The first Saturday of the season the weather deprived Wolverine fans of a fourth quarter. The team more than made up for the lost quarter a week later under the night lights of Michigan Stadium.
When the fourth quarter began the Wolverines were down 24-7 and had showcased absolutely no offensive consistency. The only Michigan score of the game had come on a deep jump ball thrown to receiver Junior Hemingway down the left sideline, which Hemingway caught and then stretched the extra couple yards to sneak the ball past the goal line before being knocked out of bounds.
Until that point, Notre Dame had done pretty much anything it wanted outside of finishing its drives—a common theme for the 2011 Irish. ND quarterback Tommy Rees was nearly perfect on the first two drives of the game, marching the Irish up and down the field for a quick two-touchdown lead.
The ease of Rees' task on Saturday night was aided greatly by receiver Michael Floyd, who was so literally unstoppable that at one point the only thing Michigan cornerback J.T. Floyd could do to stop him was hold his jersey while the Irish receiver streaked past him for what would have been a sure touchdown. Floyd ended the game with 159 yards on 12 receptions, but no scores. Those touchdowns went to Theo Riddick (62 yards, two touchdowns) and T.J. Jones (28 yards, one touchdown), two of the four Irish receivers that combined for the other 156 yards of Rees' 315-yard total.
When the Irish weren't passing all over the Wolverines' leaky secondary, they were enjoying a productive day on the ground. Cierre Wood led the way with 134 yards and a touchdown and Jonas Gray added 66 yards.
This was all opposite a Wolverines offense that didn't string together a drive of longer than five plays all night and was constantly beaten in the trenches en route to just 13 rushing yards from players not named Denard Robinson. Luckily the Michigan defense made enough plays to keep the Wolverines within a couple scores going in to the fourth quarter.
After allowing the Irish to march down the field for a quick 14-point lead, the Michigan defense held the Irish to just 10 more points over the second, third and most of the fourth quarter. Five forced turnovers also helped keep the Irish offense out of the end zone.
However, in the end the game came down to the same person it has for the Wolverines since the beginning of last year: Denard Robinson.
What the junior quarterback was able to accomplish in the fourth quarter is incredible, and doubly so when judged against the horrendous performance that preceded it. Robinson kicked off the comeback by finding Hemingway open over the middle and delivering an excellent throw as a Notre Dame defender tried to drag Robinson down by his legs. After a QB keeper, Robinson finished the job by picking up a Stephen Hopkins fumble on a goal-line dive and then running it in to cut the deficit to 10.
The next drive Robinson struck again, throwing an outside-shoulder fade to Jeremy Gallon that wasn't nearly outside-shoulder enough. Gallon, however, played the under-thrown ball perfectly and brought the Wolverines within three.
When the Wolverines got the ball back things seemed to take a turn for the worse as Robinson threw an interception in the end zone to squander the scoring opportunity, but the game was still far from over. The Wolverines got the ball back with less than 2:30 remaining on the clock and went 58 yards in five plays, capped by a magnificent 21-yard screen pass to Vincent Smith for the lead.
The Irish answered back quickly and authoritatively, rolling 61 yards in four plays and scoring on a 29-yard pass to a wide-open Riddick. An extra point and a touchback on the ensuing kickoff seemed to seal the Wolverines' fate, as there was only 30 seconds remaining.
Robinson only needed three plays.
After an incomplete pass, Robinson connected with Gallon for a long pass that got the Wolverines deep into Notre Dame territory, and with time for only one play head coach Brady Hoke went for the win. Robinson delivered another fade to the same spot in the end zone that Gallon had caught a touchdown earlier, and this time Roy Roundtree hauled in his first catch of the game with two seconds left to give the Wolverines the victory.
This is the third straight year the Wolverines have beaten the Irish in the waning moments, but the 17-point collapse will sting much more than the previous two losses. If you see ND coach Brian Kelly this week, I would give him a wider berth than normal. You know that man is just going to seethe with anger for days.
The prognosis for the rest of the Michigan season looks much less rosy than it did after Week 1:
First, Robinson's fourth-quarter heroics cannot cover up the fact that for large chunks of the game he looked tentative and lost in an offense that he couldn't execute and that didn't look to exploit the mismatches that his talents open up. Robinson completed just 11 of his 24 pass attempts, and while four of his completions were for touchdowns, three of his attempts were intercepted by the Irish. What's worse is that quite a few of the passes that Robinson threw—whether complete or not—were poorly placed or under thrown. Had it not been for a number of great plays by the wide receivers, that number of completions could easily have been just half of what it was.
There is no denying that Robinson might be the most dangerous singular force in college football, but not all teams are going to give Michigan the number of opportunities that it needed to put together a 17-point, fourth-quarter comeback.
Second, the 100-yard game by Robinson on the ground covers up a serious problem in the Wolverines offense: There still seems to be no running back capable of contributing in a consistent way in the offense. After rushing for 80 yards and a score in Week 1, Fitzgerald Toussaint was completely absent from the game against Notre Dame. His backup in Week 1, Michael Shaw, got two carries and managed to lose three yards on them. Finally, big back Stephen Hopkins was given five carries, and all Michigan got from him was 10 yards and a fumble that was fortunate Robinson made a play on.
Much of this can be attributed to the offensive line getting thoroughly manhandled at the point of attack. Irish defenders consistently closed running lanes, controlled offensive linemen and contained Robinson.
Third, while the Wolverines defense played well enough to get the win, it was also given a number of lucky breaks with which to capitalize on. Everyone knows that you make your own luck, but sometimes it is just out of your hands when Tommy Rees locks on to Michael Floyd so hard that he throws behind Floyd into double coverage. That was just one of the turnovers the Irish self-inflicted while staring down a possible scoring attempt.
When the Irish offensive players weren't shooting themselves in the foot, they were picking up six yards per rush and eight yards per pass attempt and completing 50 percent of the third-down attempts. Michigan has to be given some credit for coming up with the turnovers—think of all the "should have been..." turnovers last year's Michigan defense let slip away—but counting on turnovers is a tough way to plan defensive strategy.
A win is a win, but a poor showing is still a poor showing, even if there are fireworks at the end. After this game Michigan is a 2-0 team that looks more like it will go 6-6 than 8-4. Denard Robinson looks more like his lost freshman self than the record-setting sophomore incarnation. All the while the defense looks nearly as porous as it did last year.
On the bright side, Michigan has games against Eastern Michigan and Minnesota sandwiched around what should be a tough game against Hoke's old team, San Diego State. This will give the Wolverines time to improve, and it seems likely that a team in a new system will improve at a greater rate than a team in an established system. How much this team improves both offensively and defensively will be the key to determining whether the Wolverines can even be a .500 team in Big Ten play.
Few wins are as sweet as a fourth-quarter comeback against a rival in a game you had no business winning, but pretty soon that will wear off and the Wolverines will have to face down the rest of the season, one that looks like a much stiffer challenge for Brady Hoke's crew in his first year than it did a few days ago.
No matter, Wolverine fans. You'll always have Sept. 10 under the lights. They can't ever take that from you*.
*Guarantee not applicable in Columbus.