Cam McGrone raced toward an emptying student section, flexing his right arm then his left above his head. Aidan Hutchinson and Luiji Vilain stood to either side of McGrone, serving as bodyguards to his celebration. A few yards behind Michigan’s jubilant pass-rushing trio, Notre Dame quarterback Phil Jurkovec lay face down on the 13-yard line.
It was Jurkovec’s first play of the game, but as starting quarterback Ian Book looked on from the sidelines, the back of a gold helmet emerging from the turf provided a familiar sight. Book left the game early in the fourth quarter after an 8-for-25, 73-yard performance — his career low as a starter, en route to a 45-14 Wolverines’ win.
A year ago, when Michigan opened its season with a road defeat against the Fighting Irish, McGrone, Hutchinson and Vilain largely watched from afar, underclassmen patiently waiting their turn. Senior safety Josh Metellus was a starter that day, but he too watched most of the game from the locker room after a first-quarter ejection for targeting.
And for 14 months, since that night in South Bend, he’s known this performance was coming.
“The type of offense that they run, they try to stick to the same script, get the same guys the ball,” Metellus said. “They don’t like going outside the frame in the type of stuff they like to do in their scheme. We knew coming in they watched teams previously and see what worked against us and try to hit there.”
According to McGrone, the area that Notre Dame tried to exploit was the edge. It’s a funny thought for anyone who watched this year’s game, because “exploit” may well rank last on the list of verbs that could be used to describe what the Irish did to Michigan on the edge.
All evening, though, they tried — bouncing runs to the outside, throwing quick passes into the flat, scrambling toward the chains. And all evening, they failed, chased down by the Wolverines’ superior speed.
“(Our speed) allows everybody to be around the ball at all times,” McGrone said. “I’m pretty sure there’s multiple pictures of five to eight guys around the ball, which is kind of unheard of.”
On Saturday, that translated into just two sacks, but the effects permeated far further into Notre Dame’s offensive performance. For the better part of three quarters, the Irish’s only play for more than 10 yards came on a spectacular sideline catch from senior Chase Claypool. Their longest rush of the day went for just nine yards on a scramble.
Despite the lack of sacks, Book stood at the center of it all, desperately running from maize and blue jerseys, if only to find enough reprieve to huck a pass into the stands.
“Defensively, it was a great performance,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “We’re just so fast, we’re just running so good and the knockback in the defensive line was outstanding, really good coverage, linebackers were running.”
The result was a defensive showing that finally allowed the Wolverines to match complete performances on both sides of the ball. The fact that it only comes after two losses isn’t lost on these players — they know what that means for their Big Ten title hopes.
But for more than six quarters now, dating back to a near-comeback against Penn State last weekend, they’ve been the dominant team that was promised before the season. And at the crux of that is a defense that’s allowed first downs on just six of its last 22 possessions.
It’s why defensive coordinator Don Brown’s message at the end of it all was one of pride in a unit that McGrone said, “played how we know that we can play.”
It’s also why his message included a follow up, as McGrone relayed after the game:
“We still believe that our best football’s ahead.”
After Saturday, that’s a scary thought.