When I called my wife (then girlfriend)’s father about a year ago to ask his approval to marry his daughter, his reply was, “Justin, not only do I give you my blessing and approval, but the sooner you join this family, the sooner we can get you in a Notre Dame sweatshirt.”
So goes the Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry.
When the Irish and Wolverines square off on Saturday, a chance at a National Championship won’t be on the line—but much more will be.
College football’s two winningest teams are both facing transformations as of late, and both need this win equally as much.
Michigan has won the past two meetings by a combined score of 85-21, including a 38-0 drubbing of the Irish last season, when both teams were unranked for the first time in the 35-game history of this rivalry.
This year, they’re both unranked again. Michigan stands at 1-1 with a loss to Utah and a win over Miami University. Notre Dame is 1-0 with a win over San Diego State.
Michigan, in Rich Rodriguez’ first year as head coach, is struggling to grasp the new spread option offense following the departure of eight offensive starters. The Wolverines are in danger of seeing their 33-year bowl streak come to an end, as well as a streak of 40 straight non-losing seasons.
A win over Notre Dame would put Michigan at 2-1 heading into the Big Ten schedule, which includes a monstrous start with home games against No. 10 Wisconsin, No. 24 Illinois, and Michigan State, and a road game at No. 17 Penn State.
A loss to the Irish means Michigan would have to pull off an upset in one of those games to have a chance at earning a winning record.
Notre Dame, coming off a disastrous 3-8 season, was predicted by many to rebound with 10 or 11 wins this year. With their schedule, that’s certainly possible, but after the way the Irish looked in their 21-13 win over San Diego State, a win over rival Michigan would go a long way toward instilling confidence in this young Irish team.
In April, to a group of Notre Dame boosters, Charlie Weis said, “I’ve always been one never to make excuses and blow hot air. We’ll listen to Michigan have all their excuses as they come running in saying how they have a new coaching staff, and there’s changes. To hell with Michigan.”*
To hell with Michigan. Stir those words around in your head a little bit. You can bet the Michigan coaching staff and players are this week.
Weis says he said it out of respect for legendary Michigan coach, Bo Schembechler, who uttered such words about Notre Dame. But Bo said it when he was done coaching. Even so, most of Michigan’s current coaches and players probably don’t even know that Bo first said those words and are using it as motivation for this week’s game.
Michigan defensive end Tim Jamison said, “I did not see it, but I heard about it. It was like, ‘Did you hear what he said? He’s supposed to be getting focused on his team.’ Now that we’re about to face Notre Dame, we can look back at that and get ready to play a great game.”*
He went further when asked if that is used as motivation, saying, “To some people it does. That’s why you’ve got to watch what you say, because the other team can use that as motivation. I believe you talk with your pads and your helmets.”*
Michigan coaches have the phrase plastered all over the team’s training room.
It reminds me of Ohio State receiver Terry Glenn’s “Michigan is nothing” quote prior to the game in 1995. Michigan used that as motivation to beat the second-ranked Buckeyes, 31-23.
Motivation or not, this should be the most important game of the weekend, if not the history of the rivalry. Michigan needs the win to avoid a losing season. Notre Dame needs the win to save face.
USC and Ohio State have the number one ranking and the title of National Championship game front runner on the line on Saturday, but a loss would not be absolutely demoralizing for either team.
Each could conceivably climb back into the top two spots by year’s end, given the recent history of the BCS. Last year’s National Champion, LSU, had two losses.
That’s why, even though that game will get more press and will be a more well-played game, it’s not the most important game this weekend.
That, and the fact that a Michigan win would keep the bragging rights in my favor for the third straight year over my wife and father-in-law.
* Quotes taken from Angelique Chengelis' article on detnews.com.