Despite a less-than-stellar start, Michigan and its defense were celebrating at the end of the game. (John T. Greilick/The Detroit News)
South Bend, Ind. -- You got the feeling it might be a long day for the Michigan defense when Notre Dame scored three touchdowns on its opening drive.
And that did prove to be a bit of foreshadowing in this four-hour, slapstick comedy of errors -- a 28-24 thriller that ended with the Wolverines whooping and hollering on the turf inside Notre Dame Stadium.
Michigan's defense did what it could Saturday, and they kept doing it. And thanks to Denard Robinson -- the world's fastest eraser, the way he makes mistakes disappear -- that was just enough to get the job done.
"It was ugly," senior linebacker Obi Ezeh said, assessing the damage after these two teams combined for 1,067 yards of total offense but only52 points. "But nobody says it's got to be perfect out there. You've just got to get the win."
So say this about the Wolverines after their second last-minute win over the Irish in as many years: As ugly as it looks on defense at times -- and we didn't expect any different given the injuries and inexperience, did we? -- they're still undefeated.
"We made some errors on defense," said Robinson, who capped the winning drive with a 2-yard plunge with 27 seconds left. "But we knew the defense had our back all game and we had to have their backs."
That 12-play, 72-yard scoring march, answered Notre Dame's apparent killing blow, a 95-yard bomb with 3:41 left from Dayne Crist to tight end Kyle Rudolph, who inexplicably got behind backpedaling safety Cam Gordon, a redshirt freshman, on the play.
Defensive coordinator Greg Robinson said he didn't say anything to Gordon after that play other than, " 'Let's go. Keep your head up, and let's roll.' Cam's gonna be a real good football player. He did a lot of good things today."
His defense did some good things, too, though there were some glaring breakdowns and there's little doubt this would've turned out differently for the Wolverines if the Irish hadn't lost Crist to injury for most of the first half.
Notre Dame took the opening kickoff and marched 71 yards on 13 plays to take a 7-0 lead on Crist's 1-yard keeper. On the previous play, he watched as Rudolph's apparent touchdown catch was overturned by replay -- the tight end stepped out of bounds with the football just inches from the goal line. A few plays before that, Crist nearly scored on a 12-yard scramble, only to have the play called back by a clipping penalty.
And that's when he suffered a head injury that left him with blurred vision and an uncomfortable vantage point from the sideline for the rest of the half.
Michigan nose tackle Mike Martin was asked how the game changed with Crist went out and his freshman backup, Tommy Rees, got a quick hook from Brian Kelly after throwing a bad interception on a flea-flicker. (Memo to Kelly: Might want to save the trick plays for the starters next time.)
"That No. 16, I don't know what his name is," Martin began, before he was reminded that No. 16 also happens to be Joe Montana's son, Nate.
"Oh, yeah," Martin said, laughing, as he continued, "he's more of a runner, so we had to be aware of that."
If the Wolverines weren't aware before that Montana's kid looked every bit like a third-string former walk-on, they were by halftime, when they trotted off with a 21-7 lead despite Notre Dame running 49 offensive plays. The seven drives Notre Dame played without Crist in the first half produced five punts and two turnovers.
An hour later, though, Crist was back and the Wolverines were on their heels, as the offense stalled and the special teams floundered and the big plays started to take their toll.
A 53-yard touchdown pass from Crist to freshman T.J. Jones on Notre Dame's second play of the third quarter brought the rain-dampened crowd to life. (Never mind that convenient missed replay review of Jones dropping the ball at the 1 as he celebrated prematurely.) A short field goal on the next possession pulled the Irish to within 21-17.
But as Michigan squandered chances to add to their lead with a pair of missed field goals and three drives with no first downs in the second half, the defense responded.
"I thought we kept us in the game," Robinson said. "We played well for a long period of time. Unfortunately, the one play really, really jumps out."
That's how it usually works. And it was more than just the one play.
Michigan did stop the Irish on all four third-down conversion attempts in the second half. The Wolverines also finished with three interceptions, five tackles for loss and the game's only sack.
No breaks from the officials
And not that they needed any excuses in the end, but while the Irish did a fine job of holding Martin at bay, it sure looked like they did it by holding him -- illegally, but unpunished -- for most of the game. Rich Rodriguez was busy griping about it to the Big Ten officiating crew all afternoon.
"Man, it was tough," Martin said. "There was one play where the ref gave 59 (left guard Chris Stewart) a warning. He held the heck out of me and I looked at the ref and he just went over to 59 and was like, 'Hey, watch it.' And I'm like, 'This isn't like a speeding ticket, where you get a warning!' But that's something you just can't control. You've got to keep playing. And that's what we did."
Right up until the final play, a Hail Mary attempt in a place that has seen its share of final prayers answered. Another questionable flag for a late hit gave the Irish a chance at one last shot at the end zone from the Michigan 27. Robinson had seven defensive backs on the field, and, by my count, four of them were freshmen.
"I was a little concerned, but we've practiced that play over and over," said sophomore safety Jordan Kovacs, who finished with 10 tackles and an interception. "It was kind of scary that they made it that far, but they threw it out of the end zone."
Only then could the defense celebrate what it had done, rather than what it hadn't. Most of that will get overlooked after this one, especially after another show-stopping performance by the Wolverines' quarterback.
"But what won't be overlooked," Greg Robinson said, "is that we won."