NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Jack Swarbrick hustled down the stairwell to the field late in the fourth quarter as Michigan lined up to kick a pressure-mounting field goal. Asked how he felt about his Saturday night, the Irish athletics director wanted to table the discussion.
"Ask me in three minutes," Swarbrick smiled.
Barely three minutes later from the Notre Dame sideline, Swarbrick raised his arms over his head in victory. Notre Dame had snapped its three-game skid to Michigan, started 4-0 for the first time in a decade and kept itself at the forefront of college football's national discussion.
No. 11 Notre Dame's 13-6 victory over No. 18 Michigan wasn't perfect.
It just felt that way.
The primetime performance featured an Irish defense that's allowed two total touchdowns to three Big 10 opponents, none of which hit 300 yards total offense.
Michigan failed to score a touchdown for the first time since it added Denard Robinson to its roster. The Wolverines failed to score a touchdown against the Irish for the first time since 1943.
"I think the key to stopping such a dynamic player like Denard is everybody has to get to him," said Manti Te'o, who finished with eight tackles and two interceptions. "You have to really emphasize 11 guys to the ball, and I think our coaches have done a great job in stressing the importance of everybody getting to the ball."
Robinson finished 13-of-24 passing for 138 yards and four interceptions. He was sacked three times and ran for 90 yards, including a lost fumble in the red zone. The Irish picked off five passes overall, the most since a win over Purdue during the 1988 national championship season.
The Irish offense added barely enough after Brian Kelly benched Everett Golson for the second time in as many home starts. Golson completed three passes and threw two interceptions, his first and last attempts of the game.
Again Kelly turned to Tommy Rees, who was cheered on to the field and off it at the end, throwing his white towel to the crowd as he sprinted toward the locker room. Rees went 8-of-11 for 115 yards, didn't turn the ball over, rushed two yards for the game's only touchdown and managed two clock-killing drives in the fourth quarter.
First, Rees led the Irish on an 11-play, 53-yard drive that chewed up 6:24 and ended with Kyle Brindza's second field goal. The 39-yarder with 6:46 to play put Notre Dame up 13-3. Michigan returned the three points a series later. The Wolverines wouldn't touch the ball again.
Behind Rees, Theo Riddick and Tyler Eifert's only catch of the game, Notre Dame bled out the game's final 3:27. There would be no last-gasp Robinson magic because he never got the ball back.
"It's a great feeling any time you can beat Michigan," Rees said. "Whatever's asked of me, I'm willing to go in and help the team win."
Kelly was quick to rename Golson his starting quarterback against Miami after Notre Dame's bye week. While there may be a question about when Kelly's next quarterback hook will come, it won't be before kickoff at Soldier Field.
"(Rees) is just a great asset to have if you need him," Kelly said. "To close out a game, we'll continue to go that route. We'd like to continue to develop Everett so we don't have to do that, but we're still going to try to win football games anyway possible."
Notre Dame hasn't won a game scoring fewer points than this in 22 years, a 10-6 victory at USC to close the 1990 season. Kelly would rather not generate those historical notes but will be forced to rely on his defense until Golson improves.
The sophomore badly underthrew Chris Brown on Notre Dame's first play, a potential long gain turned into a Michigan pick. The Wolverines took over at the Irish 10-yard line, but a Matthias Farley tackle for loss, a Prince Shembo sack and a Stephon Tuitt sack came back-to-back-to-back.
Michigan missed the 43-yard field goal attempt.
"I'd say it's gotta be frustrating when you can't move the ball on us and score any points," said Zeke Motta. "I think that definitely this game has made a statement for our ability for sure."
While the secondary may have surprised with Farley starting for the injured Jamoris Slaughter, freshman Nicky Baratti making an interception in the red zone off a trick play and Robinson not completing a pass of 20-plus yards, the front seven proved as advertised.
The Irish finished with three sacks and held Michigan running back Fitz Toussaint to two yards in the first half. He finished with 13 carries for 58 yards, more than half coming on a single run. Robinson didn't post a run longer than 20 yards.
Disposing of Robinson opens up Notre Dame's season for some unexpected future successes, even if Stanford, Oklahoma and USC all remain on the schedule.
The Irish may have come a long way this month, but they have a long way to go too.
"I don't think there's going to be a false sense of confidence after four games," Kelly said. "They know they've got a lot of work to do. But it's a group that understands that they've got an opportunity to do something really big."
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