SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The gift-wrapping was pretty on the Michigan football team.
Through talk of renewed confidence, heightened athleticism and, finally, a serviceable quarterback, the 14th-ranked Wolverines were supposed to have a fighting chance against No. 12 Notre Dame in South Bend.
But right at kickoff of Saturday night’s season opener, the grandeur of it all had faded without return. That gift-wrapping was a photocopy of the rhythmless, frustrating Michigan team from last year. The only difference was that the 2018 team had everything it needed to succeed, and it still didn’t in its 24-17 loss to the Fighting Irish (1-0 overall).
“Just a few (big plays), not enough,” said a stone-faced Jim Harbaugh in the post-game press conference. “We didn’t make enough explosive plays, we didn’t run the ball as well as we would like.
“I don’t really have all the biggest takeaways. I thought on defense our guys played fast, competed hard. There’s improvements to be made, mistakes were made but I thought they fought hard.”
With 1:48 remaining, down by a touchdown, the Wolverines (0-1) looked to put that narrative to bed and place the pieces for another rivalry classic. But on the fourth play of the drive, the offensive line collapsed and the football was knocked out of Shea Patterson’s hands into those of Notre Dame’s Khalid Kareem to seal the game. Throughout the contest, the Wolverines wore the mental anguish of an early 14-0 deficit on their sleeve in a loss it could have avoided.
“It’s one of those things where you come off the sideline like ‘where did we go wrong?’ ” said fifth-year senior defensive end Chase Winovich. “ I didn’t feel like they were dominating. I didn’t feel like their presence was overwhelming.”
It’s the same result. A different kind of pain. One rooted in its potential to be everything that the 2017 team wasn’t.
Last year’s Michigan team carried few expectations, excepting the rabid fan pacing in front of their television. A quarterback carousel behind a porous offensive line made the Wolverines’ offense an eyesore.
When Michigan’s defense could no longer carry the rest of the team’s water and it lost, exasperation trumped anger. The offense was that bad — Michigan had no business winning in any of its defeats and that sobering feeling of acceptable pain persisted.
Flash forward to Sept. 1 at Notre Dame Stadium, and the loss was still deserved, yet more unsettling than it would have been 365 days ago. In junior Shea Patterson looked a capable offensive torchbearer while sophomore wide receivers Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins — who hauled a 52-yard bomb thanks to solid pass protection — took the next step to be viable receiving options. The whole defense showed spurts of why they belonged in the discussion as the nation’s best defense.
But none of it mattered. On Saturday, it was one step forward, two steps back.
“The first game is always the toughest because no matter how hard your camp is, that first game is always tougher,” Winovich said. “I feel like they maybe did a better job adapting to it and took advantage of our lack of whatever – not being prepared enough.”
On three different occasions after a third down stand, Michigan’s defense was penalized to extend the Fighting Irish’s drives. All three of Notre Dame’s touchdowns came from those instances. The ejection of junior safety Josh Metellus from an early targeting call exacerbated the defensive deficiencies.
The Wolverines made it into the red zone just twice in the first three quarters, converting only one field goal and botching the attempt on the other.
Sophomore Ambry Thomas had a 99-yard kickoff return touchdown to bring the halftime deficit to a manageable 21-10 margin. Michigan didn’t find paydirt again until it was too little, too late.
“Nobody really wants to start off like that,” Patterson said. “Our defense put us in situations to make something happen. Early on, I took a sack that put us out of field goal range, I threw a careless pick. And at the end of the game, ball security.”
Added Winovich: “I’m not really sure where they beat us, I’m still confused in the locker room. I’m just kinda confused how we lost that game. I didn’t feel like they dominated us, but ultimately they made plays when they needed to.”
In a game where the Fighting Irish were doing everything in their power to let Michigan come back, it never came. Of course, it is only the first game and that potential may still emanate down the road. But Saturday night’s miscues were expected to happen in the 2017 season. It wasn’t supposed to happen in 2018.
But both are losses. This one just stings the Wolverines a little bit more.