'Only the beginning': UM struggles in opening loss at Notre Dame
South Bend, Ind. — They had talked and talked and talked positively with high hopes throughout the offseason and preseason camp. Michigan's confidence was soaring entering the season, and the Wolverines said the opener against Notre Dame would give them a strong indication of where this team is.
They might want to rethink putting that much stock in this first game, because across the board, the 14th-ranked Wolverines looked, at times, woefully inefficient and poorly prepared in a loss at No. 12 Notre Dame.
The Irish prevailed, 24-17, Saturday night in Notre Dame Stadium, extending Michigan’s drought of losses on the road against ranked teams. The Wolverines are now 0-17 against top-25 teams since beating then-No. 2 Notre Dame in 2006.
Michigan struggled at some point through the game in every phase.
The Wolverines’ first touchdown came on a kickoff return from Ambry Thomas and the offense didn’t score a touchdown until 2:16 left in the game on a 3-yard run by Karan Higdon. The defense had critical drive-extending penalties in the first half that gave the Irish new life and 21 points.
But the defense regained its form in the second half, holding the Irish to 69 yards and three points.
“To be honest, I’m not really sure where they beat us,” senior defensive end Chase Winovich said. “Still kind of confused. I came in the locker room and looked around and I was kind of confused how we lost that game because I didn’t feel like they had dominated us in any aspect, but, ultimately, they made plays when they needed to. That’s a credit to them. They limited turnovers. They had one, and we were unable to capitalize off it. We had a lot of penalties.”
It wasn’t the debut quarterback Shea Patterson could have imagined. But then again, the offensive line, which had boasted of renewed confidence under first-year coach Ed Warinner, revealed itself as the biggest question mark on the team — as expected — and collapsed on multiple occasions.
Patterson missed plays in the fourth quarter because of leg cramping — Dylan McCaffrey was the next quarterback in — but he returned with five minutes left and led the best drive of the game for the Wolverines. McCaffrey started the drive, but Patterson was the catalyst in the seven-play, 80-yard drive that culminated with Higdon's score to pull Michigan within 24-17 with 2:18 left.
Michigan got the ball back with 1:48 remaining and a chance to tie the game, but Patterson fumbled with 46 seconds left. He looked distraught lying on the field, and finished 20-for-30 passing for 227 yards in his Michigan debut.
“It’s a long season,” said Patterson, who transferred last December from Ole Miss. “Obviously, we don’t want to start off like that. There’s always room to grow. We’re going to look at the tape and get better every single week.”
The Wolverines had 307 total yards of offense and mustered only 58 rushing yards. They also had seven penalties for 52 yards. Notre Dame had 302 total yards and was 7-for-15 on third down and 1-for-1 on fourth down. Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush threw for 170 yards and a touchdown and led the team with 59 yards on 19 carries.
“I thought he played with an edge to him, a confidence,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “He got the game ball tonight. He really had an energy to him, which brought the group with him.”
Michigan trailed 21-10 at halftime and opened the second half with promise. Patterson completed a 52-yard pass to Nico Collins on the first play of the half after a delay of game penalty to the Notre Dame 28-yard line. Michigan was going to settle for a 34-yard field goal attempt by Quinn Nordin when holder Will Hart dropped the snap.
The Wolverines quickly responded when Winovich hurried Wimbush and he was intercepted by Brandon Watson. Michigan’s offense generated very little and turned the ball over on downs.
Notre Dame added a 48-yard field goal to build 24-10 lead on a drive that had what looked like another touchdown nullified because of an illegible receiver.
If the Wolverines can find a silver lining, it was that the defense played better in the second half.
“We were stopping the run well,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Brandon Wimbush made some big plays throughout the game running the ball, getting out of the pocket. He played a heck of a ball game. I thought we limited that in the second half.”
Winovich said recently that this opener at Notre Dame would indicate the trajectory of the team.
“Sometimes quotes don’t age very well,” Winovich said. “It’s one of those things, if there’s anything about the trajectory, I’d say we were battling out there and sometimes things don’t go your way.
“That’s life, that’s football on the road under the lights. Just going to move on, and we’re going to keep at it. We’re coming together. In the locker room, one thing I did note, there wasn’t a lot of blaming. There wasn’t like pointing fingers. The defense still feels like going into the game we had some different expectations, but at the end of the day, you give up 24 points, it puts a lot of pressure on your offense. It’s on us.”
The Irish set the tone early by taking advantage of three critical penalties by Michigan’s defense on each of their first-half scoring drives. The Irish outgained Michigan 233-90 in the first half and had 148 yards passing. Michigan had five penalties for 42 yards.
The Irish took a quick 14-0 lead, decimating the Michigan defense for 143 yards. Notre Dame had eight first downs in that span, and the Wolverines had two critical penalties, including a targeting call on Josh Metellus on a third-down play from the Irish 5-yard line during their second possession.
Bottom line, the Wolverines know there were plenty of issues but vow one game and one loss won’t derail them.
“We played hard, we played all four quarters,” Higdon said. “We can’t let this game define us. This is only the beginning. We’ve got another game next week and we’ve got to get back to the drawing board.”