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Role reversal sets stage for upset

Kate Gales | Friday, September 15, 2006

A national championship contender.

A fully loaded arsenal of players.

A team that’s ripe for an upset from a regional rival.

In what recent history would consider a role reversal, this is Notre Dame’s part to play in storied and emotionally charged showdown with Michigan. In past years, Notre Dame has played the spoiler – 2002, 2004 and 2005.

In 2002, the Irish validated (at least temporarily) the “Return to Glory” theme.

In 2004, students rushed the field during one of the season’s few bright spots.

In 2005, Charlie Weis’ second win, a 17-10 victory – which wasn’t as close as the scoreboard flashed – showed Notre Dame’s promise with Weis at the helm.

This year, it’s different.

The seniors – including Brady Quinn, Ryan Harris, Jeff Samardzija, Chinedum Ndukwe and Rhema McKnight – remember the 38-0 pasting at Ann Arbor in 2003.

They’re coming off two emotional and difficult games. In hindsight, Georgia Tech will be one of the best wins of the season. A methodic demolition of Penn State last weekend sent the Irish back to No. 2 in the AP poll.

Michigan, on the other hand, has been focused on this game since January.

Although Vanderbilt’s been known to hand out an upset or two, the balanced Wolverines didn’t give it a chance last weekend, handing the Commodores a 41-17 loss.

The next week, Central Michigan was an appetizer to the regular season.

Now, it’s the main course.

Michigan needs this win to prove that it belongs in the polls with the big boys again. And nothing would be sweeter than knocking off Notre Dame, summertime’s media darling, with its cover boy quarterback Quinn and the respected Weis.

Michigan has played what Notre Dame’s defensive captain Tom Zbikowski calls “smash-mouth football.” The professional boxer would recognize a 1-2 punch of Mike Hart and Kevin Grady as a potential knockout.

This is a game where emotions run high. Geographic proximity and a history of hatred from past Michigan coaches mean that a lot of pride rides on the outcome.

The face of college football could be different today had Michigan not opposed Notre Dame’s entry into the Big 10 so long ago. No NBC contract? Less national exposure? No storied history that many consider premier among sports? Perhaps the Big 10 did Notre Dame a favor. But the anti-Notre Dame bent of past Michigan leaders has left a sour taste for decades.

This year, the winner of the game will go home leading college football in all-time win percentage. It will also be a legitimate national title contender.

Notre Dame faces USC to end the season. Michigan’s finale is current No. 1 Ohio State. Those are their true rivals.

But now that this matchup is annual, it’s sure that no love is lost.

This is Notre Dame’s last chance to post a resounding win over a ranked team, assuming Michigan State doesn’t jump into the polls in the upcoming week. This isn’t a team that plays on tilt. The players are modest given the hype they generate. They want to prove themselves on the field – and win every one.

But can they win this one?

Michigan is the most balanced team the Irish have faced so far – certainly the most balanced team they face until USC in November. The offensive line is trimmed down, although it only returns two starters. Their receivers don’t get the attention that the McKnight-Samardzija duo generates, but Steve Breaston is dangerous every time he touches the ball

Hart could be the best running back Notre Dame sees this year, and it’s hard to tell if the Irish are ready for him. Add Grady into the mix and Michigan could run the ball every down.

Milk the clock, keep the offense off the field and tire the defense – that’s what Michigan wants to do.

It’s a recipe for a Notre Dame disaster.

The views experessed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Kate Gales at [email protected]