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Zuba: Rivalry game will test Notre Dame’s mettle (Sept. 5)

| Thursday, September 4, 2014

20140903, 20140903, Football, Insider, Notre Dame Football Stadium, Wei LinMike Monaco | The Observer

Notre Dame won’t waste much time getting into the big games on its schedule this season.

Have you recovered from tailgating and the win over Rice last weekend yet? You have mere hours to gear up for Michigan and the night game. From there, the schedule will have little mercy on the Irish (1-0).

Make this game day count because there is no set date for the rivalry with Michigan (1-0) to resume. Come Saturday, the players all will try to make this one count, even if the official line is that this game is another one on the schedule, just as important as Rice.

That’s nonsense.

Beating a rival does matter. There is a special atmosphere on campus and in Notre Dame Stadium when a rival comes to town. Fans definitely feel it. And players know it’s there, whether they will acknowledge it in an interview or not.

The Michigan game matters more than the matchup against talented, up-and-coming Rice.

Rice is a good team, so this has little to do with whether or not unranked Michigan is better than the Owls, although a win against Michigan likely means more in the polls.

That’s not the most important factor in the Notre Dame-Michigan game.

A win against the Wolverines proves the Irish can deal with distractions and win. 

The extra energy and pressure that comes with a rivalry game can wither even a talented team. Players sometimes try too hard and play out of control. They may take unnecessary risks trying to make the big play or, on the other hand, shy away from the chance, cracking under the pressure to be heroes and beat the rival.

A good team finds a way to harness rivalry energy, focus and win. If Notre Dame wants to be a contender, it has to show it’s that kind of team. 

When the stadium rocks Saturday and the lights come on, the Irish have to show up and play calm, even if they’re amped up. Especially if they’re amped up.

Over the last few seasons, there has been no shortage of distractions, some due to unfortunate circumstances, others due to unfortunate judgment. This season is no different, with five players being held out due to an investigation into suspected academic dishonesty.

But Notre Dame has to rise above that. The Irish got a good start against Rice, with Everett Golson returning from his suspension to throw two touchdowns and rush for three. He came into the game under a lot of pressure to play like the “ProdiGolson” in his return, and he coolly delivered a great performance.

Take that example and run with it, Notre Dame.

As the Irish move forward, they will have to continue answering questions about off-the-field issues until they are resolved. While they wait, they have to play — against challenging opponents.

They will deal with the hype of rivalry games and a looming matchup with No. 1 Florida State. If they climb in the polls, they will face higher expectations and doubts about whether they deserve their ranking. If they inch closer to the playoffs, they will have to answer questions about whether they are ready to be a championship team.

Notre Dame can start answering those questions Saturday when it takes the field against the Wolverines.

Last season, the No. 14 Irish lost to No. 17 Michigan, 41-30, at the Big House. 

It was the beginning of an unraveling that culminated in a sloppy 28-21 loss to Pittsburgh in November.

If Notre Dame wants to play in a meaningful bowl game, it needs to make a different statement this year against the Wolverines. Like last season, the Irish play Michigan in the second game of the season after beating a team nicknamed the Owls — last year Temple, this year Rice.

Saturday’s game gives Notre Dame the chance to put last season in the past and prove it has more mettle this time around.

This game matters.

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