SOUTH BEND, Ind. — It looked like disaster, and it certainly felt like disaster, as Michigan ran out the clock and took a 21-10 deficit to Notre Dame into the locker room at halftime.
Nothing was clicking. The offense seemed to be able to move the ball at times, but self-inflicted mistakes kept them from capitalizing. On the other side of the ball, things looked worse.
Michigan’s usually stingy defense — ranked 3rd in the country last year — had given up 233 yards and 21 points at the half. That’s more than the Wolverines gave up in seven games total a year ago, and behind only one game in 2017 in yards allowed in the first half.
That Penn State game a year ago, where Michigan gave up 302 yards in the first half was a different story, however. The Wolverines were in striking distance at the half, but the defense continued to give up big plays in the second half. That was the tale of 2017 in a nutshell. The defense would hold early until it just couldn’t anymore.
Saturday’s contest at Notre Dame? A different story entirely.
In something of a reversal compared to the losses of a year ago the defense clamped down in the second half, allowing only 82 total yards to the Notre Dame offense that marched so casually down the field in the first half.
After the mounted comeback fell short, the Wolverines were in search of silver linings. If there’s any on the defensive side of the ball, fifth-year defensive end Chase Winovich says that’s gotta be it.
“I felt like second half, I think we morphed – we kinda found our groove a little bit more,” Winovich said. “This might be a hot take – I don’t mean it to be. They’re a great football team and stuff. But I just didn’t feel like they dominated us. I just felt like they went up, made some 50/50 plays and schematically they just did what they had to do.”
But he’s still flabbergasted. Unsure why the first half went the way it did.
There were a lot of self-inflicted wounds. Players in position to make plays that didn’t. Balls the ricochet off the fingers into the hands of an awaiting Irish receiver in the end zone. Phantom penalties and obvious ones, alike.
Much of that took place in the first half, where Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush & Co. were spectacular, lighting up one of the nation’s best defenses from a year ago in the first two drives like the Wolverines were and FCS team
Even though the Michigan defense had seemingly figured things out, Winovich still didn’t have a finger on the pulse of what went wrong in the early going. Best he could do is praise the job that Notre Dame — particularly Brandon Wimbush — did.
“I haven’t watched the tape,” Winovich said. “To be in the thick of it, honestly, everything happened so fast. He made plays, and ultimately, we didn’t. And that’s what football’s all about – making plays when you need to. So, hat’s off to (Wimbush).”
“To be honest, I’m not really sure where they beat us,” he later continued. “I’m still kinda confused. I came into the locker room, I looked around. I was kinda confused as to how we lost that game. It didn’t feel like they dominated us in any aspect of (the ball game), but, like I said, ultimately, they made plays when they needed to, and that’s a credit to them. That’s, like I said, what football’s all about. And they limited the turnovers and we had one and weren’t able to capitalize off it. We had a lot of penalties.”
A mere week ago, Winovich said that Saturday’s contest — one he clearly felt confident about — would tell the world everything it needed to know about Michigan football.
“It’s no surprise that we haven’t been very good on the road the past couple years. And playing against the 12th-ranked team, I think they are – if we can go into Notre Dame of all places, and first game of the year, set the season off on that note, I think it says a lot about the trajectory of our season.”
Well, getting bloodied early, battling back, but not finding a way to win doesn’t speak well for said trajectory.
Winovich says that the loss in the season opener is on the defense, but the good news is, this team isn’t going to let the one game define them. And the locker room is galvanized as a result.
“Sometimes quotes don’t age very well!” Winovich said. “It’s one of those things, if it’s anything about the trajectory, I would say we were battling out there. Sometimes things don’t go your way. That’s life. That’s football on the road at Notre Dame under the lights. Just gonna move on. We’re gonna keep adding at it.
“I think the trajectory is – we’re coming together in the locker room. One thing I did note: there wasn’t a lot of blaming. It wasn’t pointing fingers. The defense still feels like, maybe going into the game, you had different expectations. But, at the end of the day, you give up 24 points, or whatever, it just puts a lot of pressure on your offense. It’s on us.”
We’ll see if that ends up being true, but Winovich makes a good point: last year, when the tough got going, the going got weaker. Sometimes it was a trickle of water that made its way through the base of the dam, or in some cases, the dam burst entirely.
Last night, the dam burst at the outset, but the Michigan defense managed to patch it back up at halftime. The damage was already done, and the Wolverines proverbial plain was already flooded. But, given what happened, perhaps this team learned how to fortify the structure so it doesn’t break again.
“It’s important to note, I think that’s different than last year,” Winovich said. “Last year, things went (awry). You see it in the South Carolina game and at other points, things kinda went astray, and if we had that mindset last year, they could have really done some damage on us. Look at Penn State. And this year, I think it was opposite. We had given up some points, but we had come together. We regrouped, went back out there, do what we had to do, try to give our offense the best chance.”
So, what’s next?
Perusing social media, the news, et cetera, Michigan’s obituary has been seemingly written. Minutes into Week One, it was over. Large (at least vocal) swaths of the fanbase have tired of Jim Harbaugh, and want a change. Absurdly.
Saturday was a setback, no doubt. It was a game that Michigan desperately needed to win, more so than the other way around. But, give up on this team at your own peril, Winovich says.
The likelihood of the Wolverines rattling off 11 straight games might seem impossible — and it’s certainly improbable — but weirder things have happened. In 2016, after being throttled by Michigan at The Big House, the question was at what point during the season would Penn State coach James Franklin be fired. When, not if.
Winovich sees things similarly. Very few teams have made it to the College Football Playoff with an unblemished record. The goals are still there for this team — the margin of error is just now less than razor thin.
“This is my personal take on it: I came back to Michigan – I can’t speak for every person in the locker room, but there’s an expression: you take the island by burning the boats,” Winovich said. “For me, I came back (to) forgo the draft – for me, it’s like, I’ve got a mission to do, and I’m gonna do my best to influence them in that way. I think it’s like 13 of 16 teams that made the playoffs have one loss. So, ultimately, everything’s still on the table for us, and there’s lessons to be learned.”