September 14, 2011
Hello, Michigan: Welcome back to 2-0 after a wild, myth-making comeback to beat Notre Dame on an improbable touchdown drive in the final minute of a shootout. By now, it's a feeling you know well — and, exhilaration notwithstanding, you've learned not to trust when it comes to plotting the course of the season.
In 2009, it was true freshman Tate Forcier delivering the dagger in a win that seemed to validate Rich Rodriguez's offense on the heels of a disastrous debut season. From there, the Wolverines didn't beat another winning team and dropped seven straight Big Ten games to close the year below .500. Last year, with the quickly forgotten Forcier on the bench, it was Denard Robinson emerging in South Bend as the irresistible force who would finally lift Michigan back to respectability. From there, the Wolverines beat just one winning team (in triple overtime), dropped six of their last eight and wound up limping out of the Rodriguez era for good. Two years, two death-defying triumphs over the Fighting Irish, two collapses that pulled the rug out from under the early optimism.
In retrospect, the salient takeaway from both of those wins turned out to be not the heroic emergence of a new star quarterback, but the chronic vulnerability of the defense: Michigan finished as one of the worst defenses in the Big Ten (last year it was easily the worst) in both seasons, going on to give up at least 30 points in six of its last nine games in 2009 and nine of its last eleven in 2010, including four of its six FBS wins in those games. Based on that precedent, the latest rendition of "Irish Killer" must seem almost as terrifying for the future as it was mind-blowing in the present.
For one thing, Denard Robinson was only in position to weave his improbable, ad-libbed magic in the fourth quarter because Notre Dame had obliged with three turnovers in the first three quarters — two of them inside the Michigan 30-yard line — that kept the score from being even more lopsided than 24-7. (ND quarterback Tommy Rees also obliged with a ridiculous fumble at the Wolverine 9-yard line with a little over six minutes to play, killing a potential scoring drive that might have put the game on ice for the Irish.) The only reason Michigan had time at all for its final, miracle drive to win is that Notre Dame responded to the Wolverines' first go-ahead touchdown with a minute to play so effortlessly, covering 46 yards to paydirt in just 30 seconds. For the night, the Irish finished with 513 yards and 28 first downs on more than seven yards per play.
The great hope for Michigan this offseason was new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison's ability to lift the defense out of the crater left by his predecessor, Greg "Gerg" Robinson. On that front, the good news is that it still has three more weeks of no-brainer wins — Eastern Michigan, San Diego State and Minnesota, all in Ann Arbor — to make some progress before the next real test, at Northwestern on Oct. 8. (Degree of difficulty variable, pending the return of Wildcat quarterback Dan Persa.) The bad news: As bad as the defense looked Saturday, Maize-and-Blue partisans are going to be holding their breath between now and then no matter what. They've learned the hard way. The harsh lessons of the RichRod have a long, long way to go before they can be unlearned.