Replay: Irish Check Boxes

It may not have featured the career-defining, end-game play that has made heroes of Harry Oliver and Bob Crable and so many others in the Notre Dame-Michigan football series.
Yet Irish fans will enthusiastically offer up second-year quarterback Brandon Wimbush (for the way he made plays when Notre Dame needed it most and earned the game ball), a final-minute strip sack by Jerry Tillery (that effectively ended the game), the offensive line (that way more than held its own against a talented Michigan defense) and an overall admirable defensive effort (that kept the visitors from an offensive touchdown until the final three minutes).
All that was enough to send the green-clad gang of Irish fans home happy on a muggy, warm night.
The amped atmosphere alone at Notre Dame Stadium Saturday was enough to wake up a few echoes – and it only peaked when the 12th-ranked Irish rolled out to a 21-3 lead on their way to a 24-17 season-opening victory over the 14th-rated Wolverines.
If it’s true the stars come out at night, then South Bend was the place to be on Saturday.
The pregame scene showed Mike Golic chatting with Ronnie Stanley, Steve Beuerlein hanging with his former center Chuck Lanza, Jerome Bettis and Ray Zellars visiting beneath the north goalpost – and ESPN’s Lee Corso, Rece Davis and Hannah Storm all taking in the scene.
The familiar sounds of “Don’t Stop Believing” pounding from the video board seemed apropos.
And when it was over, the most excited group in the Irish locker room as head coach Brian Kelly praised his charges may well have been the posse of former Irish – led by Stanley, Quenton Nelson, DeShone Kizer (wearing a white 49ers’ Joe Montana jersey, he gleefully tackled Wimbush on the field after the game) and Equanimeous St. Brown.
Kelly laid the challenge out simply before the contest began:
“All right, it’s time. Play for Notre Dame. Play for each other, right? These are the games you come to Notre Dame to play in. You’ve got fans that came out to see you – they were there in pregame (warmup). That doesn’t happen (everywhere) in college football.
“Start fast – you’re going to have to do that. You can’t wait for anything to happen out there – you have to go and get this game.
“Attention to detail, effort and enthusiasm and finish strong. Four quarters of Notre Dame football.”
The Irish complied with that “start fast” request, scoring on their first two possessions. Notre Dame drove first 75 yards and then 96 yards and it was 14-0 with barely half the initial quarter dissolved. That put the Wolverines on their heels and set the Notre Dame defense up in an enviable position.
Converted receiver Jafar Armstrong’s second career rushing carry produced the first of his two touchdown runs – and Chris Finke hauled in a 43-yard TD pass over the top of a Michigan defender.
Notre Dame led 143-22 in total yards, the Irish NCAA champion women’s basketball squad earned a hero’s welcome at a timeout – and all was right in the Notre Dame world.
The Irish ground out another impressive 15-play drive early in the second period, leading to Armstrong’s second score.
Michigan’s only first-half points came on a 99-yard kickoff return and a field goal after a 25-yard Notre Dame punt left the Wolverines with a short field.
“We’ve got to keep pounding them,” noted Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long at intermission, with the scoreboard at 21-10. “Do not let up.”
That came after a second quarter in which Notre Dame possessed the football for 10:52 and allowed only 21 Wolverine yards.
“The third quarter is about effort now, It’s about great enthusiasm,” Kelly told his team.
“Somebody makes a play, you bring the energy. We’re playing for two quarters. For all the time and preparation, you are going to play for two quarters. It’s easy to go for two quarters. Now you bring the mental edge in. One play at a time.
“There’s gonna be some good plays and some bad plays. Move on to the next play. And stay after them. You know what it looks like. Stay at ’em every single play and you know what will happen. You cannot let your guard down in this game. You’ve trained for this since January.”
The Irish absorbed a few blows in the final half – beginning with a 52-yard Michigan pass completion on the first play of the third period. But a choppy third period saw the visitors botch a field-goal attempt. Then both quarterbacks threw interceptions – as Julian Okwara picked off Michigan’s Shea Patterson on the possession after Justin Yoon kicked a 48-yard field goal for a 24-10 Notre Dame lead.
Michigan racked up 187 second-half passing yards, but Patterson ended up bruised and battered by the Irish defense (three sacks, six quarterback hurries, seven tackles for loss).
The Wolverine offense did not put a TD on the board until 2:18 remaining in the game. That left it for Te’von Coney to scoop up Kareem’s forced fumble as Patterson lay face down on the turf. Those two Irish players combined for 19 tackles, two sacks and another tackle for loss.
Kelly appreciated how the Irish checked some boxes Saturday night:
“Number one, we had 94 workouts leading up to this game. You were the better team physically tonight. You decided that. That was absolutely the case because of the commitment you made.
“Number two, there is no other environment you’ll ever experience like you experienced tonight. The atmosphere on this campus and in this stadium – the students in there singing. It doesn’t happen anywhere. Let it sink in. You were part of that with a victory.
“Number three, you checked off some boxes on our goals. We said, one, protect our house. Two, beat Michigan. Three, handle adversity. Four, November.
“So, we got Michigan. We come back here next week against Ball State and we’ve got to continue to protect our house.
“We got off to a fast start. There was great attention to detail and great enthusiasm. We’ve got to close the game better — we’ve got to finish better. That’s alright — we’re gonna get better in week two.
“When we talk about the physicality of a football game, you’ve got to show it and I thought number seven (Wimbush) showed it out there tonight. He did what was necessary to win football games.”
Wimbush threw for 170 yards and ran for 59 more – while the Irish outgained Michigan 132-58 on the ground and held the Wolverines without a rush longer than 10 yards.
“I was impressed with our offensive line’s ability to handle Michigan’s defense,” added Kelly.
And then the Irish head coach noted that when the experts start stacking up defensive lines across the country, they better think about the one in South Bend.
“Follow the process and good things can happen for us. This is a good football team.”
Michigan’s defense was more ballyhooed coming in – yet Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea liked the looks he saw on his first night in that new role.
“It was a little bit of a guessing game with a new quarterback for them and how multiple Michigan is with their offense,” he suggested after most of the Irish locker room had emptied out.
“You knew what Coach (Jim) Harbaugh’s personality was on offense. Then our guys did a good job putting their cleats in the ground and the offense did a great job starting fast and holding onto the ball.
“We limited their snaps in the first half and that allowed us to finish in the second half. And you know the shots are coming in that first game.”
After game one, Kelly and his staff have something to build on.
And, with four games in Notre Dame Stadium in the month of September alone for the Irish in 2018, there will be plenty more boxes to check.
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.