Photo Courtesy: Leon Halip/Getty Images Sport
That's what the clock read after Vincent Smith's improbable screen pass scamper put Michigan up four points late in the Fourth Quarter late Saturday night. The run itself was beautiful. Smith completely sold the screen, even faining a whiff on a block at Notre Dame's charging defensive end before quietly slipping off to the left hash mark an awaiting Denard Robinson's pass. Everyone bought it. Rolling to his left with the pocket flowing around him, Denard peered into the endzone until the last possible second, and, as the Irish defensive line closed in on him, he whirled at his hips and lofted a perfectly thrown screen pass to Smith.
Somehow, Ricky Barnum and Taylor Lewan had snuck away from the line to set up the screen (quite a feat when you consider their size), and were charging their defenders to open space for Michigan's diminutive tailback. It looked perfect. Then it all looked like it was done. Lewan whiffed on his block leaving smith one on two with the Irish as Barnum got just enough of his man to keep it from being a one on three. Somehow, I doubt it would've mattered. Smith juked left and went right, angling the space between the angled defender to his right and Lewan's missed assignment to his front left, splitting them cleanly as the forward defender's arms bounced harmlessly off Smith's quads. Then, cutting back to the sideline to his left, Smith used the complete and utter demolition of a block laid out by Roy Roundtree on the only possible man who could've stopped him to dance into the endzone.
Michigan shouldn't have even been close. Notre Dame had more than doubled Michigan's offensive output at half time and probably shoul've been up 24-7 prior to the second half kickoff. Their defensive line had all but completely shut down the Michigan running game and Denard had already chucked three interceptions (two of them which were painly awful). But there they were. In a game they never should've been in, and somehow, they'd completely taken control of it. Michigan had just scored it's 21st straight point since the start of the fourth quarter and the Defense, even thought shredded in the first half had suddenly come to life, stoning the Irish running game on third and short, and setting up Denard and Smith's heroics.
The game seemed in the bag, but there were 72 seconds on the clock. Notre Dame only needed 40 of them. Suddenly rejuvenated, the Irish went immediately to their soon-to-be All-American wide receiver Michael Floyd. Floyd had been unrecoverable the entire night, and with head coach Brian Kelly's determination to keep him all over the field, no one had been able to lock him down. On their final drive, that duty fell to JT Floyd. It wasn't a job he could do alone, but that's what Michigan asked him to do.
Like the Western Michigan game a week earlier, Greg Mattison sent every conceivable blitz he could muster at Irish Quarterback Tommy Rees. The difference was, Notre Dame's veteran offensive line was ready for them. Michigan did get pressure, but it never got there soon enough. And on the final drive, it cost them. Lined up one on one at the bottom left of the formation, JT matched up in bump and run coverage with Michael. It didn't go well. Michael swatted JT's hands down, defeating the press and took off down the sidelines with JT desperately trying to keep the big receiver close. And when it didn't work, he did the only thing he could. He grabbed jersey and held on for dear life. Frankly, it was the smartest thing he could've possibly done. Still, the flags flew and Notre Dame had 15 yards and a fresh set of downs in Michigan territory.
After a broken route harmlessly glanced off the back of the endzone, the unthinkable happened. With three receivers to bottom left of the formation in a spread look, Michigan lined up with Troy Woolfolk and Thomas Gordon on the outside, and Michael Floyd lined up in the slot with Brandin Hawthorne pseudo covering him. Everyone was at the line of scrimmage. No safety help was out there as the Wolverines showed blitz. At the snap safety Marvin Johnson dropped into coverage to give some help, but it didn't matter because Gordon immediately left his man who was between Floyd and the outside receiver, to cover the outside receiver, leaving Theo Riddick wide open for an easy pitch and catch touchdown. All of a sudden, Michigan was down three with :30 on the clock.
If you're like me, you were thinking that unless Michigan got a good return out of the kick off that the chances of tying the game were pretty remote. As I was thinking that, the kick-off sailed into the back of the endzone, forcing a touchback. Dammit. 80 yards to go and :30 seconds to do it.
