Monday, September 12, 2011

Good Protestants Always Win in the End

I'm actually Catholic, but I always root for Michigan over Notre Dame and despise the Fighting Irish as much as the next fan. Well, not so much despise as have a begrudging respect for them.

There's no question that Notre Dame has some of the greatest tradition in college football, but sometimes the fans' attitude that "every Catholic in the country roots for Notre Dame" is a little insulting. Their "Touchdown Jesus" is also slightly blasphemous. Personally, I think that God doesn't give a fig about college football. It's a man-made sport that, yes, we love, but the play on the field has nothing to do with religion, nor should it. So the notion that God is on Notre Dame's side simply because they're a Catholic university doesn't make a whole lot of sense. (I mean, what happens when Notre Dame plays Boston College, which is also Catholic?) If the game on September 10 was any indication of whose "side" God was on, it wasn't Notre Dame. That shouldn't be discouraging to Irish fans or anyone of religious implication. By all means, you can care about college football, but God doesn't.

Despite my immense respect, their sort of sacrilegious attitude is one of my biggest personal problems with Notre Dame—and particularly, their fans. As a Catholic, I'm doubly offended. (The other problem that I have is the ever growing insinuation that Notre Dame's players are generally getting more and more thuggish.) However, I should say that the Fighting Irish conducted themselves very well in Michigan Stadium's first night game. In one of the most anticipated games that turned out to be one of the most exciting, the game came down to the final two seconds of play. It was a thriller that is almost certain to become an instant classic.

The Irish dominated the first half of the game. They were up two touchdowns in the first quarter, as the Notre Dame offense was rolling under sophomore Tommy Rees, and the Irish defense stopped the Wolverines and quarterback Denard Robinson cold. By halftime, the score was 17-7 in favor of Notre Dame. Michigan's only touchdown in the first half came from wide receiver Junior Hemingway, who stretched out and knocked over the pylon in a dive to the endzone. The Wolverines only had 90 yards of offense in the first half. Notre Dame had 268.

Michigan really didn't start its comeback until the first play of the fourth quarter. The Wolverines had pushed the ball down the field to the Notre Dame goal line, but Hoke and Denard Robinson opted to wait for the clock to stop for the quarter break before punching it in. On the run, the ball was knocked loose from Michigan running back Stephen Hopkins in the pile-up. Then, Denard Robinson picked it up and ran one yard into the endzone.

Luck of the Irish? Try the Luck of the Wolverines.

The rest of the fourth quarter was a battle. Michigan produced more than 200 yards of offense in the fourth quarter alone. Down 24-21, they finally took the lead when Vincent Smith scored on a beautiful screen pass and by dodging some Irish tackles to make the score 28-24. With just over a minute left, Notre Dame flew down the field, and Tommy Rees completed a pass to Irish wideout Theo Riddick who scored a touchdown.

Then came the magic. In one of the most improbable scenarios ever to happen in college football, the Wolverines needed to score with only thirty seconds on the clock. The Irish kicked the ball into the endzone on the kickoff, preventing any type of return. Michigan had to go 80 yards in half a minute. Denard's first pass was incomplete, but his second was caught by a wide-open Jeremy Gallon who cut back across the field and stepped out of bounds at the Notre Dame 15-yard line. With eight seconds left, the score was 31-28. All Michigan needed to do was kick a field goal to tie the game and go into overtime.

Instead, Brady Hoke took a shot. He still had two timeouts, and eight seconds was enough time to try for the endzone at least once. The ball was snapped, and Denard rolled out and threw a pass to Roy Roundtree in the endzone. Pass interference by Notre Dame, but Roundtree caught it anyway, and Hoke declined the penalty. That meant Michigan just scored a touchdown to put them up 35-31 with two seconds (00:02) left in the game. The stadium exploded as the fans went crazy.

Michigan purposefully squibbed the kickoff and Notre Dame scrambled to the ball, but the Wolverines knocked it out of their hands and it bounced back to the endzone. Michigan picked it up and ran for the goal line, but Notre Dame hit from behind and knocked the ball out of their hands. It bounced out of the endzone. There was no safety call or anything. The clock had run out, and Michigan had won. The Big House was rocking.

Everywhere Notre Dame fans were stunned as Michigan had defeated them for the third consecutive time, and this victory, just like all the others, had come within the last minute of play by a game-winning touchdown. When people say "another typical match-up between Michigan and Notre Dame," this is what they mean. Down to the wire, pulse-pounding, adrenaline rushing football, won at the very end. It had happened in 2009 with Tate Forcier. It happened in 2010 when Denard ran it in. Now it happened with a spectacular pass to Roy Roundtree. This was easily one of the most exciting games of the past century.

If you happened to miss the game, or if you just want to re-live it, you can watch the Michigan highlights of the game here. The Big Ten Network has a recap and highlights of both teams here. You can also check out all the game stats for both teams on Michigan's athletic department website.

Understandably, Notre Dame fans were devastated. Some of them have even said that they won't follow Notre Dame anymore because of how frustrating it is to watch them. After all, Rees and Riddick had won the game with their last touchdown, but Michigan simply stepped up and scored a game-winner anyway. "It's never over until there are two zeroes on the clock," Denard Robinson said.

