ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The lights came on about two hours before kickoff. And then ultimately everything went dark for Notre Dame, a historic night ending in a disturbing, skin-crawling low point that extinguished sky-high aspirations before they even had a chance.
The Irish lost 35-31 to Michigan, and there were 114,804 stuffing Michigan Stadium until it burst that may never figure out what they saw. Notre Dame had a 17-point lead to start the fourth quarter, watched it vanish, recaptured a lead, then lost it again somewhere in the heap of could-have-beens the program is amassing.
Again, the Irish found a way to undercut everything they have been building, to invent new, self-inflicted doom. Five turnovers, nine penalties and a failure to protect a lead with 30 seconds left to play was the latest innovation Saturday.
In the end, Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson crushed them for a second straight year, this time with a 16-yard scoring toss to Roy Roundtree with two seconds to play that erased the go-ahead Irish touchdown they had registered just 28 seconds earlier.
"We're not good enough," Irish coach Brian Kelly said. "There's not one individual in that locker room — including all the coaches — who are good enough right now. Consequently we lost the football game.
"And I mean across the board. It's turnovers, it's subpar special teams play, it's the inability to make a stop, it's all of those things. Pretty much told our football team that when we're better as a football team, we'll start winning."
So the Irish are 0-2 and achieving progress in Year 2 of the Kelly regime will require a mind-blowing final 10 weeks, and it's fair to wonder if this team is capable of it.
As crackling as the atmosphere was, Notre Dame punched a hole in it immediately. It raced to a 14-0 first-quarter lead. At halftime, the lead was 17-7, and Robinson had completed just two passes and rushed for a highly manageable 40 yards.
Entering the fourth quarter, the Irish were up 17, and then all hell broke loose.
Robinson picked up a fumble at the goal-line and ran it in for a score, then took advantage of a shanked Irish punt to find Jeremy Gallon for a 14-yard touchdown to cut the lead to 24-21 with 10:47 left to play.
After the teams traded turnovers and then Notre Dame punted, Robinson converted on a third-and-2 at midfield, then found Kelvin Grady for 27 yards into Irish territory. On the next snap, Michigan's Vincent Smith took a pass from Robinson and dashed in for the go-ahead score and a 28-24 lead.
Notre Dame and Tommy Rees answered. The sophomore, who had an interception and a fumble earlier in the red zone, marched the Irish down the field and hit Theo Riddick for a 29-yard score with 30 seconds left and a 31-28 edge. Notre Dame had 65 seconds to answer. And it did. Michigan just had one more answer in store.
"I feel so bad for our kids, because they're battling their butts off," Kelly said. "They're playing really hard. They can be a good team. They're not one right now, because of the mistakes we're making. They just have to stay together, and they will. We're committed to getting better."