SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Between 1988 and 1993, Notre Dame went 64-9 with a national title and five top-six finishes, and reached double-digit wins in every year but one.
Since then, a pattern has developed every time Notre Dame wins 10 or more games. The wins drop off the next year, often sharply. That’s what happened in 2003 (5-7), 2007 (3-9), 2013 (9-3) and 2016 (4-8). Apparent breakthroughs have turned into facades. The Irish don’t build on anything.
It’s why the 2018 season, which kicked off Saturday night against No. 14 Michigan, would be so significant for Notre Dame. This wasn’t the tear-down project that occurred after the 2016 debacle. This was all about the next step, going from good to great, from 10 wins to something more.
“Change has not been the word this year,” coach Brian Kelly told ESPN.com this spring. “It’s really been much more about, how can we continue to grow and build off of last year?”
If the opener is any indication, Notre Dame can, indeed elevate. Led by a blitzing defense and rejuvenated quarterback Brandon Wimbush, the Irish controlled play against Michigan, building a quick 14-0 lead and holding on late to prevail 24-17. Notre Dame looked like a team that understands it’s full-speed ahead, showing aggressiveness both with its playcalling and its execution. Michigan, meanwhile, came out tentative. By the time the Wolverines attacked on both sides, it was too late.
Players from both teams brought up preparation afterward, but the contrast was stark.
“This team’s put in lot of work,” said Notre Dame wide receiver Jafar Armstrong, who had two touchdown runs in his collegiate debut. “Coach Kelly said we’ve had 90 workouts since January, 30 some practices. We’ve prepared properly.”
About 80 yards away, in the cramped interview room outside Michigan’s locker room, Wolverines senior defensive end Chase Winovich lamented that his team couldn’t rise to the moment.
“The first game is always the toughest,” Winovich said, “because no matter how hard your camp is, the first game is always tougher. Maybe [Notre Dame] did a better job adapting to it.”
Notre Dame had two primary goals entering Saturday: restore Wimbush’s confidence and swagger after a poor end to last season, and elevate an experienced defense a notch higher despite the departure of coordinator Mike Elko to Texas A&M. It achieved both.
Offensive coordinator Chip Long called an aggressive and effective first half, using Wimbush’s athleticism to attack the edges and his arm to stretch the field. Notre Dame scored two touchdowns in the first 7 minutes, 51 seconds, and Wimbush, who struggled with accuracy most of last season, completed six of his first eight attempts and finished the half 10-of-15 for 148 yards, a touchdown, no interceptions and 39 rushing yards against a stout Michigan front.
“He played with an edge to him, a confidence,” Kelly said. “He got the game ball tonight. He really had an energy to him, which brought the group with him.”
Yet the surest sign Notre Dame could avoid its typical backslide is the defense. Led by end Khalid Kareem (two sacks, one quarterback hurry), Notre Dame hassled Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson most of the game. The Irish gave up only one play longer than 24 yards and no run longer than 10. A Kareem sack knocked Michigan out of field-goal range in the first half. Michigan drove to Notre Dame’s 2-yard line on its next possession, only to have Jerry Tillery sack Wimbush, forcing an eventual field goal.
“We saw in their body language that they were kind of defeated,” Kareem said, “so we just stepped on the throat and kept coming.”
Notre Dame’s sacks total jumped from a pathetic 14 in 2016 to a respectable 24 last fall. Although only Kareem and Tillery recorded sacks Saturday, four others had quarterback hurries.
Clark Lea, Elko’s protégé and a first-year coordinator, won’t ease up with such an experienced and talented group. Lea has set a goal of three sacks per game, telling ESPN.com last week that with the returning players at his disposal, it’s realistic.
“We’re an aggressive defense,” safety Alohi Gilman said. “Coach Lea likes it like that.”
In the lead-up to Saturday, players from both teams grasped the significance of this opener, the renewal of a rivalry and a game that would spark judgments and overreactions. Afterward, Michigan talked about beginnings, not end points, and room for growth. Asked about his summer comments that the opener would set a trajectory for Michigan, Winovich smiled.
“Sometimes quotes don’t age very well,” he said.
There were no pained grins on the Notre Dame side. The Irish are growing up as they chase their first playoff appearance.
For Notre Dame, there’s simply no going back.