The need to get off to a strong start to begin the 2018 season was on the minds of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish when they faced a Top 25 opponent in the Michigan Wolverines on Saturday night. After their first 60 minutes of action, the Irish passed the test with a 24-17 victory in front of a raucous home crowd in South Bend.
As is the case with many opening contests, some glitches appeared along the way. However, looking at things from a more positive prism allows for Notre Dame fans to breathe a sigh of relief that the game can be used as a springboard for bigger things, rather than putting the team in an immediate hole.
Below are some key aspects of the contest:
The scouting reports for this matchup gave the defensive edge to the Wolverines, yet it was the Irish that delivered when it counted. Michigan actually outgained Notre Dame in yardage, 307-302, but most of that came during the second half after they’d been held to just 66 net yards in the first two quarters.
That first half domination was perhaps most evident in the fact that the lone Wolverine touchdown during the first 30 minutes came on a 99-yard kickoff return. The latter came with just 2:18 to go in the game, but other attempts were either stopped through key sacks or other clutch stops that forced Michigan field goal attempts.
Jump-Starting the Process
The overall play of the defense was aided by the strong first half effort by the Irish offense. By the time the opening two quarters had come to an end, Brian Kelly’s squad had collected 139 yards through the passing game. That came within 11 yards of the average amount the Wolverines had allowed per game last season, with Wimbush quieting down in that department by finishing with 170 passing yards.
On three of their first four possessions, Notre Dame reached the end zone. With respect to the first two scores, they wasted little time in doing so on drives of 75 and 96 yards, respectively. Both of those were aided immeasurably by Brandon Wimbush going to the air after the running game stalled.
Exploiting Self-Inflicted Wounds
Michigan fell victim to penalties that proved to be costly, ending the evening with seven miscues on the night. The first key error actually came on a pass connection between Wimbush and Alize Mack in the first quarter. It was pinned on Wolverine strong safety Josh Metellus, who delivered a blow to the head of Mack and was tossed from the game for targeting. His replacement later lost a leap for a Wimbush pass to Chris Finke in the end zone that gave the Irish a 14-0 lead.
One quarter later, Notre Dame appeared destined to settle for a field goal and a 17-3 lead after coming up short on third-and-goal from the Michigan eight. That changed when Wolverine defensive end Chase Winovich was nailed for roughing the quarterback on the play, which led one play later to Armstrong’s second score of the game and a 21-3 advantage.
Entering this game, there was no questions directed at the running abilities of Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush. Such concerns focused on his inconsistencies in the passing department, but Wimbush managed to quiet such matters, at least in the early going. That’s because he not only led the team in rushing with 59 yards, but also put up those 170 yards through the air.
Wimbush gave Notre Dame that 14-0 lead less than eight minutes into the game by connecting with Finke. Ironically, the Irish’s two rushing touchdowns came when the more pass-friendly Ian Book happened to behind center for the Irish. Both of those scores happened to occur by way of the legs of Jafar Armstrong.
While Jerry Tillery’s strong night included a key sack and a forced fumble, one name that was heard all evening was that of linebacker Te’von Coney. Picking up where he had left off last season, Coney ended his busy night by leading the team in tackles with 10. In the third quarter, his intense pressure on Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson resulted in an Irish interception.
Saving the best for last, Coney then picked up a Michigan fumble that Tillery had forced in the final minute to clinch the contest. The linebacker has had some off-the-field issues during his time in South Bend, but more performances like this one will undoubtedly help his NFL Draft status rise with each passing game.
The Irish will be able to stay at home next Saturday, but presumably have a much-less strenuous contest on tap. That’s because the opponent is in-state foe in Ball State. The Cardinals coasted to an easy 42-6 victory over a weak Central Connecticut squad on Thursday night. While that hardly prepares them for a trip to South Bend, it’s a confidence boost after a miserable 2-10 campaign in 2017 that was plagued by a flood of injuries.