First night game at the Big House turns into something to remember
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- If this is what a night game is at Michigan Stadium, let there be another one next week, next month and next year.
Let 114,804 crazies turn the Big House into a Big Glowing Bowl of Maize, let the p.a. blare "Welcome to the Jungle," let the plane fly over and the parachutists land on the field.
But most importantly, let us keep watching Notre Dame-Michigan games like this one.
Who cares if both teams are unranked, and should probably stay that way? Sometimes you just want to watch two rivals march up and down the field in a haze of broken tackles, busted coverages, interceptions and fumbles. Sometimes, you want to watch the home team get hammered for three quarters, then bring the crowd back to life, then deflate them all over again, only to pull out a spectacularly improbable victory.
Sometimes you want to watch three touchdowns in the last 72 seconds, each one more ridiculous than the last.
"I had fun," Wolverines coach Brady Hoke deadpanned after his team rallied from a 24-7 fourth-quarter deficit to top the Fighting Irish, 35-31, on a 16-yard Denard Robinson touchdown pass with two seconds left.
We'd seen similar versions of this story before. Each of the past two years in fact, Michigan won wild shootouts over Notre Dame -- each one by four points. But all participants agreed this edition took the cake in turns of atmosphere, wild momentum swings and just plain fun.
"I've never been part of a game like this. I don't think anyone on this team has," said Wolverines defensive lineman Mike Martin. "It was the most exciting game I've ever played in."
Before we explore why, let us agree beforehand not to draw any grand conclusions from Saturday's result. Two years ago, Wolverines quarterback Tate Forcier came out of this game looking like a superstar. He's now sitting out at San Jose State. Robinson racked up 502 yards in last year's game in what seemed a breakthrough for third-year coach Rich Rodriguez. He was fired after the season.
The truth is, for most of the game, Notre Dame looked like a good team. Not just "the-media-overhypes-Notre-Dame-every-year" good, but visibly, physically superior. Its offensive line manhandled the Wolverines, clearing gaping holes for their running backs and staving off blitzers. Receiver Michael Floyd was, well, Michael Floyd (13 catches, 159 yards). And the Irish defense held Michigan to six first downs through the first three quarters. Notre Dame had outgained the Wolverines 268-90 to that point.
And yet here we are, with Michigan now 2-0 and Notre Dame now 0-2.
"It's devastating," said Floyd. "It's hard to take this one in."
Just like last week against USF, much of the Irish's misery was self-inflicted. They committed another five turnovers. The rest of it, you can chalk up to Robinson, who finished with 446 total yards and five total touchdowns -- 338 of those yards and four of those scores through the air. What makes that even more remarkable is that after three quarters, the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year had completed just four passes and thrown two interceptions.
The first play of the fourth quarter nearly brought more disaster. On third and goal from the Irish 1-yard-ine, Michigan running back Stephen Hopkins coughed up the ball. Somehow it sat there just long enough for Robinson to pick it up, run it into the end zone with and cut the score to 24-14. He'd finally begun to find his mojo a few plays earlier, throwing a 77-yard pass to Junior Hemingway with Irish defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore wrapped around his ankles, then buying time with no one open and dashing 7 yards to set up the score. Four minutes later he threw a 14-yard scoring strike to Jeremy Gallon to cut it to 24-21.
"It's not over until you see '0:00' on the clock," he kept repeating afterward.
Still, at that point, it seemed the Irish would hang on, simply because the Wolverines couldn't stop them. Running backs Cierre Wood (25 carries, 134 yards) and Jonas Gray (six carries, 66 yards) continually gashed Michigan's oft-maligned defense. When quarterback Tommy Rees wasn't throwing to Floyd, he was spreading the ball around to Theo Riddick or tight end Tyer Eifert.
But occasionally Rees would find another target -- like, say, the ground. On first and goal from the Wolverines' 7 with 6:08 left, the newly anointed starter cocked his arm to throw and the ball slipped out of his hand. Ryan Van Bergen pounced on it. It marked his third turnover of the night and, amazingly, Notre Dame's fifth turnover inside its opponent's 10-yard line this season. Because of those mistakes, Brian Kelly's team has now lost consecutive games in which it gained more than 500 yards -- agonizing even by Notre Dame fans' standards.
"We're not good enough," Kelly said afterward. "... I mean across the board. It's turnovers, it's subpar special teams play, it's the inability to make a stop, it's all of those things."
Kelly's team still had multiple chances to win even after Rees' unforced fumble. On Michigan's ensuing possession, its quarterback basically played a game of jump ball against the Irish. His first lob into traffic resulted in a 45-yard gain for receiver Junior Hemingway. The second, Notre Dame cornerback Robert Blanton picked off in the end zone.
But Rees and the Irish went three-and-out, after which Robinson accounted for all 58 yards of a one-minute touchdown drive that put the Wolverines up 28-24 with 1:04 left. An entire stadium full of yellow pom-poms erupted. Somehow, amazingly, Michigan was going to pull this one out.
But then Rees -- who finished an impressive 27-of-39 for 315 yards and three touchdowns -- led his team right back down the field, throwing a 29-yard touchdown to a wide open Riddick with 30 seconds left. You've never heard 114,000 people so quiet.
And you've never heard them as elated as they were just a few moments later when Robinson threw down field to a completely uncovered Gallon, who eluded seemingly the entire Irish secondary on his way to a 64-yard-gain. With eight seconds left, Michigan was well in range for a game-tying field goal. But Hoke, with two timeouts in his pocket, didn't think twice about giving Robinson one more shot at the end zone.
"If Denard had scrambled and gotten tackled, I [still] might have gone for the touchdown to win," he said. "Why not?"
He didn't need the extra play. Robinson lofted a perfect 16-yard throw to Roy Roundtree in the end zone. He caught in despite Irish defender Gary Gray draping himself over Roundtree.
Two seconds and one kickoff later, the game was over and the entire crowd was singing along to Taio Cruz's "Dynamite." They stayed well after the final gun to keep soaking in the night.
"We knew it was going to be crazy," said Robinson. "But when we walked in and everyone had pom-poms and maize on, it was like, 'Wow.'"
Hoke called it "a great event." On the flip side, he also conceded that Michigan is "a long ways away" from returning to the level of program he envisions. Over in the other interview room, an exasperated Kelly expressed his empathy for a group of Irish players that "are battling their butts off," and "can be a good team," but have no wins to show for it.
There's a good chance Notre Dame will end up with a better record than Michigan, just as it has the past two seasons. And neither squad will likely appear in a BCS bowl this January. But you never would have known it watching the Michigan band blare "Hail to the Victors" and 114,804 people swaying under the lights, trying to grasp what they'd just witnessed.
By all means, let's do this again sometime.