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FOOTBALL: ND-Michigan always memorable

Mike Gilloon | Friday, September 9, 2005

ESPN Classic has the game circled on its calendar every year – the game when Rocket Ismail returned two kicks for touchdowns. The game when Desmond Howard struck the Heisman pose in the end zone. The game when Harry Oliver lined up for an impossible 51-yard field goal, then booted it through the uprights.

It’s winged helmets vs. golden helmets. Hail to the Victors vs. The Victory March. The Big House vs. The House that Rock Built.

It’s a game of names. Tim Biakabutuka and Autry Denson. Elvis Grbac and Kevin McDougal. Butch Woolfork and Michael Stonebreaker. Bo Schembechler and Lou Holtz.

It’s Version 2005 of Notre Dame-Michigan. One of the most competitive, colorful and dramatic series in college football kicks off tomorrow and everyone is thrilled.

Everyone that is, but the teams themselves.

Irish tight end Anthony Fasano says it’s nothing unusual, simply the second game of the year. So does his teammate Rhema McKnight and Irish coach Charlie Weis.

Hot air? Maybe.

But if the Irish hope to play well in Ann Arbor, Fasano and Co. must treat Michigan as just another game. Getting too hyped will blur Notre Dame’s focus and make an upset of the No. 3 Wolverines even tougher.

Weis, who will coach in his first Notre Dame-Michigan game tomorrow, summed up his squad’s outlook best.

“You have to treat every week the same,” Weis said. “You understand the significance of rivalries between different schools. But if you ever treat any team differently, you’re just setting yourself up for a fall.”

Weis showed against Pittsburgh he knows a little bit about coaching. And his attitude will help the Irish tomorrow.

But for followers of Michigan, Notre Dame and sports in general, tomorrow is the closest college football comes to theater.

Since 1978 – when the series resumed after a 35-year hiatus – the average margin of victory has been 6.4 points (not counting, of course, the 38-0 Michigan romp in 2003).

Tomorrow should be no different than in recent years, except for one thing: Notre Dame finally knows it can win.

Irish quarterback Brady Quinn remarked after last week’s game that it is nice to play with confidence, not with the nervousness of the past that caused him to fire footballs over receiver’s heads and Travis Thomas to drop them on the ground.

Weis said after the Pittsburgh game the players were starting to realize they were better than they thought they were.

He’s right. They are better than they thought they were – better than last year’s team, better than Pittsburgh and possibly better than Michigan.

Yes, Michigan is in the top five as usual, and there’s a reason for that.

Steve Breaston, Chad Henne, Jason Avant, Mike Hart and the rest of the Maize and Blue are good football players. Very good football players.

But the Irish aren’t pushovers.

They have a Parade All-American offensive line; a running back named Darius Walker who could start for any team in the country; a defensive tackle named Trevor Laws who is only a law degree short of being Chris Zorich; and Quinn.

Tomorrow is the biggest game of his three-year career.

He was heavily recruited by the Wolverines. Michigan wanted him. But Quinn wanted Notre Dame.

Barring injury he’s likely to go down as the Irish career-leader in most passing categories. But that means little if he doesn’t win the big games – and none are bigger than Notre Dame-Michigan.

Enjoy the show.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Mike Gilloon at [email protected]