During the early stages of the post-game autopsy, while it was clear there were plenty of negatives to focus on in Michigan’s season-opening loss — aside from the “this is a long season” and the “this isn’t the end” comments — fifth-year senior defensive end Chase Winovich shined some light on a positive.
The defense that gave up 21 first-half points in Notre Dame’s 24-17 victory at Notre Dame Stadium Saturday night, rebounded in the second half to hold the Irish to 69 yards and three points. With that defensive effort in the second half, which included a third-quarter interception, Michigan’s offense had a chance to make a final drive for the win.
“For me, personally, I don’t know if I could hit him anymore,” Winovich said of Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush, who threw for 170 yards and rushed for 59 more. “At some points, I was pitching a tent in the backfield. I think I had eight or nine quarterback hits. There was a sense we were still in control.
“We didn’t falter, and that’s a good sign for things to come. It’s important to know, I think that’s different than last year. Last year, things went awry — you’d see it in the South Carolina (bowl) game and you’d see it at other points. Things went astray. We had that mindset last year, I think (the Irish) could have really done some damage on us. This year I think it was opposite. We had given up some points, but we had come together and regrouped and went back out there to do what we had to do, trying to give our offense the best chance to win.”
Coming off an 8-5 season, there was some overhaul of the offensive coaching staff and a new strength coach, Ben Herbert, injected a different spirit into the players. There also was the arrival of a new quarterback, Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson, who made his way to Ann Arbor with 10 starts under his belt and plenty of positives that suddenly made the Wolverines’ offense — which has been defined the last several years by an offensive line that just hasn’t been able to protect or get a push consistently — seem like it could quickly go to the next level.
And this may have been why the players spoke with a renewed level of confidence this camp heading into the opener at Notre Dame. This game, they said, would reveal plenty about who they are. Winovich even said it would offer a trajectory of where this team is going.
“Sometimes quotes don’t age very well,” Winovich said when asked about that comment. “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 Detroit News' Angelique S. Chengelis and Bob Wojnowski discuss Michigan's season-opening loss. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
Corrections, he said, must be made. That’s obvious. What wasn’t obvious to Winovich was just what exactly happened.
“I didn’t feel unprepared,” Winovich said. “It was one of those things where we come off the sideline, it was kind of like, ‘Where did we go wrong?’ I didn’t feel they were dominating. I didn’t feel their presence was overwhelming to us. They made plays to beat us.”
For Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, the Wolverines have now gone 9-9 the last 18 games after starting 19-3 when he took over in 2015. Michigan has lost its last four games, dating back to last season, and has lost 17 straight road games against top-25 opponents.
Harbaugh was asked if the Notre Dame loss felt like a setback.
“It was a big opening game,” he said. “Did not come out the way we wanted.”
But was it a setback one game into the season?
“It’s a beginning for us,” he said. “We’re not treating it like the end.”
When asked about the identity of an offense that struggled — still — behind a line that has plenty of rough edges and has to be tweaked, Harbaugh again said the offense is at the “beginning.”
“We’ve got to dig deep,” Harbaugh said. “We’ve got no excuses. Credit to Notre Dame and move on to the next week.”
Patterson was devastated after he fumbled away Michigan’s last-ditch effort to tie or win the game. He detailed his miscues during the game but didn’t highlight many of the positives. He finished 20 of 30 passing for 227 yards with an interception and was sacked three times.
But after returning from severe cramping, he led an 80-yard scoring drive and got the ball back with 1:48 left in the game with a chance to orchestrate the winning drive when he fumbled with 46 seconds remaining.
“It was our first game,” Patterson said. “There’s a lot of room to grow. Not every offense comes out firing the first week. We have so many weapons.
“It’s a long season. 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.”