The echoes were awoken Saturday night in South Bend… in a big way.
No. 12 Notre Dame jumped out to a lead and never seemed to look back as they made a season-opening statement by topping No. 14 Michigan 24-17 in a game they generally controlled throughout. It was an impressive outing by any measure and especially so as the two college football blue bloods renewed their rivalry series with high hopes for the year but only one walking away happy.
Perhaps the most pleasing development for head coach Brian Kelly’s Irish squad was the play of quarterback Brandon Wimbush. After a full offseason’s worth of work on his passing, the senior looked much sharper and in command of the offense despite the bright lights and feisty defense on the other side. Though he had a few throws that were off target and near interceptions, he finished the night with 170 yards, a touchdown and an interception (he also led the team in rushing with 59 yards). The numbers weren’t eye-popping by any measure but he certainly performed well against a Don Brown-led defense that returned the bulk of last year’s group that was among the best in the nation.
Wimbush wasn’t the only one to get involved in moving the ball as tailback Jafar Armstrong scored twice and ran for 35 yards in a game where every inch was earned. His speed, especially on sweeps, was evident and it looks like he’ll fit in well with Notre Dame’s other skill position talent. That group certainly includes senior Chris Finke, who delivered the early highlight of the year with a leaping touchdown catch and seems like he’ll factor heavily in the rotation out of the slot in 2018.
The Irish defense also came to play and started the year off on the right foot by allowing under four yards per play. That included holding Michigan’s rushing attack to well under 100 yards for the game, keeping lead back Karan Higdan in check particularly well with just 72 yards on 21 carries (3.4 ypc). Te’von Coney led the way with 10 tackles — and the game-sealing fumble recovery — while safety Alohi Gilman made the most of his debut for the team by stuffing the stat sheet with seven tackles, a TFL and two pass breakups.
As a result, the Wolverines couldn’t really muster much consistency at all despite a few nice plays from Shea Patterson throughout the game. The transfer from Ole Miss does look like a good fit in Jim Harbaugh’s system but every yard was tough to come by and he finished 20-of-30 for 227 yards and an interception. Patterson had to exit late with what appeared to be cramps in the fourth quarter, leading to backup Dylan McCaffrey taking a few snaps down the stretch instead of one of last year’s starters in Brandon Peters.
Things could have been much worse for Michigan had it not been for the defense bowing up as the game went on and special teams coming through. Ambry Thomas briefly gave the team life just before halftime with an electric 99-yard kick return for a touchdown but there was otherwise not much scoring on either side as the two teams slugged things out the rest of the way.
The end result will lead to ever more questions for Harbaugh as his offense seemed to once again show flashes but wind up not doing a whole lot come crunch time. There’s certainly still a path to the College Football Playoff available for the Wolverines in the tough Big Ten East but the margin for error does seem a lot smaller than it did in the offseason with the way they played. The defense remains solid and there does appear to be more playmakers available on the other side of the ball but consistency was lacking on the road to open the season.
The Irish, meanwhile, have to be thrilled at the result even if the second half wasn’t quite as convincing as they wanted it to be. They’ll likely move up into the top 10 come the release of the latest polls on Tuesday and have two more home games to work out any kinks before facing a few stout tests in Wake Forest and, especially, big rival Stanford. While it is still far too early to start talking playoff, it was an excellent start to the year for Kelly and company as team gets used to a few new faces around the football offices.
That’s all for another time however as Notre Dame can be sure to celebrate the effort on Saturday night as they vanquished a big rival and made quite the early statement to kick off the season.