Brady Hoke, Brian Kelly Fuel the Flames as Michigan-Notre Dame Rivalry Heats Up

Tom Scurlock@tas1372Correspondent IIISeptember 6, 2013

Hoke is looking for redemption against Notre Dame
Hoke is looking for redemption against Notre DameGregory Shamus/Getty Images

Notre Dame descends on the Big House Saturday for a prime-time showdown against Michigan

Always a favorite among the annual nonconference clashes, the Notre Dame-Michigan game is taking on more significance this year following Notre Dame’s announcement that it would suspend the series after next year to accommodate the ACC schedule.

Both coaches have fanned the flames. Brady Hoke said, via Tom Fornelli of CBS Sports, that Notre Dame is “chickening out” of the series, and Brian Kelly commented, via Brian Hamilton of the Chicago Tribune, that the game is not “one of those historic, traditional Notre Dame rivalries.”

Kelly has since backpedaled, but the damage is done.

While the verbal jabs add fuel to the fire, what matters most is the outcome. This is a must-win game for both teams.

The Wolverines are positioning themselves to make their first serious title run since 2006, and the Fighting Irish want to show they are back for good.

After going 11-2 in Hoke’s first season, Michigan slipped in 2012, finishing 8-5 without any significant wins.

Fans are optimistic that strong recruiting and much-improved coaching over the past few years will emerge against the Fighting Irish and set the tone for the rest of the season.

Leading the way will be the bookend tackles, Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield. The Wolverines are at their best when they impose their will by pounding the ball, but they’ll both have their hands full Saturday night.

Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt are beasts that anchor a powerful defensive line for Notre Dame. The matchup between Lewan and Tuitt, both All-Americans, will be fun to watch.

Putting pressure on quarterback Devin Gardner will be the Fighting Irish’s top priority. It worked last year when Denard Robinson threw four interceptions. Do it again, and they will leave Ann Arbor with a win.

Gardner and running back Fitzgerald Toussaint need Lewan to win the battle upfront against Tuitt if they expect to get the ground game going. If he fails, it will be a long night for the Wolverines backfield.  

On offense, Notre Dame will try to ride Tommy Rees’ arm to victory. He was nearly flawless against Temple last week, passing for 346 yards and three touchdowns.

Like Notre Dame, the goal for Michigan’s defense will be putting pressure on Rees, who has thrown 24 interceptions in his vacillating career.

Look for defensive coordinator Greg Mattison to dial up blitz packages to force Rees into poor decisions.

If the Wolverines defense can get a couple of turnovers, that should be enough for them to win.

Although the stakes are high for Michigan, this game has huge implications for the Big Ten, too. Notre Dame went 3-0 against the conference last year, so it might need a win almost as much as the Wolverines.

The Big Ten has also been routinely pummeled in marquee nonconference games over the past decade.

A disappointing performance will strengthen the critics’ position that the Big Ten’s old-fashioned brand of football can no longer compete against college football’s best programs. 

On the other side, Notre Dame needs a big win to show that last year’s magical run to the BCS Championship game was no fluke.

Notre Dame definitely exceeded expectations, but Alabama proved what everyone outside of South Bend was already thinkingthe Fighting Irish were overrated.

Michigan is certainly not on Alabama’s level right now, but a road win over the Wolverines will confirm that Notre Dame belongs among the elite teams again.

Sadly, the end is near for this classic rivalry just as the teams were starting to regain their status as top programs. Let’s hope they give us an unforgettable game.