By JOHN SEARS - BIG TEN INSIDER
November 23, 1887 – Keith Jackson calls a brilliant ABC broadcast of the first football game between U of M and Notre Dame. OK, a touch of exaggeration - TVs weren’t around in 1887 (But wouldn’t that have been great to see grainy footage of their first game, accompanied by a gritty voice over by the greatest college football broadcaster of all time? “The University of Michigan, after inhaling a morning’s worth of coal dust on their sleepy train ride from Ann Arbor to South Bend, limp to an 8-0 victory, tucked away on the vast potato patches that make up the Notre Dame end zones. The Notre Dame defense quivered as they approached their rivals - Michigan’s offensive line listed as an average weight of 230 lbs. And if you believe that you believe in fairy tales, because, folks, these boys had breakfast.”). But I digress.
Let’s try and put this rivalry in to perspective, especially in light of the rebuilding that is currently transpiring for both programs: new coaches, new systems, new quarterbacks, same old uniforms. But are the winged and bling-dipped helmets enough to keep this rivalry afloat, or even keep you interested? Has this rivalry “jumped the shark”, so to speak, gone with the ‘80s along with tapered jeans, racing stripes buzzed in to your crew cut (guilty as charged), and the wishbone offense? Since 2002, the Wolverines and Irish combined to salvage only two wins in nine bowl games (note: both wins by UM; Notre Dame’s bowl futility is more abysmal in the recent past with their last bowl game victory coming in 1994). To boot, Michigan has experienced some crushing defeats, most notably last year from that team from the Blue Ridge Mountains; only to be outdone by their rival’s “worst season in Irish history” (3-9) (that is, according to total number of losses in one season). With the current state of these two programs, we are left wondering--has this rivalry become irrelevant?
I think the answer is complicated as we often get too caught up in the here and now and lose sight (with daily blogs, for instance) of the larger storyline. To put this rivalry back into perspective, we need to tap in to a little history and tradition, starting with that fateful day in 1887. Occurring in this watershed year, Fielding Yost turns six years-old (Yes, that Fielding Yost), American Trotting Association is organized in Detroit (still going strong today, but you will most likely recognize them as the offensive consultants for the Detroit Lions), and the University of Michigan decides to take a train ride down to South Bend to teach a small, Catholic University the game of football. That’s how it all started.
Fast forward a century and a quarter and their histories have paralleled remarkably: #1 (UM) and #2 (ND) in all-time wins, likewise for win percentage (.745 and .744 respectively), 11 national championships each, and a one vs. one tally where a coach has snickered some variation of “to hell with [rival]”: Bo Schembechler, in reference to scheduling with ND on an annual basis snubs the Irish, “To Hell with Notre Dame.” Perhaps in response to ghosts of “Bo Past”, Coach Charlie Weis recently added fuel to the rivalry’s fire by saying, “I think the first opportunity they’re going to have to really make a statement is that day [Sept. 6 against SDSU], and then we’ll listen to Michigan have all their excuses as they come runnin’ in and sayin’ how they have a new coaching staff and there’s changes. To Hell with Michigan.” It’s business as usual in the Midwest .
These two teams have settled the score on the playing field only 34 times, but the rivalry packs a mighty punch in its relative brevity for college football rivalries. In fact, Notre Dame vs. Michigan is what put college football on the map for me. I distinctly remember hometown favorite “The Rocket” Raghib Ismail, (Myers High School, Wilkes-Barre, PA, a 30 minute drive from my stomping grounds) where he torched everyone in track, and then went on to torch Big Blue in his version of track with pads, returning kicks like he was Forrest Gump (See: Rocket 1) in break-out Heisman fashion. Michigan responded with a Heisman Trophy showcase by its own Desmond Howard in 1991. I still remember Howard stretching out for a gutsy 4th-and-1 TD catch in 1991 against the Irish. I’ve only scratched the surface; we could trade a multitude of highlights and memories of these two teams over the years.
Has the game lost its memory--has the seriousness of the match-up fizzled due to the lack of quality play by both teams? I think not. With rivalries, it’s different; football feelings are not dissolved that easily. With rivalries, the old cliché stands that records are thrown out the window. It’s about turf wars, protecting your house, bragging rights ‘til next year, recruiting draws (Notre Dame fans should extend a heartfelt doff of the cap to Woody Hayes, notoriously known as being the best Notre Dame recruiter. If kids weren’t playing for Ohio State, they were going to play for ND, who of course, played Michigan), and for these two storied programs, it’s potentially about National Championships, BCS bids or huge momentum swings through the rest of their schedules.
