When we were waiting for the press elevator at the end of the game, the four of us football writers were discussing the luck of the Irish. Another writer interrupted us to say, “Not luck of the Irish, the suck of Michigan.”
I know it’s unfair to talk about the luck of the Irish. It’s like Keyser Soze – everyone knows it exists, but it’s almost impossible to prove. For any of us who have been here for the last four years, it’s difficult to dispute it. Last year, a Notre Dame team that had been embarrassed by BYU turned around the next week to beat Michigan. The Wolverines finished the season with a 9-3 record and made the trip to the Rose Bowl; Notre Dame went 6-6. At that time, no one had heard of Darius Walker. But he ran for 131 yards anyway. Walker didn’t do all that much the rest of the season, rushing for just 655 more yards. Two years before that, when the Irish won 25-23, the Wolverines held Notre Dame to 3-of-13 on third down conversions. And we all remember Carlyle Holiday scoring that three-yard keeper just before halftime, when Holiday fumbled on the goal line but got the points counted for the Irish anyway (This was obviously before replay). As far as luck goes, that play was off the charts.
Maybe luck is not a great word this year because the Irish looked like they might be a great team. And they definitely beat Michigan soundly. But in case you forgot Saturday’s game – whether by accident, through drinking or on purpose – let me give you a short list of some of the “lucky” things that went the way of the Irish this weekend. Each play is rated on a luck scale out of a maximum five clovers:
1. The week before the biggest nonconference game of the year, senior tight end Tim Massaquoi injured his arm. How big of a deal was it? Well, Massaquoi was preseason All-Big Ten first team. With a team-high seven catches for 74 yards, senior Tyler Ecker did a great job filling in, but it’s tough to replace Massaquoi – at least in terms of scaring defenses. Massaquoi is not a blocking tight end, so there’s no chance of him playing with a cast the way offensive linemen might do. Notre Dame had some players injured during the game, but at least they started out healthy.
2. Backup right tackle Mike Kolodziej, who was filling in for Jake Long, also didn’t play. He was injured, but coach Lloyd Carr said he didn’t know what was wrong. So starting at right tackle for the Wolverines was Rueben Riley – more than capable, but still the third string for that position. Michigan traditionally has one of the best offensive lines in the country, but Notre Dame overloaded the right side of the line a couple of times early and got to quarterback Chad Henne, rattling the true sophomore. Henne had trouble stepping up in the pocket all day, and you can’t tell me that the Irish weren’t lucky that Kolodziej wasn’t in there.
3. Mike Hart. Ah, Mike Hart. The Wolverines’ star running back hurt himself this week. This is the kind of thing that we’ve come to expect the week before Notre Dame. Hart played just a couple drives before getting hit hard and coming out of the game. Kevin Grady did his part, rushing for 79 yards on 18 carries. But it’s the combination of Grady’s pure size and Hart’s shiftiness that make them impossible to contain. This is why Carr has said every week that he’s happy to have such great running backs. But I don’t think even the biggest Notre Dame fans would argue that Hart being out of the game wasn’t a bit of luck shining down on the Irish from above.
4. Notre Dame’s second touchdown was a five-yard pass to junior Jeff Samardzija. On that play, linebacker Chris Graham made a great defensive play that ended up giving the Irish an extra seven points – or four because they’d have kicked a field goal. The pass was thrown well behind the intended receiver, but Graham’s tip gave Samardzija just enough time to make the catch and put the game out of reach. It wasn’t luck that Notre Dame was on the Michigan five-yard line, but only against the Irish does a great defensive play by Michigan turn into an Irish TD.
5. Replay was introduced to the Big Ten just last year. Both of the overturned replays in the game went – correctly, I should add – against Michigan. You can’t argue against the success of replay because of it gets the calls right. But why did we have to have it this game?
6. Even more unlucky than the goal line fumble by Henne was the play before. After watching the replay over and over, it’s clear that Henne made it across the line on first down – although none of the refs gave the signal. Instead, an illegal participation penalty on Notre Dame forced the Wolverines to redo the play. Michigan never should have even been on the field for the fumble that cost them the game.
Holiday’s run in 2002 was easily worth five clovers on the luck scale. And even though there wasn’t anything this week quite at that level, I don’t want anyone to forget some of the things that happened for the Irish. Just think to yourself: Would this have happened if we were playing any other team?
– Ian Herbert can be reached at email@example.com.