Well, today is it. Notre Dame and Michigan will play again, but it might not be for a long while. All this kicked off in the late 1800's, but it was a sign of things to come when Michigan's Fielding Yost got so sick of the Irish that he convinced the other Big Nine teams not to even schedule them (from this was born Notre Dame's rivalries with USC, Stanford, Navy, and Army). The teams did play twice in the 1940's, which were the only games between them from 1910-1977. 1947 saw two undefeated Irish and Wolverine teams fighting for the national championship, but never playing each other. It wasn't until '78 that the teams that hated each other so much, teams that were only 179 miles away, started playing every year.
And now it's over again. Perhaps they will play soon. It's possible. Then again, Notre Dame announced earlier this week - in a general middle finger to Michigan - a home-and-home series with Ohio State. With games being scheduled almost a decade in advance, and a Notre Dame athletic director who clearly likes sticking it to Michigan, it's likely today will be the last game for a decade at the very least. Two decades, possibly? Three? The only thing we know is it will be a long while. This time it's Michigan that hopes to keep the series alive - and why not, considering no team in football is better at beating the Irish than the Wolverines have been. Even RichRod had a winning record against the Irish, and that would hurt anybody.
Just once more, then. For old time's sake.
How to witness
TV: 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC.
Radio: WWJ, AM Radio 950, as well as Sirius Radio, Channel 129, and XM radio, Channel 129.
Both teams showed in their opening week that they're capable of producing yards - Michigan put up 560, and the Irish 576. However, an interesting difference was how they were able to finish off their drives. Michigan was able to score every time it got in the red zone, five of the six times with touchdowns. They were methodical, spread the ball around, and only punted once all game. Notre Dame was more sloppy, with C.J. Prosise dropping a would-be 55-yard touchdown pass in the end zone and drives that stalled at the 11, 18, and 22. They also had more limited options in the red zone.
On the surface, five Irish players ran the ball effectively overall, two of them quarterbacks. Looking deeper into the numbers, two players stood out. Of the running backs who split carries, the most dangerous and consistent was definitely the sophomore Greg Bryant. Almost 90% of his carries went for at least five yards, and he averaged 8.9 yards per rush.
When the Irish got in the red zone, Kelly called on either Golson or Bryant about 70% of the time, and the two proved to be the most capable weapons that Kelly had to work with - running 9 times for 62 yards and 4 TD's. Otherwise, the Irish simply couldn't get red zone touchdowns, with 7 plays for a total of 12 yards.
Three names to know
Everett Golson will be key for the Irish to break down Michigan's defense. Like the Mountaineers, the Irish have a put-it-in-the-bank running game, but Golson adds a second dimension to that ground assault. He can challenge every level of Mattison's defense, probing for weaknesses from the secondary to the line. His performance will weigh heavily on this game, and it will also portend much about the season.
There will be plenty of defenders Notre Dame will lean on to stop Devin Gardner's passing, his running, or his running mate, Devin Funchess. One stands out above the rest: Jaylon Smith. The 6'3", 229-pound sophomore linebacker will be tasked with everything from blitzing the quarterback to coverage against Devin Funchess to stopping the power run game. He will be on the weak side of the defense, the same side as Mason Cole and Erik Magnuson.
Finally, one of the players hoping to stop Golson will be Michigan's Jake Ryan, a newly minted middle linebacker and star of Michigan's defense. The senior put up All-American numbers two years ago, but an ACL injury hampered his 2013 campaign and it's yet to be seen how he adapts to playing inside. He was quiet in Game 1. But Michigan will need him to plug up the middle, allowing the other linebackers and safeties to concentrate on their assignments. If Ryan is effective, Michigan likely wins. He's played in a lot of big games before, but whether that experience and that unique skill set turns into a shutdown performance is still a big question.
It's going to be a long wait before kickoff. So, in the meantime, here are a couple links about tonight's showdown - one from One Foot Down, previewing Michigan. Eric Murtaugh discusses home-field advantage, desperation, and breaks down the trenches. The other link is from Sports Illustrated, which does a pretty good job of highlighting how the rivalry has come and gone, but often been built up from not playing each other, thanks to a cocktail of frustration, hatred and good, old-fashioned disdain.
This one is simple, important and corny. Take some time today to celebrate and enjoy being a Michigan fan. This is not about Notre Dame. It's all about Michigan. And if the Wolverines win today, this game will be a celebration of much, much more than a game or even a rivalry, but about the pride, the work and the adversity that the team and fan base have worked through. Recapturing the all-time best winning percentage would just be a cherry on top.