Notre Dame looks like a playoff contender in opening 24-17 victory vs. Michigan

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Jafar Armstrong made a smashing debut for Notre Dame. (AP/Paul Sancya)

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — According to the betting line, Notre Dame was a home underdog by the time its season opener against Michigan got underway Saturday.

According to national media sentiment, the Wolverines — with their salty, experienced defense and a shiny-new quarterback in Shea Patterson — were becoming bigger darlings by the day.

A rare signature victory for coach Jim Harbaugh at his alma mater? Perhaps a Big Ten championship and a playoff appearance in the offing?

Uh, no. Let’s slow that roll right now because then the first half of the Irish’s 24-17 victory happened. And according to the way Notre Dame ran, threw the ball, tackled and steamrolled a daunting opponent, it’s coach Brian Kelly’s team America should be talking about.

Pick a drive, any drive among the Irish’s three that went for touchdowns in the first half. It’s bound to tell you a great deal about what this dangerous offense is capable of.

The first was like a bolt of lightning. There was a third-down pass from quarterback Brandon Wimbush to 6-4½ receiver Chase Claypool that went for 16 yards. There was a 28-yard heave on the next play to 6-4 receiver Miles Boykin. Jafar Armstrong — in his first career action — then took a handoff in from 13 yards out to cap a 75-yard drive that unfolded in a mere 1:25.

The second scoring drive, still in the first quarter, started at Notre Dame’s 4-yard line and required only 3:07 to go the distance, this time fueled by a 26-yard strike from Wimbush to 6-5 tight end Alize Mack and a 43-yarder over the deep middle to tiny receiver Chris Finke, who outfought big, rugged defensive back Brandon Hawkins for a touchdown.


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The Irish clearly have weapons. They have a good bit of toughness, too, as evidenced by scoring drive No. 3, a 15-play, 75-yard slog that featured 11 runs, erased more than half the second quarter and made it 21-3.

The last time the teams played, Michigan left Notre Dame Stadium a 31-0 loser in 2014. In some ways, this result had to be more disappointing. For one thing, Patterson is a passer with so much promise.

But Khalid Kareem, Jerry Tillery and the rest of a sure-tackling Irish defense would bend only so far. When Te’von Coney pressured Patterson into a third-quarter underthrow that resulted in an interception by Julian Okwara, the writing was on the wall.

‘‘I’d be happy if they bend all night [but] don’t break,’’ Kelly said. ‘‘I thought we played well.’’

The Wolverines got the ball back at their 25-yard line with less than two minutes left and no timeouts, but Kareem stripped Patterson on a sack, and Coney recovered the ball.

Patterson finished 20-for-30 for 227 yards without a touchdown in his debut in maize and blue. He flashed his big-time ability more than once but was outplayed by the far-less-ballyhooed Wimbush, who threw for 170 yards, moved the chains repeatedly with his legs and received the game ball from his coach.

‘‘I thought [Wimbush] played with an edge to him, a confidence,’’ Kelly said. ‘‘He really had an energy to him that brought the group with him.’’

A ‘‘Green Out’’ in the stands brought an elevated feel to what was a special rivalry before it went on hiatus after the 2014 game. The teams will play again next season at Michigan, then go back on hiatus.

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