ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Now it becomes about rebuilding a season, not just dissecting an ESPN-ified collapse, rife with more turnovers and seismic mental hiccups.
In the first night game in the history of 84-year-old Michigan Stadium, ND coach Brian Kelly was angling for the dawn of a lasting era of mental toughness, particularly from his seniors.
He got it and a little bit more for three quarters, then watched an ugly tragedy of errors turn a 24-7 Irish command into a 35-31 swirl of despair.
The Irish limp home 0-2 for the first time since the lost season of 2007 and just the eighth time ever. They’ll try to avoid only the fourth 0-3 start in school history next Saturday against Michigan State (2-0).
“There’s not one individual in that locker room, including all the coaches, that’s good enough right now,” Kelly said. “And, consequently, we lost a football game.”
The Irish setback extends a September losing streak to five games that began with a 28-24 loss to Michigan last season in South Bend. It was just the 22nd loss in 140 games for Kelly in which his team lost after scoring first in the game and just the 12th time in 152 games in which his team couldn’t make a halftime lead hold up.
“It probably wasn’t pretty on both ends, but it was a win,” Michigan first-year head coach Brady Hoke said. “There’s a lot we can learn from it.”
A stadium record crowd of 114,804 looked on as sophomore Tommy Rees showed plenty of poise and just enough precision in his reanointment as ND’s No. 1 option at quarterback to give the Irish a seemingly safe and quasi-miraculous 31-28 lead with 30 seconds left.
Rees’ 29-yard scoring pass to Theo Riddick rallied the Irish after Michigan (2-0) roared ahead with 21 straight points. That pass punctuated a masterful 61-yard, four-play glide down the field in 35 seconds.
But Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson answered big-time, capping the 28-point scoring barrage in the fourth quarter with a 16-yard scoring pass to Roy Roundtree with two seconds left. Robinson moved the Wolverines 80 yards in three plays, spanning 28 seconds.
“We didn’t play Michigan football in the first half,” said Michigan receiver Jeremy Gallon, whose 64-yard hookup from Robinson set up the winning TD. “We had to keep fighting ‘til the clock stopped ticking. We believed in each other.”
The Irish believed too, and led 24-7 with 2:13 left after sophomore TJ Jones took a little swing pass from Rees, then tiptoed down the sideline for a 15-yard TD.
At the time, ND held a 410-141 command in total yards, 22-5 in first downs and 192-82 in rushing yards. The killer instinct was diluted by turnovers and gaping holes in the veteran Irish secondary.
“It’s turnovers. It’s subpar special teams play. It’s the inability to make a stop. It’s everything,” Kelly said.
The Irish finished with five turnovers for the second week in a row. Rees accounted for three of those himself - two interceptions and a ball the slipped out of his throwing hand on a pump fake with the Irish driving for the clinching score. Michigan defensive tackle Ryan Van Bergen corralled the loose ball at the Michigan 9.
Rees finished 27-of-39 for 315 yards and three touchdowns to go along with his three turnovers. Thirteen of those passes went to senior receiver Michael Floyd, a career-high for him. Cierre Wood rushed for a career-high 134 yards on 25 carries and a TD - all numbers that figured to be enough to push ND back into the national spotlight for all the right reasons.
Robinson, who had a school-record 502 yards in total offense last year against the Irish in 68 plays, started slow but finished 11-of-24 for 338 yards and four touchdowns and three picks. He rushed for 108 yards on 16 carries and got a rushing TD when the ball caromed right into his hands in stride on a fumble by teammate Stephen Hopkins.
“Expectations for this program are way too high for where we need to be,” Hoke said. “We’ve got a lot of things we can do better on both sides of the ball.”
Kelly wouldn’t mind having those kinds of problems if they came with a 2-0 record. Instead he’s swimming in a pool of negativity, trying to hit the restart button on a season that promised, at the very least, progress.