Bob Wojnowski: UM ends Notre Dame rivalry with a resounding thud

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

South Bend, Ind. — So maybe Notre Dame did Michigan a favor, halting a rivalry steeped in outdated lore. The Irish slapped one final indignity on the Wolverines and slapped it hard, and this will leave a mark.

This was the biggest embarrassment of Brady Hoke’s regime, as Michigan was beaten on the inside, on the outside and on the sideline. On a brutal, brutal day for the Big Ten, the Wolverines landed the honors of largest humiliation.

The Irish rolled to a 31-0 victory Saturday night, and all of the Wolverines’ bad habits were on horrific display. The offensive line couldn’t hold its ground. The defensive line couldn’t get near Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson, who deftly picked apart a battered secondary. Devin Gardner buckled again in the face of pressure, with three interceptions and a fumble.

Just to complete the disaster, cornerback Raymon Taylor suffered a knee injury and receiver Devin Funchess got banged up late in the game and was limping afterward on an apparent sore ankle. Should Gardner and Funchess have been on the field late in a blowout? Nope, a mistake you hope Hoke doesn’t regret.

There’s no telling where the Wolverines go from here, but the coaching staff had better dig deeper for answers after Michigan suffered its first shutout in 30 years. Hoke has to find a way to patch his team up, because this is the type of beating that makes you assess the direction of a program. This was supposed to be a season of teeth-grinding determination, and all we saw was more teeth-bashing.

“It was a total butt-kicking all the way around that we all took,” Hoke said. “We will bounce back, because this is a very resilient, hard-working group of young men who know what it takes to win.”

One loss doesn’t destroy a season, unless you’re talking about the larger view of the Big Ten, which was absolutely decimated Saturday. Michigan State was tough for a half, then got swamped by Oregon, 46-27. Ohio State, already without its star quarterback, lost at home to Virginia Tech, 35-21. Northwestern lost at home to Northern Illinois, and even Central Michigan jumped on the pile, winning at Purdue.

Sour dose of reality

Fanciful talk of national-title contention for this conference can stop right now, to prevent more laughter. And talk of any type of championship for Michigan is lunacy right now. The final indignity came on the final play, when Gardner heaved the ball and was clobbered as the clock expired. Notre Dame’s Elijah Shumate intercepted it and raced to the end zone as the crowd went bonkers. Only the late-hit penalty suffered by Gardner wiped out the touchdown, otherwise Notre Dame would have hung a 38-0 humbling.

I suppose it’s worth noting Michigan slapped a couple 38-0 pastings on Notre Dame in the past 10 years, and had won four of five in the rivalry. That’s partly why the Irish and Brian Kelly wanted this one badly and showed it. It would be nice to see the Wolverines show how badly they want something, especially in a hostile environment. Michigan still doesn’t have a signature road victory in Hoke’s four seasons.

“It feels great to beat Michigan,” Kelly said. “It feels great that we’re the first team in the history of Notre Dame football to shut out a Michigan team. Our kids can take that with them.”

They can take it into perpetuity if the Michigan-Notre Dame series never resumes, and there are no plans to resurrect it. But all the sniping and chicken talk is the least of Michigan’s concerns right now.

Hoke and his staff need to sharpen their focus, because going back to last season’s 7-6 collapse, can you define one thing the Wolverines consistently do well? I mean, just one thing?

Their offensive line is young, and when Michigan fell behind, Notre Dame blitzed Gardner into utter retreat. New coordinator Doug Nussmeier was supposed to refine the senior quarterback, but to say it’s a work in progress is being kind.

Secondary exploited

Hoke talked vaguely before the game of an apparent ankle injury to Jabrill Peppers, and the freshman defensive back suited up but didn’t play. Chuckle if you wish about the need for a freshman’s impact, but the Wolverines lost Taylor early in the game and the secondary got plucked to pieces. Sophomore Jourdan Lewis committed two pass-interference penalties when the outcome was still in doubt, and Golson kept firing, completing 23 of 34 for 226 yards.

The secondary was supposed to be a strength, but not even close on this night. The defensive line was supposed to be deep and tough, but had no antidote for Golson’s elusiveness. The Wolverines stacked the line to stuff the run, and that part worked. They actually outrushed the Irish 100-54 and somehow outgained them 289-280, but Golson was the difference, committing no turnovers.

If Gardner commits four turnovers again, the Wolverines have no chance. They certainly can’t look past anyone, beginning with Miami (Ohio) next week.

Asked if he considered pulling Gardner during the game, Hoke answered quickly.

“No, he’s our quarterback,” he said. “Unless he somehow doesn’t come to work every day, doesn’t come to learn, all those things, he’s our quarterback. … I don’t think he slipped into all those habits. He’s a better quarterback than he demonstrated.”

The Wolverines talked afterward about bouncing back, about all their Big Ten goals still being intact. And the conference is such a sloppy mess, who knows where the dangers lurk, although Michigan State remains the team to beat.

Michigan still doesn’t have any idea what type of team it can become, and that should be unsettling. The only thing we know for sure is, this series is over, for better and for worse.