September 9, 2011

Michigan, Notre Dame want to return to top

As part of the celebration for the first-ever night game at Michigan Stadium, Michigan will have a throwback look, with stripes added to the sleeves of its familiar maize-and-blue jerseys.

Notre Dame will get into the act, too, wearing retro uniforms of white jerseys with green numerals and trim, gold pants and a shamrock logo on the helmet. It's a look the Irish haven't donned since the early 1960s.

Unfortunately, those uniforms appear to be the only similarities this game offers to this rivalry's glorious past.

Michigan-Notre Dame used to be a matchup of highly ranked opponents and it had national implications. This season, neither is currently ranked, but both have aspirations of returning to national prominence. A victory under the lights could propel the winner in that direction.

"Oh, man, if you're a Michigan football player, you know this is a big game," Wolverines wide receiver Roy Roundtree said this week. "You know this is a rival. Growing up, watching [Michigan Heisman winner] Desmond Howard. ... It's a big rival for us. Even though Michigan State and Ohio State are big rivals, this is a national rival."

As recently as '06, the Wolverines and Irish clashed as ranked opponents. They played eight times in the 1990s, and both were ranked at game time seven times; four times, both were in the top 10.

Notre Dame was ranked in the preseason polls but dropped out in the wake of last week's 23-20 loss to USF. Michigan wasn't included in the preseason rankings after finishing 7-6 last season, a campaign that ended with a blowout loss to Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl.

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Both teams have high hopes for this season.

Notre Dame sputtered through the tenures of Bob Davie and Tyrone Willingham and in the last two years of the Charlie Weis era, but looks close to regaining national prominence under second-year coach Brian Kelly. Even in last week's loss, the Irish gained twice as much yardage as USF (504-252), but were thwarted by five turnovers.

Kelly already has changed starting quarterbacks, going with Tommy Rees instead of Dayne Crist. Rees came on for Crist and passed for nearly 300 yards in the second half last week. Rees started the last four games of the 2010 season - all Notre Dame victories.

"I asked him if he was scared and he said no, which didn't surprise me," Kelly said of Rees. "... He's excited, but he won't be caught up in the atmosphere. He'll be ready to play."

Much like Notre Dame, Michigan's esteem suffered during the failed three-year Rich Rodriguez experiment. But hard-nosed first-year coach Brady Hoke has worked to add a Schembechlarian persona to the Wolverines, who never seemed to truly grasp Rodriguez's style of play.

When linebacker Brandon Herron returned an interception and a fumble for touchdowns in last week's 34-10 weather-shortened win over Western Michigan, it marked the first time since '03 the Wolverines' defense scored more points in a game than it allowed.

But Notre Dame is much more concerned with Michigan's offense, in particular quarterback Denard Robinson.

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Robinson rushed for 258 yards and two touchdowns - an 87-yarder and a 2-yarder in the final minute - in the Wolverines' 28-24 victory over Notre Dame last season. Though Michigan's new offense isn't as wide open as Rodriguez's, the Irish remain leery of Robinson's big-play ability.

"They've kept a lot of similar principles for Denard Robinson to have the ball in his hands," Kelly said. "There are some things that we can build off last year. Certainly it was the big plays that hurt us."

Perhaps it's over simplifying matters, but victory may depend on whether Michigan can spring Robinson for more big plays or whether Notre Dame's defense can contain him.

The team that prevails could be included in next week's national polls. That's another throwback both teams would embrace.

WHO GETS THE EDGE?

