It was a stark contrast, if you had the stomach to look.

Debris rained down on the northwest corner of the Michigan Stadium end zone with just over five minutes left on the clock Saturday, the student section upset about referee Bill LeMonnier’s replay ruling that quarterback Chad Henne had fumbled the football at the goal line on a sneak attempt. Notre Dame’s Chinedum Ndukwe emerged from the pile with possession, meaning the Fighting Irish would take over on their own 20 yard line with a 17-3 lead over the Wolverines.

When time expired, quite a different scene presented itself in the southwest corner of the Big House. Oblivious to the downtrodden Michigan followers mourning their team’s 17-10 loss, the Notre Dame players trotted to the green-hued swatch of revelers who had traveled to Ann Arbor to support them. Golden helmets raised, the victorious visitors saluted their fans to raucous applause and cheers.

The gesture was more than a thank you for showing up, though. It might have also had something to do with helping the Irish create an invisible yet impregnable barrier across the south goal line. The Wolverines were unable to put the ball over that stripe in the second or third quarter. The closest threat came during the first series of the third, when Henne was intercepted by Notre Dame strong safety Tom Zbikowski on the one yard line on a throw intended for tight end Tyler Ecker. The pick seemed to knock the wind out of the already struggling Michigan offense, which didn’t mount another viable drive until the closing minutes of the contest.

“Offensively, we just made too many mistakes in the red zone,” coach Lloyd Carr said. “You can’t get the football down there and give it away like we did and expect to win a game like this.”

The Wolverines’ defense held Notre Dame to a respectable 244 total yards – especially impressive considering the unit’s much-publicized struggles last weekend against Northern Illinois. This time, the finger-pointing was directed at the offense and its numerous miscues throughout the second half. While most fans were disappointed with Michigan’s low first-half totals of 51 rushing yards and 62 passing yards, the most frustrating events had yet to unfold.

“We lost a football game, but I think we found a defense,” Carr said. “I liked the way we played, from a standpoint of effort and aggressiveness. I thought we were very physical. I thought we took the fight to Notre Dame. They’re a very talented offensive football team. (But) there’s nothing good about losing. Nothing.”

The Wolverines emerged from the locker room after halftime in a 14-3 hole, thanks to an effective, methodical opening drive by Notre Dame that culminated with Brady Quinn tossing a five-yard touchdown pass to Rhema McKnight. Fighting Irish coach Charlie Weis used a no-huddle offense for much of the series to minimize the fans’ impact.

“I wanted to take the crowd out of the game,” Weis said. “This was a no-huddle offense, but this was not a hurry-up offense. They’re two different things. This was so that I didn’t have to have guys not hear the play in the huddle. It was just so that we could take the noise out of the game.”

The Irish also scored on a second-quarter scoring catch by Jeff Samardzija on a pass that was initially deflected by Michigan linebacker Chris Graham. To make matters worse, Michigan running back Mike Hart left the game due to an apparent left leg injury suffered with just over three minutes remaining in the first quarter. He never returned, and Carr declined to elaborate on specifics after the game. The Wolverines’ lone first-half points came on a 38-yard field goal by Garrett Rivas less than a minute into the second quarter.

The tide appeared to be turning at the start of the second half when Hart’s backup, freshman Kevin Grady, and Ecker picked up the bulk of the yardage on a 14-play, 69-yard drive that ate up the first 5:46 of the third quarter. But Henne committed the team’s first turnover of the day by throwing the ball away to Zbikowski.

“(The interception) was just a poor decision,” Henne said. “It’s terrifying. You never want that to happen. I just didn’t take care of the ball down there.”

Notre Dame extended its lead to 17-3 on D.J. Fitzpatrick’s 43-yard field goal just 49 seconds into the fourth.

Michigan found itself with another prime scoring opportunity after linebacker David Harris stripped Irish running back Darius Walker of the football, leaving the Wolverines just 18 yards away from paydirt. But after a few carries by Grady, Henne missed wide receiver Jason Avant in the end zone on two consecutive plays, the first one to the right corner and the second one coming on the left side of the field.

Notre Dame took over on downs, but its drive stalled after 18 yards. Michigan showed signs of life when Avant made a highlight-reel catch and turn, keeping his balance and sprinting down the right sideline for a 54-yard gain on the following possession, but Henne’s goal-line fumble ended the threat and bailed the Irish out once again.

“I should have cut back and gotten into the end zone,” Avant said of his near-score. “I thought I could make it. I should have lifted my knees up a little higher. Maybe I could have gotten in there.”

Mario Manningham’s touchdown catch came on the next Michigan drive. Henne tossed the ball to the first-year receiver on fourth-and-three from the 25-yard line, and the Michigan Stadium crowd was re-energized with 3:47 remaining.

But the Wolverines’ fate was sealed when Henne’s fourth-down pass to Ecker on the team’s final possession fell incomplete. Though Michigan had 2:11 on the clock when the series began, Henne missed on two throws and had two more broken up.

“There were a lot of opportunities out there, and I just didn’t execute,” Henne said. “It wasn’t the pressure. I’m used to that. The ball wasn’t there where it was supposed to be. A couple of (passes) were high. I just didn’t come out and execute today.”

The loss ended the Wolverines’ 16-game home winning streak, and it was Michigan’s first defeat at home to Notre Dame since 1993. The Wolverines had beaten the Fighting Irish three straight times in Ann Arbor heading into Saturday’s game.

“This is a tough place to win,” Weis said. “We came in here and walked out with a ‘W.’ You have to be happy.”

The Michigan locker room wasn’t nearly as upbeat.

“It’s the worst feeling in the world to lose at home,” Avant said. “We set high goals, and we’re no longer in the driver’s seat anymore. But we can go out there and perform our best next weekend. It feels terrible, and I hope we don’t feel like this again for the rest of the season.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.