The kickoff came tumbling out of the wet, gray sky, and nobody could believe this. Raghib (Rocket) Ismail couldn’t believe the ball was coming his way, and his coach, Lou Holtz, couldn’t believe Michigan would kick it to Ismail again, and Bo Schembechler, already having a bad day, what with an injured quarterback and a sluggish offensive line, couldn’t believe what had happened once would ever happen twice. A second kickoff return? For a touchdown? In Michigan Stadium? No way. There hadn’t been one here against U-M since 1957.

And then there were two. The ball landed smack in the hands of Mr. Rocket, and eight seconds and 92 yards worth of groping defenders later, he was in the end zone, twisting the knife in what was billed as the biggest college football game of the season.

End of story.

“I told my team, ‘It won’t be kicked deep,’ ” said Holtz, after Notre Dame squashed Michigan’s dreams of a No. 1 ranking with a 24-19 defeat in a drizzly opener. “When they kicked it to Rocket, one of my players behind me said,
‘Uh-oh, here we go again.’ ”

Funny. That’s what Michigan fans were saying all day. What killed U-M Saturday wasn’t so much that bad things were happening, but that the same bad things were happening over and over. The kicker missed an extra point, then booted an onsides try into a teammate’s leg. The running backs tried to go left, got crushed, then tried to go right and got crushed again.

And of course Ismail — who should have “See ya next week” stitched on the back of his jersey — raced through them once for 88 yards to open the third quarter, crushing the spirits of the 105,912 fans, and then, in the fourth quarter, after Michigan had rallied, he did it again for 92 yards.

End of story.

“I don’t think I ever would have sat here and predicted we’d lose by 14 points worth of kickoff returns,” Schembechler said, shaking his head after the defeat, U-M’s third straight to the Fighting Irish. “They beat us with a punt return last year. I mean, this is getting to be a bad habit.”

And it’s not the only one. In fact, it wasn’t even the worst. On a day that the Wolverines couldn’t kick and couldn’t run, the really bad news was that they couldn’t block. Their highly celebrated behemoth offensive line (average weight: 293) played as if all the poundage was in their feet. Where were the holes? Where was the tank-like force? Where was the traditional Michigan
“three yards and a cloud of dust?” The Wolverines gained only 94 yards rushing all day. Make no mistake: That was the biggest wheel that fell off U-M’s wagon.

And yet, they were still alive, they were still in it. With four minutes to go, they trailed by only five points — thanks largely to a lanky, shrugging sophomore named Elvis, who began the season as the fourth quarterback on the depth chart and finished Saturday as No. 1 on the hit parade. Elvis (last name Grbac) came trotting in when senior Michael Taylor went down after a helmet in the back. All Grbac did in his first game as a Wolverine was throw 21 passes, complete 17, two for touchdowns, and almost lead the Wolverines to a victory in a game they were seemingly not ready to win.

“With a couple minutes to go, Bo was telling us keep going, we’re only a couple points down,” he said. “For a little kid like me, it gave me a lot of confidence.”

Not so little, either. Grbac, 19, is 6 feet 5, 220, and throws a bullet. His sudden presence — and Michigan’s evolution into a passing team — may have been the day’s most effective weapon against the Irish; to that point, they seemed to have the Michigan offense completely figured out. Grbac, however, was more a surprise to the media than to his teammates. Even as reporters tapped out the “star is born” stories, Schembechler admitted that Taylor, who had been hurting with a sore right arm, did not throw a pass all week in practice. “If I had it to do over again, maybe I should have started Elvis and let the chips fall where they would.”

But then, he would have done a lot of things differently if he could. An onsides kick with 4:08 left was botched when the new kicker, sophomore J.D. Carlson, squibbed it into the leg of a teammate well short of the needed 10 yards. It gave Notre Dame field position to run out the clock. Had he known that before, well . . .

Well, what? The point is, the game was lost a lot of ways, most of which involved the offensive line and special teams. So bad was the kicking, that, when asked why Michigan didn’t aim away from Ismail on the second kickoff, Schmebechler half-jokingly responded: “The way we were going, I was just praying the ball stayed in bounds.”

End of story.

Facing the nasty truth

And OK. Let’s face some nasty truths here. On this day, Notre Dame was the better team. It may be because the Irish had one game under their belts
(an opening win over Virginia). It may be because Michigan, in its season opener, with new players in key positions on the special teams (and suddenly quarterback) more resembled a half-clad starlet caught with the dressing-room door open.

“Michigan is an outstanding team. If we played them tomorrow, the results might be different,” said Holtz.

That is a typical response by the bespectacled coach, a man who, despite a brilliant team loaded with talent, is, nonetheless, full of it. Come on, Lou. You cry poor more than a roomful of winos. Just once, instead of all this soft- pedaling, “We were just fortunate today to win,” I’d like Holtz to say,
“We have a great team, the best team, and it’s up to some other team to prove it’s better.”

Why not? That’s what everyone else is saying about Notre Dame this morning. The Irish are No. 1 in the rankings. They stymied Michigan’s rushing attack, and they did it without over-relying on quarterback Tony Rice, who is usually their Mr. Everything.

So be it. Notre Dame plays for national championships. Michigan plays for its conference. That’s the company line, anyhow. There were positive signs for the Wolverines — their defense looked good, Grbac and the receivers looked promising, and besides, Schembechler has a way of turning Notre Dame losses into successful seasons. This will be a good team. It always is.

For now, Michigan’s dreams will be haunted by the view of Ismail’s back, racing toward the end zone in a steady drizzle, proving the theory that, while lightning never strikes twice, Lightning Irish seem to strike over and over again. End of story, for now.

The season is just beginning, isn’t it? CUTLINE: Head coaches Bo Schembechler of Michigan, right, and Lou Holtz of Notre Dame exchange congratulations after Saturday’s game in Ann Arbor. Soggy U-M fans watch the end of the Wolverines’ 24-19 loss Saturday to Notre Dame in Ann Arbor.

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