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Allen/Joseph: A conversation about Michigan (Sept. 21)

Allan Joseph and Chris Allen | Thursday, September 20, 2012

Editor’s Note: Shortly after Notre Dame’s 20-3 victory over Michigan State, Editor-in-Chief Allan Joseph sent Sports Editor Chris Allen an email, sparking a discussion about this week’s contest against Michigan and beyond. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of their conversation.

Allan Joseph: Chris, what just happened?

Chris Allen: I’m not quite sure. Are the Irish … good?

AJ: I think they might be. And I don’t mean qualify-for-the-Sun
-Bowl-and-finish-with-eight-wins good. I mean have-an-outside-shot-at-the-BCS good. That is not exactly what I thought six hours ago, to say the least. But that performance – that dominating, complete, astonishing performance against a very good Michigan State squad – changed my mind in a hurry. I mean, Notre Dame completely outplayed the Spartans, who are probably a top-20 team. It didn’t even look like an upset.

CA: It was the kind of game that I haven’t really seen in a while. To go on the road and physically dominate a Big Ten team in a night game, to leave a top head coach like Mark Dantonio searching for answers and to leave no room for doubt, that is the kind of thing Notre Dame used to do. It was a very encouraging game for the whole fan base. But now the whole roster will look forward, and they’ll see the player who has tormented them more than any other during the Brian Kelly era – Denard Robinson – coming to town with the Wolverines in a marquee night game. Can the Irish do it again?

AJ: Well, if there’s one thing our time here has shown us, it’s that this Michigan game is going to come down to the wire. This rivalry is too intense and these teams are too closely matched for this game to not be on the line in the fourth quarter. That’s where I think this game will say a lot about the Kelly era. There have been some monumental collapses during the past two seasons: Michigan, Tulsa, Michigan … You know how it goes. Purdue was a good sign, but can Notre Dame preserve a victory in a marquee matchup? If they can, this Irish team could be headed for something special. And yes, I know. We’ve said that before.

CA: Kelly touched on the Michigan State victory being a “signature win” in the postgame press conference. His use of the term is interesting, for his tenure at the helm for the Irish has seen a few signature wins – Utah and USC in 2010 come to mind – but has not produced a signature stretch of wins. A victory over the Wolverines, whose recent victories over Notre Dame are almost cruel in their similarity, would be the “signature win” of the Kelly era without a close peer. If Kelly’s team makes it happen, the program will likely have its first top-10 ranking in six years – and the success-starved Notre Dame fan base will really start dreaming big. But one thing is for certain: Crazy things will happen under the lights.

AJ: Okay, it’s really late, and I might not be thinking straight. But bear with me for a second. Imagine the Irish beat Michigan this weekend. Where’s the ceiling on this team? On the flip side, is yet another loss to the Wolverines a sign that Kelly might not be able to win the big game?

CA: It may just be one game, Allan, but it’s a primetime test in front of a national audience, against arguably the program’s biggest rival in recent seasons. This game will be a litmus test for the progress Kelly has made and the program he has built. He was brought here to win these games, the games Charlie Weis couldn’t. He was brought here to build a program with speed at the skill positions and strength on the lines. It’s year three of his tenure, and he has his speedy stars and his strong lines. Kelly led Cincinnati to a 12-0 campaign in his third year at the helm there, and though this may just be one game, a big win in primetime will have Irish fans dreaming of similar outcomes.

AJ: And that’s where we need to pump the brakes. This team
is not going undefeated. If they did, Alabama would pound the Irish back into the Stone Age (or worse, the Davie Era) in the national championship game. The ceiling is high, and the future is bright. But to expect a title game berth is simply foolish. Yes, there’s a decent chance a win this week puts the Irish in a position to go 10-2. They might be a top-10 team, but they’re not a top-five one. There’s still a year or two to go before Notre Dame is truly back.

CA: Definitely not. But a senior class that has seen three last-
minute defeats at the hands of the maize and blue will probably settle for sending Denard back to Ann Arbor empty-handed. And that’s where the focus should be: on this game, this chance to beat Michigan.

AJ: Well, for the sake of the dreams of Irish fans everywhere, let’s hope so. The longer the Irish stay undefeated, the wilder those dreams will get. They might just be dreams, but isn’t it about time Notre Dame fans can dream big again?

Contact Allan Joseph at [email protected] and Chris Allen at [email protected] The views in this column are those of the authors and not necessarily those of The Observer.