Michigan, Notre Dame Football Back Among the Living
Both of them.
If you haven't been paying attention, more than a few things show that the Fighting Irish and the Wolverines have returned to significance in college football, and here are two of the biggest things: they both have guts, and they both have quarterbacks who can produce magic.
That guts thing led to a breathless finish on Saturday inside an 80-year-old Notre Dame Stadium that has seen a lot of them. Michigan eventually survived a frantic charge by the Irish at the end for a 28-24 victory, but that was just part of the story. As for the rest, Notre Dame never gave up after trailing 21-7, and Michigan wouldn't give in after the Irish surged ahead down the stretch.
There was much drama in between to make the crowd of 80,795 wonder if their hearts would explode.
Which brings us back to those quarterbacks.
When Dayne Crist wasn't using his arm and his presence to inspire Notre Dame's entire team after the Irish went flat -- courtesy of his sitting most of the first half due to vision issues -- Michigan's Denard Robinson was extending the legend of "Shoelace."
You heard correctly. Robinson already is a legend, and he's a sophomore with just two starts as quarterback.
Even so, Robinson is flirting with immortality courtesy of not only his arm, but his legs, his dreadlocks and his footwear. He accounted for a ridiculous 502 of Michigan's 532 total yards, because he still is somewhere running through the Notre Dame defense. This was a week after he crushed the Connecticut defense for 383 yards of total offense.
Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez grinned while looking toward the floor in a back room across from the visitors' locker room. "I've got my shoes untied in honor of Denard," said Rodriguez, of Robinson, who swears he runs better by keeping his shoelaces as loose as possible. "I just slipped (my shoes) on. He kept his poise the whole game, really."
So did Crist, a junior, in his first year as a starter for Notre Dame in general and for the spread offense of new coach Brian Kelly in particular. Just like Robinson, Crist has only two collegiate starts, but he already is making those in the Irish Nation say: "Jimmy who?" He pushed the Irish into the end zone on the game's opening drive, with pretty throws and a quarterback sneak to seal a quick journey of 71 yards.
It's just that somewhere along the way, Crist banged his head on the ground to trigger his bout with blurriness. He stood on the sidelines while his backups struggled (OK, bungled) their way toward that halftime deficit for Notre Dame of 21-7. The primary backup was Nate Montana, whose brother, Nick, is a celebrated recruit at Washington, and whose father, Joe, used to win Super Bowls for the San Francisco 49ers after he was an accomplished miracle worker at Notre Dame.
Nate isn't a Nick nor a Joe.
"(Nate Montana) is good, but when Dayne Crist was in there, they seemed to rally around him, and they seemed to get a lot of momentum," said Michigan safety Jordan Kovacs, who saw Crist fire a 53-yard touchdown pass soon after intermission.
In a flash, Crist's teammates began to tackle better, block harder and run faster, and the crowd even cheered louder.
Whether Kelly would admit as much or not.
He sort of did.
"Yeah, you know. I don't know that I really felt that," Kelly said, pausing, maybe recalling how the defense spent at least a few times making it appear that Robinson was from earth instead of distant solar system when Crist returned. Added Kelly, "I would have to watch the film to see if there were some things structurally that guys just weren't following through their assignments. But I think anytime your starting quarterback goes, there's always that first sense of, 'Oh, my gosh, our starting quarterback's out.'"
Neither Robinson nor Crist is just any starting quarterback.
With the Irish trying to lead for the first time since their opening drive, Crist did something inside the final four minutes that only one quarterback had done better during the 122-year history of Notre Dame football. He completed a touchdown pass of 95 yards for the second-longest pass play in Notre Dame history, and it was good for a 24-21 lead.
Lumbering tight end Kyle Rudolph made the catch at the Irish 45 and somehow outran Michigan defenders the rest of the way.
"Everybody was like, 'Man. That was crazy,'" said Robinson, who did something equally as wacky earlier in the afternoon. He demonstrated why he also is a sprinter on Michigan's indoor track team when he sprinted 87 yards to the end zone for the longest rushing play ever inside Notre Dame Stadium. Said Robinson, recalling his thought at the time, "Can't get caught. Can't get caught."
The only thing that stopped Robinson the whole game was himself, when he left the game for a play. "I hit my head on the ground pretty hard, so I had to refocus," Robinson said, who also could have been talking about Michigan and Notre Dame football these days.