ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Close, Brian Kelly said, but not enough.
“Close” can describe all the times Notre Dame defenders reached for Devin Gardner before the slippery quarterback spun away and completed double-digit yard passes to Jeremy Gallon.
“Close” put Notre Dame in striking position to tie the game back up before the half, but not enough to stop Tommy Rees’s interception that set up another Michigan score.
“Close” was the collective sigh of relief after Stephon Tuitt’s acrobatic interception in the end zone, but it wasn’t enough to completely swing the momentum to Notre Dame’s favor.
“Close” moved the Irish to Michigan’s 6-yard line with the game still in reach, but not enough to prevent a Rees interception in the end zone to seal Notre Dame’s fate.
“Not enough,” Kelly repeated, barely more than a mumble.
In all, it wasn’t enough to push past Michigan in Notre Dame’s final scheduled trek to the Big House. The Wolverines (2-0) prevailed in a 41-30 win over the visiting Irish (1-1) on Saturday, Sept. 7.
Though the Notre Dame defense allowed 41 points, 460 total yards and 8.9 yards per pass, Kelly harped on offensive shortcomings throughout the game.
“I felt that we missed some opportunities offensively that could have given us the opportunity to win the football game,” Kelly said. “I felt like we had two opportunities to score. We’ve got to make those plays. This is one of those games that our offense needed to carry the day for us.”
The offense kept pace at first, scoring 10 points after Michigan scored 10 first. As the game wore on, though, Gardner’s high-octane offense gradually pulled away from Rees’, which struggled to score in the short field.
In five trips to the red zone, Notre Dame found the end zone twice.
Rees threw 51 times (completing 29) for 314 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions but couldn’t finish when it counted, most notably on the late-game interception in Michigan’s end zone.
“We’d like to have the one throw before the half back, but he did some really good things,” Kelly said of Rees. “Feels like there were just one or two throws there that could have put 44 points on the board.”
As Notre Dame buckled under the glare of the lights at Michigan Stadium, Gardner — donning No. 98 for former Michigan great Tom Harmon — dazzled. The junior quarterback finished 21 of 33 for 294 passing yards and four touchdowns.
The Irish plugged the run up the middle, but Gardner still managed to scramble for 96 yards and a rushing touchdown.
The Irish were quick and mobile on defense, chasing Gardner several yards behind the line of scrimmage but rarely being able to bring him down. His ability to turn a near-certain sack into a 10-yard gain kept the Irish constantly frustrated.
“He’s a great athlete, spinning around, keeping plays alive,” Notre Dame defensive end Sheldon Day said. “He did a great job. He was excellent when it came to escaping pressure.”
The Irish were a handful of plays away from closing out its series in Ann Arbor with a victory. A handful of plays from 2-0.
As the chips fell, Notre Dame was close. But not close enough.