Whether you’re nostalgic about the Michigan and Notre Dame series ending after next season, Saturday night’s showdown in Ann Arbor is an important one for the Big Ten.
For one thing, it’s by far the most intriguing Big Ten game this week in what is otherwise a real yawner of a schedule. Ohio State was supposed to get a tough nonconference test, facing a San Diego State team that went 9-4 last season. But last week, the Aztecs got pummeled 40-19 — by Eastern Illinois.
One of the main national storylines in Week 1 was the fact Eastern Illinois and seven other FCS (formerly Division I-AA) teams knocked off FBS opponents. And frankly, that North Dakota State comeback against Kansas State was as riveting as anything on TV all weekend.
College football can deliver some delicious surprises in August and September, but Michigan-Notre Dame has been like a highly anticipated meal that usually delivers from the first bite. Images of Raghib Ismail’s kickoff returns and Desmond Howard’s diving touchdown catch quickly come to mind.
The last time the two teams met at Michigan Stadium, in 2011, the lead changed three times in the final 72 seconds. Denard Robinson pushed Michigan ahead, Tommy Rees put the Irish back in front, and then Robinson won it 35-31 with a 16-yard touchdown pass to Roy Roundtree with two ticks left on the clock.
Last year, Manti Te’o made two interceptions as Notre Dame established itself nationally as a defensive force in 13-7 victory over turnover prone Michigan in South Bend.
Considering the history of the two storied programs, it was curious when fourth-year Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly downplayed the coming end of the Michigan series by saying it’s been more of a regional rivalry. The Irish needed to free up future schedules to play five ACC games each year.
Wolverines coach Brady Hoke, who said in May that Notre Dame was “chickening out” of the series, has spent the week reminiscing.
“I can remember being back here with Coach [Bo] Shembechler when he was still alive and in the building,” Hoke said. “He would tell us that that’s how you gauge your team, in this great game against Notre Dame.”
After going undefeated and losing the BCS Championship Game to Alabama 42-14 last year, the Irish have turned to Rees again, with last year’s quarterback, Everett Golson, out of school.
Rees threw two touchdown passes on Notre Dame’s first two drives last week in a 28-6 victory over Temple.
“He’s given us fits the last two times we’ve played against him,” Hoke said of Rees. “He’s a tremendous quarterback, he’s very accurate.”
Michigan got a tuneup last week with a 59-9 victory over a Central Michigan team that defeated Iowa last season. The Wolverines defense looked very solid, and quarterback Devin Gardner bounced back nicely after throwing two interceptions.
Gardner figured it was good to get those turnovers out of his system. He watched Robinson throw four interceptions and cough up a fumble in last year’s loss to Notre Dame. Gardner knows how special this next test is.
“It’s the biggest stage in college football,” he said. “I’m pretty sure there’s going to be close to 115,000 people there. It’s the [7 p.m.] game [with] ‘College GameDay’ [filmed on campus in the morning]. This is what every quarterback dreams of.”
Big Ten short takes: Penn State QB looks the part
Penn State’s true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg looked like the real deal against Syracuse. His touchdown pass to Eugene Lewis was a thing of beauty, a spiral that went 55 yards in the air. Once Allen Robinson was cleared to play at halftime, he pulled down seven catches for 134 yards and one touchdown.