Conquering a Nightmare

Author: Michael Rodio ’12

Editor’s note: Michael Rodio ‘12, former magazine intern, frequent contributor and editor of the Daily Domer, will be covering home Notre Dame football games from the press box this season and writing them up in his own take on classic mid-century American sportswriting.

As the red-gold Indiana sun sank into the western horizon, the nightmare named Denard Robinson returned to haunt Notre Dame Stadium.

When he first strode onto the hallowed stadium turf, Robinson took the appearance of a mortal man, clad in the Michigan maize and blue. Robinson, the poets said, was the terror in Irish dreams, a bolt of lightning who could break the Notre Dame spirit, just as he had done for the past two years.

But on Saturday night, as twilight descended on South Bend, Indiana, the Notre Dame defense turned the nightmare onto Shoelace Robinson.

Heroic Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o took up the winged mantle and mirrored shield of Perseus. Together with his fierce band of stout-hearted defenders, the Hawaiian strongman petrified Robinson into a frozen figurine. And with their once-tormentor turned to stone, the stalwart Irish defense turned into titans each time Michigan neared the goal line. The nightmare from Michigan became Michigan’s nightmare as the Fighting Irish intercepted, sacked and rumbled their way to a long-awaited, vengeful 13-6 victory over their rivals from Ann Arbor.

With Notre Dame’s nimble and ferocious defensive line charging the quarterback, Kelly dared Robinson to plant his untied cleats into the dirt and find a winged helmet downfield. The Irish coach’s gamble worked, and Michigan’s first drive ended on a disastrous halfback pass from Vincent Smith (harried, as usual, by Manti Te’o) to freshman Irish safety Nicky Baratti.

After quarterback Everett Golson matched Michigan’s interception on the first play, the Wolverines resumed their first-quarter mode of attack: one step forward, two steps back.

Robinson’s talent seemed wholly directed at handing the ball to Notre Dame’s defense. In the face of a terrifying pass rush from Stephon Tuitt, Robinson passed straight to the waiting arms of Manti Te’o. A field goal from Kyle Brindza finally flashed the game’s first points on Notre Dame Stadium’s scoreboards.

Robinson dropped back to pass yet again. But as Te’o roared into view, Robinson saw his reflection in the glinting gold helmet of his nemesis, and the nightmare struck again. Robinson passed, holding off the mighty Hawaiian, but delivered the pigskin straight to Notre Dame cornerback Bennett Jackson. Shoelaces, sad Shoelaces, retired from the field to an apoplectic Coach Brady Hoke.

Another errant Golson pass returned the ball to the Wolverines. But – woe of woes! – as Robinson launched again, Irish safety Zeke Motta tipped the pass, and it teetered into arms of Manti Te’o for a second time. The hard-charging Hawaiian-Irish hero hurtled down the field as if astride a blue-and-gold Pegasus and conquered the nightmare once more.

When Notre Dame took the field, Kelly pulled his floundering, starting quarterback in favor of his backup, the too-short, too-slow Tommy Rees. Rees somehow threaded a needle to DaVaris Daniels, and the Irish drive was on. With a long, arching javelin toss to TJ Jones in the southeast corner, Rees steered the Irish to the Michigan 6. After an interference penalty on Michigan freshman Jarrod Wilson revived the Irish drive, Rees plunged past the line to score the game’s only touchdown.

The Wolverines rallied once more for a last-ditch touchdown crack before halftime but as Robinson stepped back and launched a pass downfield, it fell into the waiting arms of Notre Dame’s cornerback KeiVarae Russell.

Coach Hoke, finally recognizing the errant habits of his quarterback’s passes, abandoned his aerial strategy for an infantry ground war. Robinson and running back Fitzgerald Toussaint obliged, churning through Notre Dame’s defense.

On third down with only three to go, the stadium crowd begged for a defensive stop. Young linebacker Danny Spond answered and stormed into Robinson, forcing Michigan’s sixth turnover of the game.

Another Michigan drive, another Michigan surrender.

For all of Robinson’s turnovers, the point differential was slim. Even after Brindza’s second masterful howitzer between the uprights, the home crowd clung to its lead with cliff-gripping fingertips.

Notre Dame’s offense contented itself with hoarding the football. Propelled by the terrier Theo Riddick, whose shifty flyweight belies his hard-charging bravery, the Irish advanced long enough to suffocate Michigan’s scoring chances.

With two and a half minutes to control, Rees finally found his old comrade Tyler Eifert down the field for a crucial first down and then Riddick for another. Though they ended on an unspectacular field goal, Notre Dame Stadium woke up echoes decades old.

Even Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick joined in the joy. Grinning, the normally taciturn officer exchanged a hearty sideline handshake with Notre Dame President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C. that bordered on irrepressible glee – for a lawyer and a priest, that is.

The Fighting Irish are undefeated and cautiously optimistic – and justifiably so. But the undefeated blue-and-gold machine still has plenty parts that need greasing. Even with strong line play and a stable of workhorse backs, the Irish offense managed but one touchdown.

Manti Te’o is arguably the most valuable player anywhere on the college gridiron. He totaled 20 tackles – two for losses – and three incredible takeaways against both Michigan schools. And with the heart-wrenching tragedy that this young man has overcome in recent weeks, his performance has been nothing short of inspiring. Despite Heisman voters’ longstanding bias against defensive players, Te’o should be first in line for John Heisman’s trophy at season’s end.

For two straight games Notre Dame has battered and blocked both Michigan schools into futile trench wars. Neither Michigan nor Michigan State even sighted the end zone past a snarling Irish defense that has redoubled its power and its poise each week in the season. Bolstered by the monstrous defensive line and a volcanic linebacker as hard and sharp as Hawaiian obsidian, the Notre Dame defense is as powerful as any in the nation.

Michael Rodio, who was this magazine’s spring intern, writes for the Daily Domer, a new Notre Dame news site.