SOUTH BEND – The previous time Michigan and Notre Dame had met, in 2014, the Irish ran away with the game, winning 31-0.
When the teams renewed their rivalry to open the season Saturday night, the 12th-ranked Irish picked up where they left off, racing out to a two-touchdown lead in the first eight minutes and holding on at the end for a 24-17 victory at Notre Dame Stadium in front of an announced crowd of 77,622 raucous, mostly green-clad fans.
"Winning close games against really good football teams means you have a pretty good football program," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "You keep building it, you keep recruiting, keep a healthy culture and organization, you should be having the kind of atmosphere we had tonight. Wasn't that cool? That was as good as I can remember."
Notre Dame held the No. 14 Wolverines at arm's length for most of the game and led 24-10 with five minutes left. Michigan made a last-ditch atempt to close the gap in the waning minutes, driving 80 yards on seven plays and drawing within seven points when Karan Higdon punched the ball in from three yards out for a touchdown.
The Wolverines got the ball back after a Notre Dame three-and-out and had a chance to even the score, but Jerry Tillery knocked the ball out of a scrambling Shea Patterson's hand and Te'von Coney pounced on it to seal the win.
The Irish got the ball to start the game and wasted no time moving it downfield. Jafar Armstrong took a read-option handoff and raced 13 yards through the vaunted Michigan defense to cap a seven-play, 75-yard drive that took just 1:25.
The next time it had the ball, Notre Dame topped that opening drive, going 96 yards in only 3:07 for another score. Slot receiver Chris Finke made the play of the night to put the Irish up 14, grabbing a deep ball from Brandon Wimbush over the helmet of a defender for a 43-yard touchdown, the first of his Notre Dame career.
"It's a play we've been going over in practice all week," said Finke, who finished with three catches for 55 yards. "It's the right look for it, it's Cover 2 (defense) and I had the corner post. I got inside on the safety and Brandon just put up a beautiful ball and I was lucky enough to come down with it."
The long touchdown pass was Wimbush's only score in the game, but the junior quarterback had 229 total yards – 170 passing and 59 rushing – and made plays outside the pocket all night against Michigan's relentless pass rush. For his performance, Wimbush was awarded the game ball from Kelly.
"I thought (Wimbush) played with an edge to him, a confidence," Kelly said. "He really had an energy to him, which brought the group with him."
The Notre Dame offense was mostly quiet in the final three quarters, save for one long touchdown drive in the second, but it didn't matter because the defense was dominant.
Michigan was unable to get anything going on the ground because the Irish defensive line consistently stuffed the middle. The Wolverines averaged just 2.1 yards per rush.
The passing game wasn't much more effective for Michigan. Patterson, making his first start after transferring from Ole Miss, was under near-constant pressure and Jerry Tillery and Khalid Kareem each got to him for sacks, with Kareem recording two.
Kelly said in the lead-up to the game that he has the deepest defensive line in his nine years at Notre Dame and it showed Saturday.
"We have to have that kind of depth," the coach said after the game. "We're not generally going to get that one singular star player, but we can develop depth in our group and have that kind of defensive structure where we can roll out a lot of really good football players."
Pressure from that defensive front also forced Patterson into his only interception of the night, when Coney broke through the line on a blitz and Patterson had to throw off his back foot. Defensive end Julian Okwara read it perfectly and picked it off on the sideline for his second career interception.
"That's just the beginning," safety Alohi Gilman said. "The scary thing is (this defense) hasn't even reached our peak potential. I think (the win) was a great confidence booster for us going into this season and hopefully (we'll) carry it into November."
Michigan didn't score an offensive touchdown until that final drive, their only previous score coming on a 99-yard kickoff return from Ambry Thomas in the second quarter.
Coney led the Irish with 10 tackles and hurried the quarterback twice, in addition to his fumble recovery, while Gilman, a transfer from Navy, had seven tackles, including one for loss, and two pass breakups.