On Saturday when the Notre Dame Fighting Irish hosts the Michigan Wolverines, the Irish will attempt to start the season 4-0 for the first time since 2002. The Irish are already jumping back into the national headlines after defeating Michigan State, and a win against Michigan will only cement the fact that football is back at Notre Dame.
The game will feature talented athletes and big names like Denard Robinson and Manti Te'o, but the key to an Irish victory lies with running back Cierre Wood.
The rushing attack is important for any team on Saturday. A successful ground game will control the tempo of the game and open up the passing attack.
The opposing defense begins to creep in to defend the run and they become vulnerable in the passing game when lanes open up downfield.
The Irish have a stable of running backs consisting of Theo Riddick, George Atkinson III and the aforementioned Cierre Wood. Wood and the Irish' ground game is the key to a victory over Michigan.
Denard Robinson is the biggest threat on the Michigan offense. Robinson is an all-out playmaker. He can score through the air and gain yardage on the ground with his speed and agility.
The Irish have a stout defense that will have a solid game plan in place to stop Robinson, but the best way to stop Robinson is to keep him off the field.
The best way to keep him off the field is by controlling the time of possession and the Irish will need to establish the ground game to control the clock.
Say what you will about Cierre Wood, but there is one thing that is certain, he is a team player.
Wood lost his starting job to Theo Riddick while serving his suspension and in his first game back against Michigan State he was on the bench. When his number was called and he entered the game he was a pure professional and racked up 56 yards late in the game.
For Woods it was not about the numbers or the victory; just getting back into the lineup with his teammates was good enough.
Wood said it was "just another win" for the players. But for him, it was great to simply "be out there with my bros" after a tough two weeks. (Via Chicago Sun Times)
That first game allowed Woods to get back into game-shape and it will allow him to be more effective against Michigan.
Cierre Wood missed the first two games of the season serving a suspension for violating team rules. During the 2011 season Wood rushed for over 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns and after being suspended he could have easily become defiant or given up on his team altogether.
Instead Wood became a consummate professional and a true leader.
While his teammates were drubbing Navy in the season-opener in Dubland Ireland, Woods was in constant contact via text, critiquing and helping fellow running back and roommate Theo Riddick during the blowout.
It is this kind of leadership that is needed on the field to beat Michigan.
In his positive return against Michigan State, Wood may have found a new role on the Notre Dame offense—the closer.
Late in the game against the Spartans, the Irish needed a long, clock-killing drive that would seal the fate of the Spartans, and the team called on Wood.
Wood responded with an excellent fourth quarter and it was due, in part, to his running that the Irish captured the win. Wood proved to his team that they could count on him.
"I believe in my team, I believe in my coaches," Wood said. "I knew they were going to be me in the right positions, as they did. They trusted me down the stretch, and as our motto says, 'You can count on me.'" (Via Chicago Sun Times)
Last year Wood averaged five yards per carry when he put up 127 yards against Michigan on the road. This year he may not put up those kind of gaudy numbers, but he will be the key to victory for the Irish.