ANN ARBOR — Must have been the pope.
How else do you explain this thrashing, this 26-7 loss to Notre Dame, the worst Michigan defeat in 20 years? In the opener? Whoa. Michigan doesn’t lose home openers under Bo Schembechler, does it? It hadn’t in the last 18 seasons.
And now it has. Badly.
“Was there anything positive in that game?” someone asked Schembechler after the turnover-plagued defeat by the Irish.
“No . . . no . . . ” the coach answered, biting his lip, “as a matter of fact . . . no.”
So, in other words, no.
Seven turnovers? Twenty-six points allowed? The defending Big 10 champions? Now granted, opening games are funny; teams come out of summer practice having played only against themselves and say, “We look good.” But change uniforms, and you change the equation. And that is what happened Saturday: specifically, with new U-M quarterback Demetrius Brown.
“He’s better than that,” Schembechler declared. Better than 4-for-15, 54 yards, three interceptions? Hey. You hope so. But the guy looked great in practice, won the starting job, and then emerged center stage Saturday, in front of 106,098 strange faces, and 11 gold helmets across the line, and, uh-oh. . . .
Interception. Interception. Interception.
The difference was the difference between rehearsals and opening night. Between dry-land training and the first jump from the plane.
The difference, in the end, was that Brown simply couldn’t read the Notre Dame defense as well it could read him.
Miserable,” said Schembechler of his offense’s start. That’s being kind. Six of Brown’s first seven passes were incomplete. One was caught. By the wrong team. And when nerves and poor execution weren’t tripping up Brown, fate was: In the third quarter he threw a pretty pass down the middle to Greg McMurty, a nicely timed bullet, which would have put Michigan at the Irish 15.
Except McMurty lost the ball coming down.
And on the next play, Brown threw another interception.
“Can you give us any comment on the game?” Brown was asked as he left the U-M locker room.
“I don’t want to talk to anybody,” he said softly. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I don’t want to talk.”
Well. That, along with many other things, he will learn to do in time. He obviously has talent. But talent is like a tool chest; it’s what you do with it that counts. As he walked through the post-game crowd, his eyes were focused straight ahead. They flashed anger, disappointment. Unfortunately, earlier they often flashed where the ball was going, too. “I watched the quarterback the whole time,” said Notre Dame free safety Corny Southall, who made two interceptions. “At times, I guess he was telegraphing his passes.”
And at times he put too little arc on them. And at times he just threw some that he shouldn’t have. But in fairness to the kid — who had the uneviable task of replacing Jim Harbaugh — he was handed a pretty full plate. These weren’t little screen passes he was trying to throw. He was going upfield.
“If you have any criticism of our game plan,” Schembechler admitted, “it might be the coaches for giving him a little too much to do this first time out.”
By the time they realized that, they were trailing by 17 points.
So blame it on misleading excellence in practice. (“The kid looked great in practice,” Schembechler said of Brown. “He made the right reads, he hit everything. I couldn’t predict this.”) Blame it on two fumbles by tailback Jamie Morris, who, despite his 128 yards, should know better. Blame it on the fatigued defense. Blame it on whatever you want. And then stop blaming.
And start giving credit.
This is an improved Notre Dame team. You would figure the pressure would be on them, playing at Michigan Stadium. Instead, the Fighting Irish made but one meaningless mistake (an interception late in the first half) and took advantage of almost all of Michigan’s. Their new starting quarterback, Terry Andrysiak, was the flip side of U-M’s Brown. Poised, patient and accurate, he made Michigan fans shift in their seats, completing 11 of 15 passes, often with enough pocket time to qualify as a billfold.
“Were they that good a team?” someone asked Schembechler afterward.
“Let’s put it this way,” he said. “They’re probably not as good as they looked. And we’re not as bad as we looked. . . .
“Although we looked pretty bad.”
He cleared his throat. Then quickly added: “I will tell you this. I believe we will have a good football team. For all those people out there chuckling, I say don’t count this too quickly.”
No. Count it only as one defeat to a team that had all sorts of motivation. Or had you forgotten last year’s opener? Notre Dame tacked up 455 yards of offense, had a legal touchdown called back and still lost, 24-23, to Michigan by a missed field goal in the final seconds.
Mistakes brought down Notre Dame in that game. So maybe this was retribution. Or maybe it was the absence of Harbaugh — whom Michigan fans seemed to be wishing back by the second half.
Or maybe the arrival of the pope really did have something to do with it. You never know with Notre Dame. Next weekend the pope comes to the Silverdome.
Next weekend, Notre Dame plays Michigan State.
Uh-oh. Michigan debuts Recent Michigan quarterbacks haven’t produced impressive statistics in their first collegiate starts, except for Jim Harbaugh against No. 1 Miami (Fla.) in 1984. Here is how five did in season openers: YEAR QUARTERBACK ATT CMP INT YDS TD 1972 Dennis Franklin 9 4 0 60 1 1975 Rick Leach 10 2 3 34 1 1981 Steve Smith 18 3 3 39 0 1984 Jim Harbaugh 21 11 2 163 0 1987 Demetrius Brown 15 4 3 54 1