There are a handful of plays and game-defining moments Michigan fans will remember when they recall Saturday’s 24-17 loss to Notre Dame. Often, though, there are plays immediately prior that allow — even pre-empt — those moments.
Saturday’s game was littered with those moments. When asked about the team’s struggles, junior linebacker Khaleke Hudson and junior defensive lineman Rashan Gary repeated the same rationale, nearly verbatim. “The only thing I can really say is we hurt ourselves,” Gary said. “Only two, three plays — maybe four plays — can really hurt you at the end of the game. That’s what it really came down to.” Both Hudson and Gary emphasized “self-inflicted wounds.”
Upon reviewing the tape, it stands to reason why that would be their feeling.
Here are five plays, ones that came immediately before game-changing moments, that stood out as altering the trajectory of the game and epitomized many of the struggles that plagued the Wolverines:
7:42 left in 1st quarter: Michigan 0, Notre Dame 7
The lasting image from Saturday night might be 5-foot-10 wide receiver Chris Finke leaping over 6-foot-2 sophomore safety Brad Hawkins to score the Fighting Irish’s second touchdown.
It extended Notre Dame’s lead to 14-0, further enlivened an already amped crowd and sent shockwaves through a Michigan defense that was eight minutes into its season and didn’t know what hit it.
It also never happens if the Wolverines properly execute the play before.
The Fighting Irish faced a 3rd-and-6 from the 50-yard line. Michigan brought five rushers, and the secondary held up its end of the bargain, blanketing all of Notre Dame’s options. But, as was the case all too often in the first half, Michigan’s edge rushers, fifth-year seniors Chase Winovich and Noah Furbush, sped outside the tackles trying to get to quarterback Brandon Wimbush, only to overextend themselves and be pushed out of the play.
To his credit, Wimbush stepped up in the pocket at the right time — he did that well all game — and ran for seven yards and a first down. On this play, junior linebacker Devin Bush was operating as a quarterback spy in order to prevent that very scenario. But as Wimbush moved up in the pocket, Bush crept up too close to the line, unable to recover as Wimbush started to scamper toward the line-to-gain.
It’s one play, perhaps forgotten in the fray, that underscores the ways Notre Dame was able to counter Michigan’s aggression in the first half, a gameplan that accounted for 21 points in a blink of an eye of one of the presumptive best defenses in the country.
3:29 left in 1st quarter: Michigan 0, Notre Dame 14
There seems to be a common sentiment that junior quarterback Shea Patterson showed signs of promise in his debut. The offensive struggles, largely, were not his fault, though he made a few questionable decisions that certainly didn’t help his cause.
One of those was the sack that halted Michigan’s drive, down 14-0 late in the first quarter. It’s a sack a quarterback is taught not to take at any cost — one that pushes a team out of field goal range on third down.
Patterson might not be in that position, though, if his offensive line is able to hold its block on the play before, a 2nd-and-6 from the Notre Dame 25.
The offense opens up in a shotgun formation with an empty backfield, a look that should be burned from the playbook until the offensive line shows any semblance of consistency. The Irish bring five, blitzing a linebacker on the interior, hardly masking where the blitz will come pre-snap.
Somehow, the Wolverines’ line is perplexed.
Linebacker Te’von Coney comes off the edge unblocked and get a free shot at Patterson before the quarterback is able to get the pass off, a wobbly free-for-all that fortunately ends up incomplete and not intercepted.
Michigan’s offensive line had trouble with stunts. It had trouble with swim moves and edge rushes. It had trouble with quite a bit.
There should have been some foresight from a play-calling perspective that an empty set is a plea to get its quarterback hit. In this case, it set up Patterson in a third-and-long situation, when he took the 16-yard sack that prevented three points.
12:27 left in second quarter: Michigan 0, Notre Dame 14
There’s validity in criticizing junior tight end Zach Gentry for not catching the touchdown on third-and-goal from the 10 yard line. He’s a 6-foot-8, 260-pound tight end who received praise all fall. If he’s going to be the All-Big Ten tight end that some expect, he needs to catch that touchdown with a linebacker trailing him.
Michigan also should have scored the play before.
After riding running back Karan Higdon down to the precipice of the goal line, the Wolverines decided to call a play-action, which sent only fullback Ben Mason and Gentry and fellow tight end Sean McKeon to the end zone. It defied reason at the time. It still lacks logic two days later.
Notre Dame had five linebackers to cover Michigan’s three targets, and the Irish draped them well while still getting five guys rushing Patterson. The result was a crunching sack, necesitating the throw to Gentry on the next play.
The Wolverines drew criticism from some for being too conservative Saturday night, especially in the face of a quick 14-0 lead. But the running game is, and will remain, the strength of the offense. Higdon needs to get the ball there, and if he doesn’t score, he needs to get it again on third down.
13:55 left in 3rd quarter: Michigan 10, Notre Dame 21
The “self-inflicted wounds” Hudson and Gary repeated on Monday weren’t limited to the defense. Early in the second half, junior punter Will Hart dropped a snap on a field goal that would have cut the lead to 21-13. It was a back-breaking play after sophomore wide receiver Nico Collins hauled in a 54-yard reception to open the second half.
It was also a drive that could have — maybe should have — resulted in a touchdown. As was habitual, the pass protection stymied those hopes.
The play before Hart’s mistake could have produced the coveted seven points, a score that would have ratcheted up pressure on a slowed Notre Dame offense and put the result of the game squarely in question.
On third-and-10, sophomore receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones ran a deep corner route intended to give the 6-foot-2 receiver a chance to make a play in the endzone.
The protection broke down. He never got that chance.
Instead, both tackles — fifth-year senior Juwann Bushell-Beatty and senior Jon Runyan Jr. — were immediately driven back into the pocket, which collapsed around Patterson. Sensing the pressure, he was forced to throw the ball before Peoples-Jones broke off his route. The play never stood a shot.
There are tangible areas the offense can improve, modes they will explore in the coming weeks against lesser foes. But if the offensive line continues to get bullied regularly in pass protection, that upside is severely limited, especially in redzone scenarios, where the margin for error is slim.
When Gary and Hudson spoke of self-inflicted wounds on Monday, they spoke with a level of comfort. Comfort in knowing that they, and much of this team, are too talented to sustain the same mistakes. Comfort that Notre Dame hadn’t won the game, that they had felt they’d lost it. Comfort that it’s week one.
But Saturday, the small things added up. Each play had an effect on the next, often major consequences. You never know when a penalty will allow a drive to continue, when a drop stalls an offense, when a careless turnover derails a team. For now, Michigan is 0-1, and it has a litany of small mistakes — and big-picture flaws — to fault for it.