Michigan run offense vs. Notre Dame run defense: The Wolverines rushed for 190 yards in three quarters of last week's victory over Western Michigan, and sophomore RB Fitzgerald Toussaint led the way with 80 yards. Senior RB Michael Shaw added 54 yards on just four carries. Most eye-opening, though, was that QB Denard Robinson carried only eight times. Robinson rushed for 258 yards last season against Notre Dame. The Irish defense limited USF to 126 rushing yards and no rushing touchdowns last week. LB Manti Te'o is one of the best in the country. But can the Irish slow Robinson? Edge: Michigan

Michigan pass offense vs. Notre Dame pass defense: Robinson gets a lot of attention for his running ability, but he's not a bad passer, either. Last season, he threw for 2,570 yards and 18 touchdowns, though interceptions can be an issue. WRs Roy Roundtree and Junior Hemingway are big-play threats. Notre Dame S Harrison Smith is an All-America candidate who had seven interceptions a year ago. Last week, the Irish limited USF to 128 passing yards, but did allow a touchdown pass. They picked up two sacks against USF's B.J. Daniels, who has good mobility but isn't in Robinson's class. Edge: Michigan

Notre Dame run offense vs. Michigan run defense: Irish RB Cierre Wood rushed for 104 yards in the first game, but Notre Dame managed just 117 rushing yards as a team. The Irish were trying to rally from a 16-point deficit, which had something to do with the relatively low rushing total. Michigan held Western Michigan to 96 rushing yards a week ago, but Notre Dame will provide a greater challenge. The Wolverines are aiming to show they're much improved over the unit that ranked 95th in the nation against the run in '10. Edge: Notre Dame

Notre Dame pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense: Rees came on a week ago and passed for 296 yards and two touchdowns in a half of work. WR Michael Floyd is explosive, but WRs T.J. Jones and Theo Riddick must redeem themselves for poor performances. Notre Dame's line allowed two sacks. Pass defense remains a touchy subject in Ann Arbor. Last season, the Wolverines were last in the Big Ten and 112th in the nation in that category. Western Michigan threw with some success even in the inclement weather, but Wolverines SS Jordan Kovacs picked up two sacks on blitzes and LB Brandon Herron returned an interception for a touchdown. Edge: Notre Dame

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Michigan special teams vs. Notre Dame special teams: Though Notre Dame's David Ruffer shanked a short field-goal try last week, he's usually extremely reliable. Riddick is effective on kick returns, but the Irish need to shore up their coverage teams, especially on punts. Michigan also struggled in coverage in its first game. Wolverines freshman K Matt Wile is unproven and P Will Hagerup remains suspended. Edge: Notre Dame

Michigan coaching staff vs. Notre Dame coaching staff: Michigan coach Brady Hoke turned struggling programs at Ball State and San Diego State into winners. Veteran coordinator Greg Mattison co-coordinated a national championship unit at Florida and most recently held that position with the NFL's Baltimore Ravens. Offensive coordinator Al Borges is a two-time nominee for the Frank Broyles Award, which recognizes the nation's top assistant coach. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly won two Division II national titles at Grand Valley State (Mich.) and led Cincinnati to two BCS appearances. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has had positive impacts on the units at Notre Dame and Cincinnati. Edge: Notre Dame

X-factor: Riddick had a subpar outing a week ago, with just three catches for 32 yards (one catch went for 27). He also fumbled away a punt deep in Notre Dame's end of the field. Playing opposite Floyd, who figures to get a ton of attention from Wolverines defenders, Riddick has the potential to have a big game. The Irish need one.

Notre Dame will win if: The Irish must contain Robinson and prevent him from having anything resembling last season's performance, when he rushed for 258 yards and had 502 yards of total offense. The Irish also have to cut down on their turnovers. Notre Dame committed three turnovers in last season's loss to Michigan and had five in last week's loss to USF.

Michigan will win if: The Wolverines must control the football and get a solid day from their special teams. And, as is always the case, they need a big day from Robinson. Hemingway and Roundtree must be productive, too.

EXPERT PICKS

Olin Buchanan: Notre Dame 27, Michigan 21
Tom Dienhart: Michigan 31, Notre Dame 29
David Fox: Michigan 28, Notre Dame 21
Mike Huguenin: Notre Dame 30, Michigan 24
Steve Megargee: Michigan 24, Notre Dame 21

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Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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