SOUTH BEND — It was his final game against Notre Dame, the night for Denard Robinson to complete his coronation as king over the Fighting Irish.
After two straight legendary performances in the past two games against Notre Dame, Robinson would seal his place in the storied history of this rivalry. He would celebrate his 22nd birthday with another dramatic triumph, in the same stadium where he introduced himself to the world as a fresh-faced sophomore.
But for all the heroics he’s displayed in the past against the Irish, Denard Robinson finally ran out of magic.
A series of missed opportunities and head-shaking mistakes — none more prominent, nor more crippling, than Robinson’s own — doomed No. 18 Michigan in a 13-6 loss to No. 11 Notre Dame.
It’s the first time the Wolverines have fallen to the Fighting Irish since 2008. That’s also the last time Notre Dame forced six turnovers in a game, which is likely no coincidence.
“This is the most disappointed I’ve been in myself in I don’t know how long,” Robinson said. “Twenty-two years I’ve been living, that’s the most disappointed I’ve been in myself.”
Beginning with the Wolverines’ third drive of the game, those turnovers came on six straight possessions for Michigan (2-2). They explain how the team could lose a game in which it outgained its opponent, 299 yards-239 yards, and how it could look so punchless while also moving the ball fluidly at times.
Thanks to inspired play from the defense — which looked much improved from its rough performances against Alabama and Air Force — the Wolverines stayed in it. Down 10-0 entering the fourth quarter, they finally got on the board via a 33-yard field goal from redshirt junior Brendan Gibbons.
After Notre Dame (4-0) picked up three points of its own, a 31-yarder from Gibbons got Michigan within one score again with 3:27 remaining in the game. That was the end of the comeback attempt, though — the Irish picked up a first down after getting the ball back and ran out the clock from there.
“When you’re in position to make plays, you have to make plays,” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke. “You have to execute. We’ll learn a lot from this.”
The Wolverines’ first miscue came when fifth-year senior running back Vincent Smith was intercepted on a halfback pass play after the team had driven to the Notre Dame 10-yard line.
It seemed like a fluke, a gimmick play that overshadowed how crisply Robinson’s passing had moved the offense down the field. But it proved to be just the start of Robinson’s nightmarish night — the quarterback’s next three pass attempts were picked off. (Though the last of which was a low-risk Hail Mary at the end of the first half.)
And after it appeared that the Michigan offense had rediscovered its rhythm, putting together a sustained drive in its first possession after halftime, it just as quickly lost it when Robinson fumbled the ball at Notre Dame’s eight-yard line.
The struggles in the passing game weren’t completely Robinson’s fault. Fifth-year senior Roy Roundtree admitted that he and the receivers weren’t always doing their part, and he credited the Notre Dame defense for its confusing looks.
But Robinson would have none of that after the game. He called it the “worst game of (his) career,” and seemed to put all the blame on his shoulders.
“I’m really disappointed in myself,” Robinson said. “That’s all.”
The Fighting Irish offense wasn’t exactly a well-oiled machine either, with Everett Golson benched in favor of former starter Tommy Rees in the second quarter. But the unit was able to do just enough to take advantage of the Wolverines’ mistakes, tallying what proved to be the decisive 10 points in that same period.
After Golson threw two early interceptions, Notre Dame played largely mistake-free the rest of the way. In a grinder of a game, that was all that the home team had to do — the six turnovers it forced provided just enough breathing room.
“I mean, (Robinson’s) gotten me the past two years, and total, Michigan’s got me three years,” said Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, who caught two of Robinson’s interceptions just over a week after his grandmother and girlfriend both passed away.
“So I’m just glad on my last one, on my last hurrah, I was finally able to have something to celebrate about, you know?”
The disappointment was an unfamiliar feeling for the Wolverines, who themselves had gotten used to celebrating after this rivalry game in recent years. But their six turnovers — five from Robinson — made a win an impossibility in the final try for the quarterback and his fellow seniors.
In the wake of his performance, Robinson said he was going to talk to the team on Sunday about how he would be accountable to them going forward. And as the fans filed out on Saturday night after Michigan’s reversal of fortune, his promise to never play like this again seemed to echo around Notre Dame Stadium.
“Whatever it takes for the team to win, that’s what I’m going to do,” Robinson said. “I don’t want to feel like this anymore.”