ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Notre Dame couldn't stop Devin Gardner on Saturday night, as the Michigan quarterback accounted for five touchdowns to send the Irish to a 41-30 loss in front of a Michigan Stadium-record crowd of 115,109.
After Notre Dame's first regular-season defeat since Nov. 26, 2011, though, coach Brian Kelly pointed to a lack of execution from his offense as the culprit.
"This is one of those games that our offense needed to carry the day for us, and we just came up short in a couple of key plays for us," Kelly said. "One of those games you've got to win, and we weren't able to come up with the key plays offensively."
Kelly pointed to two instances when, had Notre Dame executed the play as it was drawn up, the offense would've found the end zone. Those 14 points would've vaulted Notre Dame over Michigan and kept the team's goal of reaching the BCS Championship Game for the second straight year alive.
Since January's title-game loss to Alabama, Kelly's preached a need for Notre Dame to score more points. The Irish offense accounted for 23 points, while a brutally bad decision by Gardner that led to Stephon Tuitt reeling in an interception in Michigan's end zone tacked on seven more.
But for all the talk about Notre Dame returning a top-notch defense despite losing Manti Te'o (and Kapron Lewis-Moore, Zeke Motta and Danny Spond), the shortcomings of a unit expected to be a strength took a back seat to Tommy Rees and the Irish offense failing to convert a few plays.
"That doesn't mean our defense is not as good," Kelly said, "we just went up against a really good quarterback tonight that really made a lot of plays."
Notre Dame's defense found itself chasing Gardner for most of the evening. He completed 21 of 33 passes for 294 yards and four touchdowns, and rushed 13 times for 82 yards with a touchdown.
A play that stood out came late in the third quarter, with Michigan facing a third-and-eight from its own 24-yard line. Gardner took off for a 10-yard rush, then hit Jeremy Gallon — who abused the Irish secondary for 184 yards and three touchdowns — for a 41-yard gain. Three plays later, Gardner again found Gallon for a touchdown, putting Michigan up 34-20.
"He made a lot of great plays," linebacker Dan Fox said. "We were in position, we just fundamentally didn't make the play."
But for Kelly, the focus kept coming back to the offense. With Notre Dame down seven and driving near Michigan's red zone just past the 10-minute mark in the fourth quarter, Rees was nearly picked off on a third-and-eight throw, leading to the Irish settling for a field goal.
That put Notre Dame down 34-30. A stop on the next drive, and Notre Dame would've been in position to win the game — or, at the least, hold Michigan to a field goal and set up a shot at tying things up.
But Michigan running back Fitzgerald Toussaint — whose production was largely muted by Notre Dame dominating Michigan's inexperienced interior offensive line — ripped off a 22-yard run and went uncovered on a swing pass for 31 yards to open the drive. Notre Dame then forced two third downs, but successive pass interference calls on Bennett Jackson and Matthias Farley all but handed Michigan a game-clinching touchdown.
"We want to coach guys to be smarter and more disciplined on a day-to-day basis," Kelly said. "That falls on me. I don't want my football team to be in a position where games have to be decided in that regard. We have to be smarter and more disciplined as a football team."
But no matter what unit is more at fault, the loss resonates across the board for Notre Dame. Its BCS championship hopes are likely dashed, and now the task becomes moving forward from yet another stinging loss in Ann Arbor.
"This is a tough one," tackle Zack Martin said. "But it's going to show the character of this team and the identity of this team to see how we bounce back this upcoming week."