Denard had put up more than 500 total yards in 2010, and this year he reached 446 against Notre Dame. Over three hundred yards passing, one hundred rushing, and almost all of it came in the fourth quarter. On an ESPN Sportscenter recap, Denard sat with Chris Fowler to discuss the Notre Dame-Michigan game. When Denard heard that he had finished with 446 yards that night, he was like, "WHAT??!! Oh, man..."

There was more than enough hype going into this game. It was Michigan Stadium's first ever at night, Desmond Howard was being honored into the college football hall of fame, and ESPN College Gameday came to the campus. On top of all that, Lee Corso picked Michigan to win. When I saw that, I became increasingly worried. As you may or may not know, I had predicted that a win for Michigan against Notre Dame would be possible but not easy, giving them only a 21% chance of victory. I thought that because Michigan had won for the past two years, because the Irish were now coming in 0-1 (which I didn't know at the time of the predictions), because the pressure was far more on second-year coach Brian Kelly than on first-year coach Brady Hoke, and because all the hype was going into this game, Desmond Howard being there, the throwback jerseys on both sides, I thought the Wolverines couldn't handle it. But I was wrong. Michigan staged one of the best comeback fourth-quarter victories in its 132-year history. In the end, the Wolverines gave Desmond a great game to remember, and an even better victory for the fans. Brady Hoke is now 2-0, and Brian Kelly is 0-2.

This was obviously a great win for Brady Hoke, who in his first year is trying to re-establish Michigan football to what it once was. Beating Notre Dame in the Big House's first night game was a great start. It was also a very good test for our defense, which from this game we can see has a long way to go. My hope is that they'll be ready for Michigan State and Ohio State. Interestingly enough, Bo Schembechler always put his best team on the field against Ohio State, and every year you could always count on Michigan to do that. Rich Rodriguez's best Michigan teams were always against Notre Dame, and Michigan consistently played its best game of the season against the Irish, only to be steamrolled by the Spartans and the Buckeyes weeks later.

You could make the argument that we just saw Michigan's best game of the year, or you could argue that we have yet to see Michigan's best team. There were mistakes everywhere against Notre Dame, play wasn't perfect, but the team seemed to have improved from the previous week against Western Michigan, when the Wolverines won 34-10. The implication is that Michigan will improve week-to-week, and by the time they face Ohio State, they'll be ready. It certainly seems like that's possible under Brady Hoke's coaching staff. Let's hope that it is.

Of course, the outlook is not as good for Brian Kelly. The Notre Dame coach has lost for the second straight time to the Wolverines in a game that the Irish were definitely favored to win. You can bet that Irish alumni everywhere are pretty upset with him right now. A 0-2 start is not what they had in mind for this season. If Kelly is not already in the hot seat, he will be very soon. He needs wins, and he needs them now. His Irish will have to defeat Navy, Boston College, and even USC if he expects to keep his job after the season. (Notre Dame also plays rival Stanford at the end of the season. That game is a bit of long shot for the Irish, in terms of coming up with a win, but anything's possible.)

The majority of Irish fans are angry at Kelly because they still judge success by National Championships, which he has yet to win. If the South Florida loss damaged Notre Dame's chances at a BCS title, Michigan destroyed it. A 0-2 record has solidified that the Irish will not be No. 1 this year. They're even farther from going to the BCS.

Last week I had said that Notre Dame would be desperate when they came to Ann Arbor to play Michigan. They were, but I thought that desperation would mean the Irish would win. They didn't. Even desperate, the Irish lost anyway. Now they go on to play Michigan State at home in South Bend. The pressure is even higher. Kelly must win that game. If Notre Dame loses, the possibility of even being bowl-eligible will slip away quickly, and the Irish faithful will be looking for a new coach.

Michigan's next game, on the other hand, is considerably easier. The Wolverines stay at home to play Eastern Michigan and Ron English, who I have said has the toughest job in college football. Despite having little to work with, English had done a fanatistic job in bringing a foundation to the EMU Eagles and trying to change a culture of losing. Now in his third year, the Eagles are now 2-0 (something they have not been since 1989) coming into the Michigan game. The game doesn't expect to be a nail-biter, but I certainly hope Eastern Michigan performs well enough to make a game out of it. That's really all Ron English can ask of his players. Brady Hoke has a lot of respect for English (a Michigan Man), and so do I.

In terms of the rest of Michigan's season, I'm a little surprised at what has transpired. Notre Dame was one of the few losses I expected us to have in our quest to go a respectable 8-4. It would be a good 8-4, because hopefully wins would have come against Michigan State and Ohio State. Now that Michigan has beaten Notre Dame, we have a legitimate shot of starting out 5-0 before we have our first road game against Northwestern. I'm still a little worried about San Diego State, only because Brady Hoke just came from there, but that's a topic for another day.

I said before that Brady Hoke's true test is on the field, and he's certainly succeeding at it. The rivals (MSU, OSU) must remain targets and we must put our best teams on the field against them, but I think it's pretty fair to say that this season is shaping up to be a good one.

When Chris Fowler asked Denard about the game's final 72 seconds, Denard looked around at everyone in the Big House and smiled. "I don't know what happened," he said. "You've just seen a Michigan team playing together and playing as a team...Even though we didn't play the best football, we got a win in, and hat's off to Notre Dame because they played a great game."

No comments:

Post a Comment