Throw in the rich history: the teacher-student relationship that started this rivalry during the year of centennial celebration of the constitution of the United States, the 22 national titles, 89 current NFL players ( 45 Wolverines, 34 Fighting Irish ), 10 Heisman Trophy winners (7 Fighting Irish, 3 Wolverines), and you start to realize that this rivalry is not about a single snapshot in time. This rivalry transcends the bumps in the road, the rebuilding years, the temporary stumbles. It forces you to remember that Notre Dame vs. Michigan can be larger than all of college sports, while still remaining just a football game.
So I realize it’s not Holtz vs. Schembechler, #2 ND vs #1 UM, or Ismail vs. Howard. But it is Weis vs. Rodriguez as offensive masterminds gradually putting their pawns in place. It is YouTube Legends and superstars in the making Jimmy Clausen vs. Sam McGuffie as next generation athletes in traditional programs. It is,a nd always will be, the winged helmets versus the golden domes…a culmination of the 121-year history echoing through that narrow three hour corridor of I94 separating greatness from greatness.
To those who say that the Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry has become irreverently irrelevant, I say, “To Hell with them!”
On to the match-up:
As much as we’d like to believe in the offensive promise and future both teams have-- flinging the ball down the field (ND) and out wide to their athletes (UM)--this game will be won or lost as the games of yore--in the trenches. To this end, look for the key match-up to be between ND’s offense line, best described as a sieve last year, finishing last in sacks allowed in all of the FBS subdivision, against by far-and-away the Wolverines’ strongest unit, their D-line. Michigan fans should be pleased to see this unit playing very solidly (nine of 11 sacks coming from the front four), harassing the QB in their first two games. Michigan looks to have the edge here, which could be the difference maker if the Wolverines are to grab their first win on the road in the Rich Rodriguez era.
1. ND offensive line vs. UM defensive line (as stated above). EDGE: MICHIGAN
2. Jimmy Clausen vs. Stevie Brown: Clausen made some good throws against SDSU last week and seems to play best when his confidence is high and worst when he is forced in to pressure situations. I personally don’t believe Michigan has their center-fielders playing consistent ball as evidenced by the gaping hole in the middle of their pass defense. If the safety play is formidable and can fluster Clausen into making tougher decisions, it may be another anemic day for the ND offense. If Clausen finds a groove with open receivers downfield, we’ll be talking about how UM’s defense is still vulnerable to the big play. EDGE: PUSH
3. ND two-deep WRs vs. UM two-deep DBs: Not only a corollary to point two with Clausen’s confidence level dictating the outcome of this game, I believe the outcome will hang in the balance of one big pass play. Promising frosh Michael Floyd and savvy vet David Grimes helped lift ND to a victory last week, hauling in key receptions and scores in the second half. On the Michigan side of the ball, Donovan Warren has looked like a strong vet so far, at least in pass defense (they need to replace him as PR), but I am concerned with the strong side play of Morgan Trent. Trent is sometimes over-confident, lazy-looking, and relies on his reputation of being a big-time player as opposed to actually making big time plays. Something big over the top on Trent’s side may be a difference maker. EDGE: PUSH
4. Home field advantage: In this instance, home field makes a huge difference with all the youth the Wolverines have on offense. First road game, first rivalry game, first game against the Irish, first time QBs. EDGE: IRISH
Prediction: This will be a very sloppy, grinder of a game, which will come down to a late, luck-of-the-Irish big pass play, lifting ND over UM in an offensive yawner. The outcome will be dictated by the ratio of pressure to confidence Clausen feels for the duration as well as the poor showing by Michigan’s offense (too young, key injury on the O-line with starting LT Mark Ortmann slated as out). ND steals a game mostly controlled by Michigan’s defense.
Final: ND 10 Mich 9.
Michigan’s Real Deal Freshmen to watch this week: Sam McGuffie, Martavious Odoms, Mike Martin, Boubacar Cissoko (if assigned PR duty).
Thursday, September 11, 2008
By JOHN SEARS - BIG TEN INSIDER