SOUTH BEND — Another fumble shouldn’t have been a surprise. The sight had started to become familiar — at least, about as familiar as witnessing seven Michigan fumbles in one game could be.
But, late in the third quarter, the Wolverines were five yards away from pulling within four points of Notre Dame when it happened again.
The ball was forced out of running back Kevin Grady’s arms and bounced away on the soggy turf, starting a five-second free-for-all.
Notre Dame cornerback Terrail Lambert, arms outstretched, dove for and almost grabbed the ball. Michigan wide receiver Greg Mathews trapped it under his chest for half a second before it popped loose again, ricocheting away from the pile of sprawled-out players toward the Fighting Irish sideline.
And then Notre Dame safety Sergio Brown realized nobody was around the ball, ran over and grabbed it, untouched.
“It was a nightmare,” Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said about the game.
And the statistics were just as frightening. Six turnovers (including four lost fumbles). Seven penalties for 79 yards. Twenty-one Notre Dame points allowed in just seven first-quarter offensive plays.
From two consecutive fumbled kickoff returns in the game’s first 10 minutes to backup quarterback Nick Sheridan’s two consecutive interceptions in the last 10 minutes, Michigan consistently looked sloppy in its 35-17 loss to the Fighting Irish Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.
After Notre Dame (2-0) had four fumbles in last weekend’s opener against San Diego State, the Fighting Irish were all too happy to quickly capitalize on Michigan’s mistakes.
“All over the locker room and in all of our meetings, last night, this morning and before we went out, is turnovers were going to determine the outcome of the game,” Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said. “Fortunately, we won the turnover ratio fairly significantly.”
The Wolverines (1-2) looked out-of-sorts from the opening kickoff. The ball hit freshman cornerback Boubacar Cissoko and bounced away, leaving him spinning around in confusion.
That mistake didn’t cost Michigan the ball, but on the same drive, running back Brandon Minor dropped a lateral pass that was recovered by the Fighting Irish at the Michigan 11-yard line.
Fifty seconds and one Notre Dame touchdown later, the Wolverines again fumbled the kickoff — but this time, the ball hit freshman running back Michael Shaw and was scooped up by Notre Dame cornerback Mike Anello. With the ball back, the Fighting Irish needed just three plays for their second touchdown in the game’s first four minutes.
“Well, obviously, sometimes I feel like we’re the Bad News Bears,” Michigan quarterbacks coach Rod Smith said. “We got a guy open, we drop the ball. There’s always something.”
After the Fighting Irish scored again to make it 21-0, the Wolverines’ offense showed life for the first time midway through the first quarter on a 40-yard touchdown reception by freshman Sam McGuffie.
And they continued to chip away at the three-touchdown deficit with 10 points in the second quarter. But their 23-yard field goal and seven-yard touchdown run sandwiched another Notre Dame scoring drive, highlighted by a 60-yard pass — the longest completion of Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen’s career — that torched the Michigan defense as a steady rain began to fall.
“The conditions weren’t tough,” safety Brandon Harrison said. “It’s just hard to get after somebody after so many turnovers.”
The turnovers continued in the fourth quarter, when Notre Dame’s two picks off of Sheridan effectively ended any remaining chance for a comeback. Instead, the Wolverines’ flash of glory in the closing minutes happened when senior cornerback Morgan Trent picked off a Clausen pass in the end zone to prevent the Fighting Irish from gaining a 25-point lead.
When the clock finally ran out, a red-faced Rodriguez hastily herded his players into the visitors locker room. Weis gave his fans a smug shrug as he was driven off the field in a golf cart, his entire left leg immobilized in a blue-and-white brace after one of his own players bowled him over in the second quarter.
A few of the Wolverines said, despite the loss, Michigan is “still undefeated in the Big Ten.” Sheridan said, despite his stats, the Wolverines continue to get better every week.
And junior safety Stevie Brown thought, despite the score, Michigan’s turnover-filled afternoon showed little about the team’s true talent.
“I mean, they did beat us today, as it happens,” Brown said. “But in our hearts, we know that we’re the better team.”