NOTRE DAME – “Killer instinct.”
In the words of Notre Dame tailback Theo Riddick, that’s what sets the 2012 Notre Dame team apart from the 2009, 2010 and 2011 squads.
It’s the killer instinct to pick off Denard Robinson – who has been Notre Dame’s kryptonite for two years – four times on four consecutive throws and force another two turnovers during the game.
It’s the killer instinct to bench a struggling Everett Golson for Tommy Rees, who led Notre Dame on its only touchdown drive of the night. It was that killer instinct that found Rees in the end zone off a 2-yard quarterback keeper, his first rushing touchdown of his career.
It’s the killer instinct to not fold when Michigan drove down the field time and time again, to hold the Wolverines to a pair of field goals, to keep yet another team from Michigan out of the end zone.
It’s what gave No. 11 Notre Dame (4-0) the push to execute exactly as many plays as it needed to – no more, no less – and survive a 13-6 scrapper with No. 18 Michigan (2-2).
“Our players see how the game unfolds and know that it’s gut-check time in close games and that they’ve got to rely on each other,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “It builds a closeness within your locker room…It builds a confidence that, no matter what the circumstances are, they can find a way to win.”
With Golson folding under pressure throughout the first quarter, Notre Dame turned to its smashmouth defense.
Coming off a missed field goal attempt on its previous drive, Michigan marched down to the Notre Dame 10-yard line for the second consecutive series. Robinson lateraled the ball to tailback Vincent Smith, who threw the ball into the hands of freshman safety Nicky Baratti in the end zone.
The floodgates had opened. On the next drive, Manti Te’o grabbed a pass from Robinson. Then Bennett Jackson. Then Te’o again. Then Kei’Varae Russell, in the final play of the half.
On Michigan’s opening drive in the second half, Robinson lost the ball on the Notre Dame 8-yard line, which Jackson recovered. It was the closest the Wolverines would get to the end zone all game.
“Defensively, what can I say,” Kelly said. “Six turnovers. We limited one of the most dynamic offensive players in the country to no touchdowns. Just an incredible performance by our defense.”
When the dust cleared, Jackson led the team with nine tackles, one interception and one fumble recovery. Te’o finished with eight tackles and two picks.
Despite Robinson’s turnovers, Michigan coach Brady Hoke said he never considered pulling his quarterback.
“The guy has done a pretty doggone good job of being a quarterback at Michigan and made some good throws in the first half,” he said. “You know, just better decision making and moving forward.”
Robinson eventually led Michigan on two drives that ended in two successful field goals, to match Notre Dame’s own pair of field goals.
Notre Dame took over with 3 minutes, 27 seconds left after Michigan’s second field goal.
A handful of tough runs by Riddick and a 39-yard connection between Rees and Tyler Eifert bought Notre Dame just enough time to run the clock down to zero.
“You’ve got to be able to close out hard-fought, close games,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “And the two possessions we had in the fourth quarter pretty much took the ball away from Michigan when they needed it.”
Rees finished 8-11 for 133 passing yards and one rushing touchdown, while Riddick racked up 53 rushing yards on 17 carries. Robinson finished 13-24 with 138 passing yards, four interceptions and 26 carries for 118 rushing yards and one lost fumble.