Notre Dame, to their credit, didn't go into a shell. They played a deep zone but rushed four men on the first snap, the pocket started to collapse but stepping up and to his right, Denard had space to make a throw. It just didn't go where he wanted. If there's one thing to take away from the game, Denard really, really likes throwing the ball to Jeremy Gallon. Maybe it's because the little wideout has never, ever quit working despite his struggles over the last two years. Maybe it's because Gallon worked so hard over the off-season. But in the second half Gallon was one of Denard's go to guys. As Denard let the ball go, Gallon had found a spot along the sidelines in the soft spot on the zone. But the pass was Henne'd, sailing five feet over the 5'8" Gallon's head and outstretched arms. Seven seconds had clicked off the clock.
With three wide to the right of the formation, Gallon set up in slot, right side. Junior Hemingway and Kelvin Grady(both who'd made critical and spectacular catches earlier in the game) lined up to his right with Roundtree on the opposite side alone on the left side of the formation. At the snap, Gallon ran a wheel behind the breaking Hemingway and streaking Grady toward the sideline. The Irish rushed four, with their strong side DE flowing hard toward the outside of the line and the other three pushing hard into the left. Denard, sensing this, stepped up and to his right finding space. As he did that, the Irish converged on Junior Hemingway, who had cut his route and moved towad the center of the field as a shorter outlet to the streaking Grady and Roundtree. Denard's eyes appeared to be on Hemingway as the three defenders converged and the ball was released.
But Denard wasn't looking at Hemingway.
Streaking down the sideline all alone was Gallon. Tucked in behind Hemingway's route, Gallon's wheel route had him all by himself at the forty. When the ball arrived, Gallon was past the 50 and in stride. Cutting up field, Gallon ran around the three Irish defenders from the right sideline to the left, before stepping out of bounds at the Irish 16 yard line with :08 left in the game.
It was like raw lightning had been pumped into the stadium. Everyone, save my lovely-Notre-Dame-graduating wife, was going crazy. I heard people say that we'd line up for the field goal. That it was a chip shot.
No way. With :08 left, there was more than enough time to run one play and still kick the field goal. The pass just had to be in the endzone.
Lining up with two WR on the right, a TE on the left, Vincent Smith went in motion taking a corner with him to the top left of the field. Taking the snap from under center, Denard took six steps back before lofting a high arcing pass toward the right corner of the endzone. Roundtree, having lined up outside, went straight to that corner as Hemingway cut across the formation toward the middle, taking the safety with him. It was one on one in the back corner for the game.
Sensing he'd been beat, Notre Dame's corner grabbed Roundtree as he cut away from him toward the endzone. The flags flew. But the ball was in the air and the game was still alive, and Roundtree looked back as his defender tried to pull him back to a defendable distance. The ball was underthrown, perhaps intentionally so, but the only person that knew it was Roundtree. As the defender closed on Roundtree, he saw Roy pivot and go the opposite direction of his momentum. Throwing his arms at 'Tree, he tried to pull an arm away. It didn't work. Roundtree's pivot on his right foot gave him the edge, jumping and catching the ball above the defender, Roundtree's right foot came down in bounds with his left scraping the turf before falling to the earth.
Bedlam. Only more so.
If Smith's touchdown had shaken the rafters and Gallon's catch and run had pumped electricity into the Big House, Roundtree's touchdown had set off a small nuclear weapon. You could feelthe stadium. You could feel everything. At that moment you could honestly sense the very of foundation of the place shake. It was unreal. It was damn near deafening. It was unlike anything I've ever felt at Michigan Stadium. And it happened right in front of me in Section 18.
After the squib it was over. Michigan had piled up close to 500 yards, most of them in the fourth quarter. They'd overcome a frankly very good Notre Dame offense, and created or been the beneficiaries of Notre Dame's turnovers. They'd fought back until the clock read :00.
I've never been at a game where it's been over and done with three times in under two minutes. Games aren't supposed to end like that. But there's something special about this rivalry. It happens here. When Michigan and Notre Dame play, THIS happens. That is why this rivalry is so important, why we must keep it alive and keep it going. This is what happens when we play them. A game won thrice in 1:12, but only once for sure. In 72 seconds it was over. But the party.....
The party went on all night.