As the 43-yard rainbow heave approached the endzone, Brad Hawkins sensed an interception. But just as the sophomore safety lurched his hands above his head to make the play, receiver Chris Finke snatched the pass away for Notre Dame’s second touchdown of the evening.
It was emblematic of the mistakes that cost Michigan’s defense on Saturday in South Bend: not glaring in nature but made in moments that proved costly.
Just take what happened earlier in that drive. On third-and-nine deep in Fighting Irish territory, safety Josh Metellus led with his head trying to knock down a pass, adding 15-yards to the Notre Dame reception and forcing an early exit for the junior.
Four snaps later, Brandon Wimbush underthrew Finke, but — inexperienced and fresh onto the field to replace Metellus — Hawkins couldn’t complete the interception. And just like that, the Wolverines found themselves down 14-0.
“(Wimbush) made plays, and ultimately we didn’t,” said fifth-year senior defensive end Chase Winovich. “That’s what football’s all about — making plays when you need to.”
And all too often, especially in the first half, the Wolverines’ defense couldn’t stop Notre Dame from making those plays.
Despite previous accuracy concerns, Wimbush stared down Michigan’s pressure, completing crossing patterns over the middle or deep seam routes for clutch conversions. His legs helped, too, extending plays and evading defenders for extra yards.
This combination was especially effective in continuing drives, as the Fighting Irish went 5-for-8 on third down during the first half. No matter what the Wolverines threw at Wimbush, he answered the bell.
And sometimes, Michigan just gave it to Notre Dame, too. Including Metellus’ ejection, five penalties (42 yards) were accepted against Wolverines’ defense on Saturday.
None was more detrimental than a roughing-the-passer call late in the second quarter against Winovitch. After momentarily getting a stop on third-and-goal, the penalty gave the Fighting Irish a fresh set of downs and, later, four points on a Jafar Armstrong touchdown run.
“I didn’t necessarily agree with this call because I was rushing from the left side — he’s a right-handed quarterback — (the referee) told me I hit him in the back, and that’s why they called it,” Winovich said. “Not sure how that makes any sense.”
It all culminated in defensive shredding in the first half — Notre Dame racked up 233 total yards and 21 points — far from the norm for Michigan’s defense.
Still, things quieted down in the second half, when the Wolverines allowed less than 70 yards and a lone field goal. Winovich already recognizes this as a change from last year’s team.
“I think last year, things went (astray),” Winovich said. “You see it in the South Carolina game. I think if we had that mindset, I think they could’ve really done some damage on us.”
Michigan’s defense was supposed to be its greatest strength. It has been the last four seasons, finishing inside the top ten in yards allowed from 2014-2017. And nine returning starters from last year’s defense — including potential first round picks Rashan Gary, Devin Bush, Khaleke Hudson and Lavert Hill — made for lofty preseason expectations around an offense with a new identity.
“I definitely feel that pressure,” Winovich said. “That’s just the way it’s been (from a) factual standpoint. It’s been a defensive-led group the last couple years.”
But the Wolverines’ defense — between penalties and third downs — certainly had its share of lapses on Saturday. And when those mistakes are compounded with plays like that of Finke and Wimbush, it makes for a losing formula.
“It’s one of those things where you come off the sideline, and for me, I didn’t know where we (went) wrong,” Winovich said. “I didn’t feel like they were dominating, I didn’t feel like they were overwhelming us. They made plays and beat us.”