis elected to throw twice, first deep to Tate incomplete, then a sideline route to an open Shaquelle Evans, but the freshman receiver's timing was off on his route and the ball sailed out of bounds, forcing an Irish punt after the offense burned less than a minute in four plays.
Senior punter Eric Maust's punt traveled just 29 yards and Forcier had 2:13, two timeouts, and just 58 yards to travel for the win or tie.
Nine plays later, Forcier escaped a Irish pocket pressure yet again and found senior receiver Greg Matthews on a slant-out to give Michigan a 38-34 lead with 11 seconds remaining.
The final play and the final drive was vintage Forcier – a freshman who feels at home on the big stage in The Big House.
"I've been preparing for this my whole life," Forcier told ABC's Holly Rowe after the game. "It's nothing new to me."
Irish senior linebacker Toryan Smith gave credit where credit was due, and explained the difficulty a defense faces vs. a player with Forcier's skill set.
"We didn't deserve to win that game. We had our chances. We got beat by a good Michigan team today.
"I respect that team a lot and what they stand for but they made the most plays and they deserved to win that game.
"One thing about a guy like that," Smith continued, "you really never know what you're going to get: Are they going to pass with him? Are they going to run with him? You really don't know, but the main thing is you have to try to contain him – try to tackle him, not let him get loose – but we didn't do a good job of that and I think it showed."
Smith's observation was not unlike that of his embattled head coach, who was forced to offer an all-too-familiar post-game refrain to his crestfallen players.
"The team wins the game together, they lose the game together. There were plenty of opportunities on offense, defense, and special teams to win that game," Weis explained.
"I said don't be pouting saying how we should have won that game.
"We could have won…that doesn't mean we should have won. We had a chance to close it out on offense; we had a chance to close it out on defense; we gave up a home run on special teams…basically its time to show where you're going from here."
It's not as if they haven't been in this position before.
Notre Dame Individual Leaders
- Passing: Clausen (25-42, 336 yards, 3 touchdowns, 0 INT)
- Rushing: Allen (21 carries, 139 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 Two-Point Conversion run)
- Receiving: Floyd (7 receptions, 137 yards, 1 touchdown); Tate (9 receptions, 115 yards, 2 touchdowns)
- Total Tackles: Harrison Smith 11; Kyle McCarthy 9
- Interceptions: McCarthy
- Fumbles Recovered: None
Michigan Individual Leaders
- Passing: Forcier (23-33, 240 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception)
- Rushing: Minor (16 carries for 106 yards and 1 touchdown); Forcier (13 carries for 70 yards and 1 touchdown)
- Receiving: Matthews (6 receptions for 58 yards and 1 touchdown)
- Total Tackles: Troy Woolfolk 8; Mike Williams 8
- Interceptions: None
- Fumbles Recovered: Jonas Mouton