Hoke winging it with facts

Michigan coach's comments create absurd narrative — Irish beaten not afraid

Notre Dame receiver TJ Jones on tightening focus after Michigan loss.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. —

Doing nothing to dispel a dumb notion that did a disservice to the latest game in the storied Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry Saturday night, the host school served chicken for dinner in the Michigan Stadium press box.

Coincidence?

Maybe. But for the home opener against Central Michigan, sources deep inside the Michigan kitchen confirm the entrees included pulled pork and pizza. Saturday's menu first occurred to me after walking along Stadium Boulevard before Michigan's 41-30 victory and passing a sign mocking Notre Dame's mantra: "Play Like a Chicken Today.'' Another one near the "ESPN Gameday" truck invoked "the cluck of the Irish.''

Inside and outside the Big House before Notre Dame's defense stunk it up, a fowl odor lingered.

The unfair perception that Notre Dame lacked the courage to continue playing Michigan after 2014 began last May when Brady Hoke did what college coaches often do in the off-season when in the company of people with deep pockets. He tried making alums giddy enough to reach into them, context be damned.

The truth? Before kickoff last year at Notre Dame, athletic director Jack Swarbrick officially notified Michigan that the school would exercise a three-year out in the series contract, which canceled games from 2015 to 2017. It didn't matter that Michigan announced three months earlier it would take a two-year hiatus from the series beginning in 2018. The narrative of Notre Dame running away from the big, bad Wolverines was much easier to sell to an audience full of maize-and-blue — even if it was false.

"The Notre Dame game, that rivalry, which they're chickening out of … they don't want to play Michigan,'' Hoke told Michigan boosters. "I don't know how they made that decision.''

Hoke is a fellow Ball State graduate, and much shrewder than his guy-on-the-bar stool persona suggests, so I know he isn't nearly that dim. He knew full well Notre Dame needed to make challenging scheduling decisions because of its new affiliation with the Atlantic Coast Conference. Deep down, Hoke realizes Notre Dame fears Michigan as much as he fears a cold Saturday in his trademark short sleeves.

It was the wrong message to send about a rival who deserved respect. His comments also ignored Notre Dame's plan to add powerhouse Texas to the schedule, hardly a cowardly act, and make similar decisions about Purdue and Michigan State.

Nobody wants to see a series that dates back to 1887 end, at least until 2020. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly couldn't stop himself from tweaking Michigan by downgrading the series to "a big regional game" but he and everybody across America who enjoyed the latest entertaining affair knew better.

Since resuming in 1978, whether because of legendary coaches known by one name like Bo and Lou or unlikely heroes such as Remy Hamilton and Kevin McDougal, every Notre Dame-Michigan meeting was can't-miss. Every September, both schools used the game as a barometer. But as much as college football will miss this after Sept. 6, 2014, in South Bend, contractual realities forced the decision — not cowardice.

A program as intimidated by Michigan as Hoke suggested would have looked at a 10-0 deficit as insurmountable. Instead, Notre Dame clawed back and competed in front of 115,109 — the largest NCAA crowd ever — in a way nobody could question its heart. Question whether quarterback Tommy Rees has enough talent to lead Notre Dame to 10 victories but not the program's temerity.

Ironically, in a game Michigan questioned its bravery, Notre Dame made the first key mistake being too bold. With 1 minute 29 seconds left in the second quarter and trailing 20-13, a scrambling Rees forced a pass into the hands of cornerback Blake Countess instead of safely throwing the ball away. Four plays later, Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner found Jeremy Gallon for a touchdown pass that made it a two-possession game.

"It starts with me,'' Rees said. "I take full accountability for that. I have to be smarter than that.''

Gardner returned the favor in the fourth quarter when he made an even dumber decision than Rees. Eluding a blitz in the end zone, Gardner carelessly flung a weak pass defender Stephon Tuitt caught in the end zone for a Notre Dame touchdown. The ghost of Schembechler shrieked.

Besides that unforgivable blunder, Gardner looked more comfortable wearing No. 98 in honor of Michigan great Tom Harmon than Notre Dame wanted. Or, Gardner appeared more at ease than Eminem felt in the booth talking to ESPN's Brent Musburger, routinely escaping contain and exploiting a Notre Dame secondary that regressed. Blame Gallon, whose three touchdowns and eight catches for 184 yards nicely paid homage to Desmond Howard, who also wore No. 21.

"Overall we want to be smarter and more disciplined defensively,'' Kelly said. "We have to tighten up everything.''

That's coachspeak for, "We lost focus after beating Temple.'' That's a message from Kelly that his team can't live off last year any longer. Outside a somber Notre Dame locker room after their first regular-season loss since 2011, it slowly began to sink in.

"We hold ourselves to a higher standard,'' linebacker Dan Fox said.

A Bowl Championship Series defense, Notre Dame's isn't. More than any other deficiency, that needs to change against an upcoming schedule that surely won't scare the Irish.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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