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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, September 02, 2018 6:30 pm

Notre Dame opens season with victory, Wimbush steps up

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

SOUTH BEND – The first major hurdle of Notre Dame's season was cleared Saturday night. The Irish physically dominated Michigan for about 55 minutes before the Wolverines made the game close in the final moments. Fittingly, the home team clinched its 24-17 win with a strip-sack in the last minute, the last in a series of highlight plays from a defensive line that figures to be a force all season.

"That game was right in front of you," Brian Kelly said. "It was a physical football game. We expected it to be the kind of game it ended up being, hard-fought. It required individual plays. Guys needed to step up and make plays. We made more plays than they did."

Outside of one kickoff the Wolverines returned for a touchdown and Michigan's one scoring drive with less than five minutes to play, it's difficult to imagine a more dominant start to the season for Notre Dame. The Irish let the Wolverines hang around all game, never quite putting them away until the final seconds, but from the opening drive it always seemed like Notre Dame was in control. Michigan's only points until the last minute came as a result of Irish special teams miscues (the kick return and a poor punt from Tyler Newsome that gave Michigan the ball at the Irish 41).

Outside of those gift points, Michigan's offense did essentially nothing against the Irish defense. Shea Patterson had one big completion for 52 yards – a play that was the result of a coverage breakdown – but otherwise averaged just six yards per attempt and turned the ball over twice while facing constant pressure. The Irish not only got pressure from rushing four with their disruptive defensive line, but defensive coordinator Clark Lea also dialed up some creative blitzes that unleashed Te'von Coney into the backfield.

The Notre Dame defense will probably get most of the publicity from this game, but the offense shouldn't be overlooked. Against possibly the best defense they'll face all year, the Irish scored 14 points in the first eight minutes and made Michigan fans begin to think the Rich Rodriguez Era had returned. 

Brandon Wimbush got the game ball from Kelly and deservedly so. He wasn't perfect, but he was plenty good enough and frustrated the Michigan defense by extending plays with his feet after it looked the Wolverines had him penned in in the pocket. One particular pair of plays stands out from Wimbush. In the third quarter, he took a sack for a nine-yard loss, a huge hit from star defensive end Chase Winovich, setting up a 3rd-and-18. On that third-down play, the Irish ran a quarterback draw and Wimbush fearlessly darted up the middle for a 19-yard gain and a big first down. He didn't run wild, but he had the Wolverines' defense on its heels most of the night.

Wimbush had help from the offensive line, which was a major question mark coming into the game after losing All-Americans Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey. New starters Robert Hainsey and Liam Eichenberg weren't overmatched by talented Michigan ends Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich (though that pair did combine for four tackles for loss).

"Hopefully we can move on from (Nelson and McGlinchey) after this one, because those guys did a great job up front," Wimbush said. "The defensive line for Michigan has been highly touted and highly regarded this entire offseason and I think our offensive line did an excellent job of holding their own and giving me time back there to do what I need to do to get things done. Big shoutout to those guys."

It was a solid all-around performance for the Irish and a huge win to kick-start their season. Michigan is a talented team and could be one of the best opponents Notre Dame plays this season. In front of more than 77,000 fans, the Irish announced that they'll be players in this college football season.

dsinn@jg.net