ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry has been kicked up a notch, putting Saturday’s prime-time game even more in the spotlight.
Notre Dame opted out of a contract with Michigan last year. After the 14th-ranked Fighting Irish play the 17th-ranked Wolverines at the Big House, they’re not expected to be back until the early 2020s at the earliest. The teams are scheduled to meet one final time in South Bend next year.
“I think there’s a lot more hype around this game than there was two years ago with it being the last meeting in who knows how long,” Notre Dame receiver TJ Jones said.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke said four months ago that Notre Dame was “chickening out” of the series, and got laughs at a luncheon.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly raised eyebrows when he kicked off the week by saying the rivalry with Michigan wasn’t historic or traditional, adding it is a regional game.
Kelly recanted the next day, saying it is “a great and historic rivalry,” series with Michigan.
And a couple days later, he said the pressure will be on the Wolverines.
“They’ve got to win at home,” Kelly said Thursday night. “For us, we’re going to go up there swinging.”
Hoke hasn’t lost a home game in two-plus seasons of leading college football’s winningest program, a fact that he insisted isn’t a topic of conversation within his team.
The Wolverines have won 15 straight — since losing to Wisconsin on Nov. 20, 2010 — at the Big House for their longest streak since winning 16 in a row from 2002 to 2005. In their last matchup with Notre Dame at home two years ago, the first night game in Ann Arbor, Denard Robinson threw two touchdown passes in the last 1:12 — including one with 2 seconds left — in a 35-31 win. Michigan has won three straight and six of seven against Notre Dame at home.
“You’ve got to have a mental toughness to handle the road and you’ve got to go play to win,” Kelly said. “You have to have a mental attitude. We have to go to Michigan and go to win. We’ve got to be the aggressors.”
In last year’s loss at Notre Dame, the Wolverines’ leading receiver was Devin Gardner. Now, he’s back at his natural position.
Gardner has won four games as a starting QB, but none of them could be considered a signature victory. Beating Notre Dame, though, would instantly become a part of his legacy. “It’s a big game on the biggest stage in college football,” Gardner said.
Tommy Rees became the No. 1 QB again for the Irish when Everett Golson was suspended from school for the fall semester. Rees made the most of the opportunity in the opener, throwing for a career-high 346 yards with three touchdowns without an interception.
Michigan kicker Brendan Gibbons has turned himself into an asset, matching a school record by making 14 straight field goals since a miss on Oct. 6, 2012, at Purdue.
As a freshman, the Rich Rodriguez recruit was 1 of 5 on field goals. Gibbons will likely have a shot to break the tie with Remy Hamilton, who made 14 in a row in 1996, in a game that often is decided on special teams. The Irish, meanwhile, wouldn’t say two nights before the game who will attempt field goals at Michigan Stadium. Nick Tausch missed a kick miserably from 39 yards in last week’s win over Temple and Kyle Brindza couldn’t connect on a 44-yard attempt.
Two of the top picks in the 2014 NFL draft, if Notre Dame defensive end Stephon Tuitt skips his senior season, and Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan will likely have some head-to-head matchups. Scouts in the league will be watching.
“I know he’s going to bring his ‘A’ game, I definitely have to bring mine when I go against him,” Tuitt said.
Michigan expects to have its two top safeties, Thomas Gordon and Courtney Avery, back on the field. Gordon was suspended for the first game for violating unspecified team rules.
The duo has combined for 40 starts, and that experience might prove to be helpful when Rees is looking downfield.