Against a rugged Michigan defense, I’m not sure many questions about Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush were answered. In part because of an offensive line that struggled to hold up against the Wolverines' stout front and in part due to his inconsistencies, the jury is still out on the Irish signal-caller. The line also had problems opening holes in the running game during the second half, while special teams played a big part in giving Michigan's 10 first half points.
But when the night was over, Notre Dame joined Auburn in claiming one of the two marquee wins of the college football season’s first Saturday. That victory was provided by a Notre Dame defense that made the Michigan offense look like the same pathetic unit it was last fall, despite the presence of Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson at quarterback.
Last fall, under coordinator Mike Elko’s command, Notre Dame fielded a solid, fundamental defense. They were 46th in total defense, allowing 369 yards per game, and their 21.5 points per game was 31st in the FBS. Where the Irish really excelled was in limiting opponents’ big plays. The four plays allowed of over 40 yards tied for second nationally as did the single play of over 50 yards allowed. Last year’s Notre Dame defense was going to make you work your way down the field.
At the same time, last fall’s Notre Dame defense wasn’t as effective at creating havoc. Despite Julian Love’s 23 passes defended, the Irish were just 40th in that category as a team. They were 54th in tackles for lost yardage, 70th in sacks and 50th in turnovers created. While those stats weren't terrible, coupled with the lack of big plays allowed, the Irish had the look of a bend-but-don’t-break unit in 2017.
But something felt different on Saturday. Notre Dame was on the attack all night long and that didn’t mean that new defensive coordinator Clark Lea was sending pressures from all levels of the defense for 60 minutes, which is perhaps the most encouraging sign going forward.
Notre Dame got three sacks, all from their defensive line — two by end Khalid Kareem and one by tackle Jerry Tillery. Daelin Hayes had perhaps the best one unassisted tackle performance one can remember. The Irish owned the line of scrimmage and limited Michigan to just 1.8 yards per rush. And the Irish forced two huge turnovers, an interception by defensive end Julian Okwara and a game-clinching forced fumble by Tillery.
By getting pressure from the front four, Notre Dame was again able to limit big-chunk plays while the front line was causing chaos. Patterson did connect on a 52-yard pass to Nico Collins to start the second half, but that was the only play Michigan had of over 25 yards. So Notre Dame was successful at getting into the Wolverines’ backfield without getting burned on the back end.
Perhaps the Irish were the benefactors of a Michigan offense that is not much different than the Wolverines' anemic 2017 attack and before anyone fully jumps on the College Football Playoff bandwagon there are offensive questions that need to be answered. But Notre Dame looks like it may have a defensive unit that will give the Irish a chance every game this season.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.