There’s an expression, ‘tension so thick you could cut it with a knife.’ That’s what I think of with the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry - a classic slugfest with some early-season echoes of bowl games, championships, and playoffs later in the year.
And even while Michigan and Notre Dame have stumbled in recent years, the games between them have kept that vigor. Tate Forcier threw a game-winning touchdown in 2009 to Greg Mathews with 11 seconds left to give Michigan the win; Denard Robinson ran for 258 yards and threw for another 244 while scoring with 27 seconds left in the fourth quarter in 2010. In 2011, an even bigger miracle was in store.
Since then, Notre Dame has salvaged some of its pride, winning in 2012 and then 2014. So many of these games were built on the success or failure of certain dual-threat quarterbacks; they were tense, even strained; and the love-hate relationship between the two fan bases with the rivalry and with each other seemed to deepen over the years.
Since the rivalry is now picking up where it left off, it seemed appropriate to look back at these last few games, games that were in some ways pivotal for the rivalry. Here is a pictorial history of the 2012-14 contests between Notre Dame and Michigan.
Michigan took the ball first, driving 32 yards on 7 plays thanks to a heavy dose of Denard Robinson, as well as a failed trick pass from Devin Gardner. When Michigan finally punted it back to Notre Dame, Raymon Taylor immediately picked off Everett Golson, with a facemask penalty giving Michigan the ball at the 10-yard line.
It would prove to be a missed opportunity. Fitz Toussaint, stuffed on the outside. Denard, sacked. Denard, sacked. Brendan Gibbons, missed field goal. It was an omen of things to come. Against a defense that would carry Notre Dame to the national title game that year, Denard Robinson struggled early and often.
"It won't happen no more,” he said afterward. “I'm going to be accountable for the rest of the season. I don't want to feel like this no more. In the 22 years I've been living, this is the most disappointed I've ever been in myself."
On the other side, Notre Dame’s offense didn’t fare much better. Golson got benched in the second quarter, finishing with 3/8 passes for 30 yards and 2 interceptions. Tommy Rees fared better: 8/11, 115 yards, no TD’s, no picks. It was enough.
If the whole game was ugly, that first half was particularly bad. From one point, midway through the first, to halftime, Brady Hoke’s Wolverines had 5 interceptions on 5 straight passes (one of them on another trick play) and a fumble they managed to recover.
Then, in the third, their first drive - that started with an encouraging 31-yard rumble by Fitz Toussaint - ended with a fumble from Denard Robinson, giving him five turnovers in a little more than two quarters. Neither team was going to score many points today, but on Notre Dame’s side it was a complete and utter domination of one of the most talented athletes in the country.
Twice in the fourth, Brady Hoke elected to take field goals when his offense was in the red zone, down by 10 points. The first time, Michigan cut into a 10-0 Irish lead. The second time, with three minutes left, Michigan put the finishing touches on a 13-6 final score.
"The key to stopping Robinson, the key to stopping such a dynamic player like Denard is everybody has to get to him," said Manti Te'o. "Denard will start running one way and then totally cut back the other way. Everybody has to get to the ball. You have to really emphasize 11 guys to the ball."
After the game, news came out that the Irish were cancelling their annual series.
"The decision to cancel games in 2015-17 was Notre Dame's and not ours," said Dave Brandon. "We value our annual rivalry with Notre Dame but will have to see what the future holds for any continuation of the series.”
"The ball is in their court .... We'll play them next year at Michigan Stadium for the last time in a while - it appears - and we'll make our last scheduled trip to South Bend in 2014. There will likely be nothing on the board for five years after that. Beyond that, I don't know what will happen."
A new year brought new challenges for both ball clubs, as Notre Dame picked up the pieces from a 42-14 shellacking in the national title game - followed by the off-season suspension of Everett Golson - while the Wolverines sought to recover from an 8-5 campaign that was close to being much more. Both entered this matchup, the second game of the season, with high hopes for the new year - and a dominant offensive outing already under their belts.
With Michigan already sporting an early 3-0 lead, Devin Gardner hurled a play-action pass 20 yards downfield to a wide-open Jeremy Gallon, who bounced off several Irish defenders and streaked into the end zone. To Notre Dame, it was a broken play and poor tackling. But for Michigan, it was 61 yards on the pass, in what would turn into a historic day for Gallon.
The luck that bounced Notre Dame’s way the last year was not in effect today; the Irish defense simply couldn’t get to Devin Gardner and Jeremy Gallon, and Tommy Rees proved much less effective than he had been the previous week against Temple. Offense was plentiful, but Michigan held onto the ball and made fewer big mistakes.
For Devin personally, this game had the effect of winning over a lot of fans on the same night he was awarded the #98 jersey. The junior entered the Notre Dame contest with 1,642 career passing yards, but he calmly threw for 294 on 21/33 passing with four touchdowns and one pick, plus another 82 on the ground and one more score.
Akron and Connecticut would soon follow, games where Devin grew careless with the ball and replicated fans’ nightmares of Denard’s worst outings. But tonight, for this one night, he was all smooth.
The game that was branded as ‘Under The Lights II’ for the most part lived up to the home crowd’s wildest dreams. The attendance of 115,109 broke the previous record of UTL I’s 114,804, and the halftime performance by the Michigan Marching Band featured music from Beyoncé, while Eminem gave a memorable interview to Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit. It was, as Robert Loggia once put it, a party.
Notre Dame stayed close in the second half, thanks in large part to a Gardner interception to Stephon Tuitt. But they never led, and by the end Jeremy Gallon had gotten 184 receiving yards, the most any Michigan receiver has ever gotten against Notre Dame. Drew Dileo scored with four minutes left to put it away, 41-30.
"We came up just short on some key plays," rued Brian Kelly.
By 2014, the wheels were falling off for Michigan. Notre Dame was on the upswing. The result was predictable, even if it still burns badly.
The first touchdown came via Everett Golson, fresh off his suspension. Golson spent his day in the pocket throwing for 226 yards, 3 touchdowns, and no interceptions. The ground game was non-existent across the board, but it didn’t have to carry the Fighting Irish. Not today.
Michigan’s offense fell apart again behind a dominant defensive outing from Brian Kelly and Brian VanGorder’s group, with four turnovers to none for Golson & Company. Devin Funchess managed 9 catches for 107 yards, but it was clear to those watching that Michigan’s offense, and this team, was broken.
Today, more than anything else, signaled the beginning of the end for Brady Hoke. There were a lot of hopes - and a fair number of Hoke supporters - entering this game. But 31-0 was a soul-numbing defeat.
On the final sack of the game, with a little over two minutes left, Notre Dame knew exactly what was coming and stormed the offensive line to take down Gardner, who fell two seconds after taking the snap. What made that particular play even more painful was that it came on a 4th down, with the game firmly out of reach at 31-0, but within field goal distance to break the shutout and salvage some dignity.
Instead, Gardner picked himself up, the quarterback of Michigan’s only shutout loss in its history to the Fighting Irish. It was an avoidable end to an unavoidable loss, and sent the Irish off in style.
"I'd be lying if I told you that it didn't feel great to shut out Michigan,” Brian Kelly told a reporter afterward, “31 to nothing."
A year after Michigan played the Chicken Dance in the Big House, Notre Dame fans sang “Na na na na, hey, hey, hey, good-bye” to the Wolverine players. Star linebacker Jaylon Smith called it great revenge, while Brady Hoke promised a quick bounce back. And, like that, it was over.
For four long years.