SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Darrin Walls never fully regrouped following last season's loss to Michigan in Ann Arbor. Notre Dame's defensive collapse in the final minute, his own failure in particular, damaged the cornerback's psyche.
Clinging to a 34-31 lead with two minutes to play, the Fighting Irish needed only to stop a freshman quarterback in his second start from connecting with a depleted group of wide receivers on one drive. But Tate Forcier, oblivious to the pressure of the situation, had other plans.
The poised rookie led the Wolverines to a first-and-goal at the 5-yard line, and Forcier attacked a heavy-breathing Walls immediately. Walls' fingertip deflected a pass intended for LaTerryal Savoy just enough that the inexperienced receiver couldn't pull the ball in for a touchdown.
The Big House gasped. Walls looked at the clock.
On the next play, with 11 seconds remaining, Forcier went right back at Walls, who bit inside as Greg Mathews caught the game-winning score on the left side of the end zone.
"It was tough," Walls said recently. "Every week [after that] there were a couple plays where I'm like, 'Dang, if I would have made that play, we would have won this game.' Yeah, that Michigan game was tough. Especially for me at the end of the game, that last play, that touchdown was on me. That was tough dealing with it."
Notre Dame finished 75th in the nation last year in passing defense, allowing 220 yards per game that utterly perplexed Irish fans. The talent seemingly was there. But so was a confidence-eroding energy as former coach Charlie Weis' future in South Bend became the primary focus.
"I think the biggest part of [the failure] of the secondary last year was that we were afraid to make a mistake," said Walls, a 6-foot, 190-pound senior. "When you're afraid to make a mistake, you're going to play tight. With that, you can't really make plays. You're just going to sit back and hope and wish."
Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick didn't hire coach Brian Kelly to come in and cross his fingers. Kelly didn't bring in defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and defensive backs coach Chuck Martin to pray for success against the pass, or strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo to assume players would be conditioned enough in the fourth quarter.
Longo got to work changing the players' bodies. Kelly and Co. overhauled their minds.
"Well, yeah, we knew we weren't as good as we could have been in the past," Walls said. "I think everyone just put their thoughts and focused on the things that caused losing, and focused on the things that started creating winning again. I think the guys bought into coach Kelly's, and coach Longo's attitudes. I mean, that changed the whole team around."
Martin was impressed with how Walls approached his final season.
"He has a lot of God given talent, as well as all the physical tools necessary to play at a high level," he said. "He is a very intelligent player and has very good instinct. He prepares at a level that you would hope a great player prepares at and takes coaching very well. I think everything is there for him to have a very good year."
Kelly had high praise for the senior this week.
"He’s been as purposeful as any player that we’ve got in the program since I got here,” Kelly said "He’s been so focused on everything he’s done. There’s no wasted motion with him. He comes to work every day, comes to meetings prepared. It’s a big measuring stick for our players and how they go to work every day."
For now, football is fun again for Walls and the Irish. The atmosphere at practice is intense, but often jovial. Players are loose. Most importantly, players feel they're prepared.
The Irish will need to be Saturday when Michigan travels to South Bend for a 2:30 tilt on NBC. Both teams are 1-0, and like last year, both expect a move back to the successful side of the tracks this fall. The winner will likely crack the Top-25 rankings.
For Notre Dame, that means finding a way to slow sophomore quarterback Denard Robinson, who rushed for 197 yards and completed 19 of 22 passes for 186 yards in the Wolverines’ 30-10 season-opening win over UConn.
Walls, whom Kelly chose as a weekly captain against Purdue, tallied seven tackles and an interception in a victory over the Boilermakers. Teammate Gary Gray provided sure tackling at the other cornerback spot, and safeties Jamoris Slaughter and Harrison Smith didn't give up any back-breaking plays. It's an improved unit, but still a work in progress.
They're all excited for a rematch with Michigan. But Walls is especially eager for another crack at the Wolverines, a game he feels is the next step in rerouting a promising career that took a wrong turn in 2009.
"I would probably call it average at best," he said. "No one comes to a program to have a 15-21 record through your career. I just expect more from myself, my coaches expect more, and my family expects more. I was never satisfied with what I've done, and I'm always pushing to be the best player I can. I know I can be better. I was never satisfied with what I've done, and I'm always working to be that player I know I can be."