What The Irish Learned

Notre Dame-Michigan: What The Irish Learned

The Irish are 1-0. They opened the season with a win over a ranked Michigan team for the sixth time in history – also in 1979, 1982, 1987, 1988 and 1998 (with the ’82, ’88 and ’98 versions also coming at Notre Dame Stadium).

NBC’s 4.51 rating from Saturday night marked its best for an Irish home game in a dozen years.

There was green virtually everywhere in Notre Dame Stadium Saturday — and University of Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly gushed about the atmosphere.

For one very warm Saturday night in South Bend, there was much that went right in the worlds of Notre Dame fans.

With perspective required in some measure given that it’s only Labor Day, consider some leftovers from Notre Dame’s opening win over Michigan:

  1. The Irish offensive line is (still) gritty and tough. Much had been made of the departure of all-star linemen Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey and former offensive line coach Harry Hiestand. Those qualified as legitimate questions. Yet new offensive line coach Jeff Quinn and his group certainly held their own (at least) Saturday night against a Michigan defense Kelly suggested might end up being the best the Irish see all year. The 132 net rushing yards amassed by Notre Dame may not have the 11 defensive coordinators on the remaining 2018 schedule quaking in their boots, yet this was one time when the number alone did not represent what took place on the field. And keep in mind that this was only a first appearance by sophomore running back Jafar Armstrong, who a year ago was playing as a wide receiver.
  2. The Irish kickers will be weapons. Irish special teams coach Brian Polian naturally was not happy with the long Michigan kickoff return that maybe kept the Notre Dame halftime lead from being as many as 18 points. Yet the performances of placekicker Justin Yoon and punter Tyler Newsome paid major second-half dividends. Yoon’s 48-yard field goal — as the only points by either team in the third period — came at a critical time. Newsome shrugged off his opening 25-yarder to average nearly 50 yards on his last five punts — twice dropping the ball off at the Michigan four.
  3. Brandon Wimbush is a playmaker. Notre Dame’s second-year quarterback earned the game ball Saturday night — certainly not by accident given all the Irish contributors. It reflected his all-purpose effort as he answered all those interested in seeing how his 2018 version would compare to what Notre Dame fans viewed a year ago. One media member suggested to Kelly after the game that Wimbush maybe qualifies as the best Irish running back right now. Fair enough — yet Wimbush’s most impressive trait Saturday likely was the way he maneuvered for the tough yards when they really mattered. A 22-yard run on third-and-18 comes to mind. There was a third-down conversion and another on fourth down (both runs) on Notre Dame’s third TD drive. There was a third-and-six rushing conversion on the second Irish TD march. For one Saturday night, Wimbush mostly delivered what was required from one down to the next.
  4. Notre Dame’s defense will grow. Kelly made sure his players understood they need to finish stronger than what the Irish did against Michigan (only 64 net offensive yards after intermission). He also knows a 21-3 lead against a top 15 opponent is a great way to open a game and makes strategy different as the game unfolds. The Wolverine offense did not put a touchdown on the board until 2:18 remained in the game, and Notre Dame allowed Michigan only 58 net rushing yards (107 gained against 49 yards in losses produced by the Irish pursuit). As Kelly has noted, Notre Dame may not have any one individual who will end up an All-American along the Irish defensive front — but there appears to be enough quality depth to think that combined group can be a serious force. Michigan’s quarterbacks may have combined to throw for 249 yards — yet there was nothing routine about Shea Patterson’s night based on the ongoing Notre Dame pressure and the way the Irish kept Patterson off-balance.
  5. A little continuity is all good. Much was written and said in the offseason, wondering if Notre Dame could string together a couple of quality seasons after 10 wins and a bowl victory in 2017. Saturday marked a start in that direction. Whatever the names the Irish have had to replace from their 2017 mix (notably Nelson, McGlinchey, Josh Adams, Hiestand and defensive coordinator Mike Elko), they seemed to do it in stride against a quality opponent and rival, at least for the first time out.

John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.