SOUTH BEND – The Michigan football team appears to have started a new tradition.
With its 25-23 loss to Notre Dame Saturday, Michigan severed its faint national title hopes on the road in September for the third straight season.
The Irish (3-0) and Wolverines (2-1) met up for the first time since 1999, rekindling one of the most intense and entertaining rivalries in the country.
“I’ve been waiting to play this game for a long time,” said Michigan tight end Bennie Joppru, who caught seven passes for 80 yards. “I grew up watching this game, and it just kills me for us to play so hard but make so many mistakes.”
The mistakes that Joppru lamented came in the form of four turnovers (three fumbles and an interception), countless drops from Michigan wide receivers and 10 penalties for 88 yards.
“It was a hard-fought football game,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. “And certainly for us a lot of turnovers, and you can’t beat a good football team when you turn the football over like we did. There were far too many penalties, and we gave up too many plays on defense.”
The last two minutes shaped up to be a mirror image of Michigan’s 31-29 win over Washington just two weeks ago – except for the final result.
After a great individual effort by Michigan safety Cato June to stop a bootleg by Notre Dame quarterback Carlyle Holiday with just over two minutes to play, the Wolverines got the ball back down 25-23 at their own 30-yard line. They were right where they wanted to be.
“Never, not one second, did I think we were going to lose this game,” Joppru said.
But Michigan’s execution on the final two-minute drill greatly resembled its sloppy performance for most of the game. After a first-down run by quarterback John Navarre, wide receiver Tyrece Butler dropped two consecutive passes – one on the numbers and one behind him – on first and second down that would have put the Wolverines near field goal range.
“As a receiver, I’m supposed to make big plays, and I didn’t make big plays,” a subdued Butler said. “That’s what I’m here to do.”
On third down, Navarre dropped back to pass, but as he began to throw, Notre Dame nose guard Cedric Hilliard touched his elbow, forcing an errant pass right into the hands of Irish cornerback Shane Walton to win the game for Notre Dame.
“I saw the ball go flying and looked up and saw Shane pick it,” Hilliard said. “My freshman year, we lost to Michigan (26-22 at Michigan), and I’ve been waiting to beat them since that day. I saw their fans celebrating, being rude to us, and I thought, ‘I can’t wait to beat these guys down the road.’ ”
The Wolverines had a chance to tie the game with 2:49 left after a pristine scoring drive to bring the score within 25-23. Navarre, who hit 19-of-42 passes for 230 yards, caught fire, connecting with Braylon Edwards twice and Joppru twice, including an eight-yard toss for the score. But Walton deflected the two-point conversion attempt to Edwards, making a last-ditch effort necessary for the Wolverines.
“We felt like Michigan didn’t want it badly enough,” Hilliard said. “It took them a few tries to score, and we knew we were going to stop them.”
Hilliard and the Irish defense showed how anxious they were to beat Michigan in the first half, holding the Wolverines’ offense scoreless with 73 yards of total offense. Thanks to fumbles by fullback B.J. Askew and Butler, the Wolverines spent the first half searching for their rhythm. Michigan went into the half down 16-7 with a 19-yard Marlin Jackson interception return as their only score.
“We put our defense on the short end of the field,” Joppru said. “They played a tough game all game, but we just put them in really bad situations.”
Notre Dame scored its first offensive touchdown of the season by driving 80 yards right down the Wolverines’ throat to start the game. After Butler’s fumble in the final two minutes of the half, the Irish had to go just 27 yards to increase their lead to 16-7 on a controversial three-yard touchdown run by Holiday. Replays showed that the ball never broke the plane of the end zone.
Notre Dame running back Ryan Grant set a career high with 28 carries for 132 yards against a supposedly staunch Michigan run defense.
Carr said the most disappointing series of plays for his team was his defense’s meltdown after Michigan took its first lead, 17-16, at the end of the third quarter.
The Irish immediately struck back with a five-play, 76-yard drive. Holiday hit two long passes to receiver Omar Jenkins, including one for 47 yards down to the three-yard line. The Michigan safeties bit on a perfect play-action fake and left Jenkins with nothing but green in front of him.
“It was super,” Hilliard said. “Because at the time when we fell behind, I was a little down. But that lifted everybody’s spirits.”
Said Michigan safety Julius Curry: “It’s very disappointing, but we still have our goals. We can do what we have to do this year.”
Joppru, the senior captain, vehemently echoed Curry’s sentiments.
“We’re not going to let this ruin our season.”