ANN ARBOR — Today’s rendition of one of college football’s most notable rivalries will serve as a barometer for Michigan.
It’s more than just a well-documented, well-publicized rivalry. The matchup between the No. 17 Wolverines and No. 14 Notre Dame will could set the tone for the season for both teams.
“It was always a game that, really, it kind of gave you a little bit of a true north of what kind of football team you’re going to have,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “You’ve got two traditional national powers playing each other, and it kind of gave you an indication.”
A legendary Michigan coach shared a similar sentiment about facing Notre Dame. It’s a hypothetical measurement.
“I remember [Bo] Schembechler, all the time, talking about how with that game you can kind of get an idea of where you were as a team,” Hoke said.
The Wolverines come off a 59-9 trouncing a week ago against Central Michigan, while the Irish dispatched Temple 28-6.
How will the Wolverines respond on a national stage, in the cauldron and under the lights at Michigan Stadium?
“It’s a big game,” Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner said. “It’s the biggest stage in college football. I’m pretty sure there’s going to be close to 115,000 people there. This is what every quarterback dreams of, being on the big stage and performing like this.
“It’s always a close, hard-fought game. Each team is going to give it their all.”
Gardner rebounded from a shaky start to finish with 10 completions for 165 yards and a touchdown against the Chippewas. But Hoke took note of his team’s inconsistencies, including seven penalties and a shaky start by Gardner, who was intercepted twice in the first half.
A year ago, UM had six turnovers against the Irish.
“That’s what it comes down to,” said Gardner, who played wide receiver in last year’s game. “Not turning over the ball.”
The Irish lost one of their most notable — and polarizing — players with the graduation of linebacker Manti Te’o, but the Wolverines say they’ll have to contend not only with ND’s front seven on defense, led by linebacker Dan Fox and and defensive end Stephon Tuitt, but also with Irish offense, led by quarterback Tommy Rees (16-for-23 passing, 346 yards, three TDs against Temple).
“It’s a real explosive team, especially with Tommy Rees at the helm,” said Michigan safety Thomas Gordon, who will return after serving a one-game suspension for a violation of team rules. “If you’ve watched him over the last couple years, you know he’s up there with the big passers, and we know we have a big test ahead of us as a defensive group.”
While Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly acknowledged a quick start will be key for his team and alluded to the 2011 matchup, when Michigan won on Roy Roundtree’s touchdown with two seconds left in regulation.
“If you look at the last time we played there, we would have liked to have finished strong, and we got off to a good start but we didn't finish strong,” Kelly said. “Get off to a fast start, attention to detail, great effort, and then finish strong. It's going to take four quarters.
“I think the numbers have suggested that a number of these games have only been decided by just a few points, and so it's going to require that fast start, but it's going to require four quarters in this kind of matchup.”