In week one, Notre Dame destroyed a decent Nevada squad 35-0 in South Bend. Ten years ago this week, the Irish traveled to Ann Arbor to take on RichRod’s second Michigan team.

A Forcier to be reckoned with?

The 2008 Michigan Wolverines were a complete disaster, finishing 3-9 and losing five games by 18 or more points. It’s strange symmetry that Notre Dame’s 3-9 season in 2007 was replicated by the Wolverines the following year. To add to RichRod’s evolving calamity, Michigan was placed on probation and forced to self-impose sanctions for violating NCAA practice rules. Rodriguez had pretty much spent what little capital he had accumulated in Ann Arbor thus far, and 2009 was going to be a “show progress or get out” kind of year.

Going up and down the rosters, there’s no doubt Notre Dame had the better overall team, but Michigan had a wild card in Tate Forcier. The former blue chipper from California had played well in the season opener against WMU and now had the label of “future Pat White” through his association to RichRod. Some guy named Denard Robinson also waited in the wings as a change-of-pace runner.

The Irish were three-point favorites on the road and were looking to score more than 17 points in Ann Arbor for the first time since 1999. Spoiler alert: they would do so, but as for everything else…

Game Highlights

*If you would like to watch the full game in its entirety (I don’t know why you would), click here. If you want DownInTheBend’s condensed games from the 2009 season, you can find those here.

Some Thoughts

Some things I noticed while re-watching:

  • We didn’t know at the time, but Forcier’s game-winning drive would be replicated by Denard Robinson the next two years. This was only the first installment of a trilogy of gut-punching at the hands of Michigan.
  • ND’s offense was powerful once again and even flashed a lot of potential running the ball. In fact, this was a “run the damn ball” game if I’ve ever seen one, with the Irish averaging 5.1 yards a carry. However, a combination of ND trailing most of the second half and Weis-era shenanigans meant that the run game only saw 28 carries, not including Clausen scrambles.
  • The Irish dominated the first half and only led 20-17, mostly due to special teams gaffes and the inability to punch the ball into the endzone on offense. Red zone struggles would be a recurring theme for this season, even with NFL talent at the skill positions. With some more competent special teams play and better red zone offense, the Irish could have been up by three scores at halftime.
  • Speaking of special teams, it was a disaster. Daryll Stonum returned a kickoff for a touchdown and Nick Tausch missed a chip-shot field goal in the first half alone. An underrated screw-up from this game was Eric Maust’s 28-yard punt to set Michigan up for its game-winning drive. We all remember the Zibby returns and Golden Tate against Pitt, but Charlie Weis’ special teams were mostly atrocious in South Bend. BK’s critics on this front would be wise to revisit how bad it was under Weis at times.
  • Golden Tate: nine catches for 115 yards and two touchdowns. Michael Floyd: seven catches for 131 yards and a touchdown. They were good.
  • There were some serious BVG vibes watching Tenuta’s defense trying to stop a modern spread attack. Tate Forcier ended up not being that great, but of course he was tremendous against a defense that seemed to have no plan in the second half. The inability to adapt to modern offensives is the primary reason why Tenuta hasn’t worked out anywhere else he’s been since Notre Dame.
  • This is the only game I can remember where Armando Allen looked the part of a blue chip running back. He looked great in the open field and in the passing game, almost taking a screen pass for a touchdown in the first quarter. The Statue of Liberty two-point play was pretty sweet too.

Charlie Weis’ Assist

The biggest takeaway everyone had from this game was Charlie Weis’ decision to throw the ball twice when Notre Dame was attempting to run the clock out. With 2:29 left, 2nd and 9 and Michigan down to its last two timeouts, Clausen threw incomplete twice in a row to give the ball back to the Wolverines. The Irish took a grand total of ten seconds off the clock and Michigan got the ball back on its own 42-yard line without using a timeout. The AP game summary described it as “Charlie Weis giving an assist.” Ouch.

Weis defended his decision by saying that Armando Allen was banged up and needed rest, but much like he did his entire tenure at Notre Dame, he never trusted a second-string running back to carry the ball. Furthermore, Michael Floyd was out for this series with a minor injury which made throwing the ball an even more fraught decision. That being said, Golden Tate was definitely interfered with on Clausen’s first throw, but why call such a low-percentage play in the first place? A bomb down the left sideline?

As for the third down throw, Clausen just missed Shaq Evans who was wide open. All of a sudden, the somber-looking UM fans started to perk up on ESPN’s broadcast. I can understand Weis’ rationale of being aggressive, but ultimately this was a “decided schematic advantage” series of play-calling. After gashing the Wolverines’ defense all game long on the ground, he just could not bring himself to trust his offensive line to get a first down. Instead he opted for airing it out despite not having arguably ND’s best wide receiver of all-time on the field.

Unforgivable Loss

When coaches are on the hot seat, they can’t afford to take what same call an “albatross loss”. This is an unforgivable loss that usually occurs early in the season and completely takes the wind out of the rest of the year. Some recent non-ND examples of this include Kevin Sumlin’s Texas A&M blowing a 34-point lead against UCLA in 2017 and Willie Taggart’s opening loss against Boise State two weeks ago.

This was the definition of an albatross loss. Michigan would go on to finish 5-7 and Forcier ended up getting benched for Robinson by week nine. RichRod seemed to acknowledge that ND was a much better squad during his briefly infamous press conference:

“The quarterback is an NFL guy. They’ve got two of the best wide receivers I’ve seen in years and their running back is a big-time player. And did you see the size of the linemen? They could eat peanuts off our guys’ helmets.”

Pretty much everything he said was correct, this was still an crazy talented team that had a lot to play for. Still, the Irish still found a way to lose to an inferior opponent and the burden on Charlie Weis’s shoulders was growing larger. Michigan State waited in the wings, and now every week was do or die. The worst part of it all?

They lost to Michigan.

Other Things that Happened that Week

  • #3 USC beat #8 Ohio State 18-15 in Columbus, with true freshman Matt Barkley leading a game-winning drive.
  • Kevin Sumlin’s Houston upset #5 Oklahoma State 45-35 in Stillwater. Fun fact: OSU was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in the preseason and after week one. The double curse.
  • Brian Kelly and Cincinnati put 70 on an FCS team. This would start to be a thing.
  • Georgia Tech beat Dabo’s second Clemson team with help from a fake field goal that would look pretty familiar to Irish fans in a few weeks.
  • Butch Jones and Central Michigan beat Michigan State in East Lansing in a crazy finish involving a missed two-point conversion and an onside kick.