Most of college football's best rivalries are rooted in history. The further back they go, the more meaning they have, for the most part.
When the Wolverines face Notre Dame, the history between the two goes back 125 years. It was that long ago, in 1887, that a group of Michigan players traveled to South Bend to teach the game to the students at Notre Dame.
The two programs have met just 38 times over that lengthy span, but it has been in the modern era that the rivalry has really taken on a life of its own. Michigan senior defensive lineman Ryan Van Bergen spoke to his teammates as they started preparations to face Notre Dame. He wanted to make certain they all knew the significance of this date on the schedule.
"We've been playing each other for a long time," Van Bergen said. "It goes backs so far, and there is so much history. We're always so competitive as far as having the most wins in college football. I know they take it very seriously, and I know we take it very seriously. It's exciting to be able to play in it."
Michigan coach Brady Hoke, whose team is coming off a big win over Western Michigan in its season-opener, knows that the annual exchange with Notre Dame has grown in stature to rival the Wolverines date with Michigan State.
It's not yet reached Ohio State status, but it is close, Hoke said. He recalled legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler driving home the point that early-season meetings of this stature provide the Wolverines with a good measuring stick.
"This is as important as anything," Hoke said about playing the Fighting Irish. "I think coach Schembechler used to say, you really get a gauge on where you are at as a team. It is an environment where you have expectations as to how your guys are going to play."
Hoke said he needed to see his team make significant improvements in a multitude of areas before he would feel comfortable about them being ready to face Notre Dame. He stressed that while it was a win, the victory over Western Michigan was a flawed performance.
"There's probably a lot of things I was very unhappy with, but we'll leave that for later," Hoke said. "This could be a marathon (news conference), but I know I don't have the time for it, and neither do you."
The Wolverines face a Notre Dame team many expected to be on the rise, but a stunning opening week loss at home to South Florida suddenly has the Irish the most desperate team in the country. They come to Ann Arbor hoping to get well.
--When Michigan hosts Notre Dame it will be first night game in the history of Michigan Stadium. Both teams will wear throw-back uniforms. LB Brandon Herron has seen the stadium lit up, and was impressed. "The lights were on, and we got a feel for it," he said. "It looks like heaven, if you ask me. All of the lights, all of the maize; I am proud to say I play football at the University of Michigan."
--One of the factors involved in Michigan's storm-shortened opening win over Western Michigan is that the Wolverines ran only 39 offensive plays. There was a lot the offense never got to try, so the Notre Dame game inherits some of the experimentation.
--LB Brandon Herron was named the national Walter Camp Defensive Player of the Week after he scored a pair of defensive touchdowns in the win over Western Michigan. Herron took an interception back 94 yards for a score, and then picked up a fumble returned it for a second touchdown, becoming the first player in the modern era to score two defensive touchdowns in a game for Michigan.
--Michigan has won five of its past six games with Notre Dame in Ann Arbor, where this week's game will be played. Michigan has won the past two meetings in the series, and both with last minute touchdown drives.
SERIES HISTORY: Michigan leads Notre Dame 22-15-1 (last meeting, 2010, 28-24 Michigan) SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The Wolverines are aware that the 34-10 win over Western Michigan
in the opener got a little bit distorted by the two defensive touchdowns Michigan scored. Coach Brady Hoke saw his offense run just 39 plays, leaving a number of areas untested. "There's some things that are still out there," Hoke said. "There's some things that we didn't get to in the offense that maybe we would have liked to " His team did rush for 190 yards in three-quarters of a game, and it did take quite a bit of the rushing load off junior QB Denard Robinson in the process. That approach needs to be available when the Irish come calling.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The drastic rebuild on this side of the ball continues, and although the Wolverines didn't give up a lot of big plays in their opener, Notre Dame will likely force Michigan to up the ante. Pressure on the quarterback and decent man-to-man coverage will be critical. There were also some communication issues on the defensive side that can't become chronic. S Jordan Kovacs has emerged as a leader, and if this unit adopts his persona, things look brighter already.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "There's a lot that we can continue to learn and improve on, and hopefully we can make a great improvement, because the test obviously gets much bigger this week. We've got to be much better this week, because of the talent Notre Dame has." -- Michigan coach Brady Hoke
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Notre Dame at Michigan, Sept. 10 -- The Wolverines look for a third straight win in this series, and for the chance to really build some significant momentum during this five-game home stretch to start the season. The hype will be relentless, with the first night game at Michigan Stadium, a national television audience, and special uniforms for both teams.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The last time these two met, Michigan needed 502 yards of offense from QB Denard Robinson to squeak out a 28-24 win in the closing minute. The Wolverines can't expect him to carry anywhere near that much of the load this time. The kickoff coverage has to improve, and the play of the defensive front has to move from the mundane to the occasionally spectacular.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Denard Robinson -- Last season the nation snapped to attention when Robinson used this game to launch his Heisman Trophy campaign. He had 502 yards of offense, rushing for a school record 258 yards and scoring the winning TD in the closing minute. Robinson should run less this time around, but needs to make it hurt just as much when he does.
S Jordan Kovacs -- The former walk-on led the Wolverines with 10 tackles against Western Michigan, and had two sacks, a forced fumble and broke up a pass. He moved past 200 career tackles at Michigan.
--LB Cam Gordon, a starter, missed the Western Michigan game with soreness in his back. Michigan coach Brady Hoke said Gordon may play against Notre Dame.
--P Will Hagerup, one of the most highly-recruited punters in the nation two years ago, has been suspended for the first four games of the season for a violation of team rules.
--CB Troy Woolfolk, who missed all of the 2010 season with a broken ankle, sprained the other ankle in the season opener but Hoke said the injury is not serious and he expects Woolfolk to play against Notre Dame. His career best of eight tackles came in the 2009 meeting with Notre Dame.
--OG Ricky Barnum, a starter, was not dressed for the 2011 season opener due to an unspecified suspension relating to what head coach Brady Hoke called a "team issue". Sophomore Michael Schofield started in Barnum's absence. Barnum is expected back for the Notre Dame game.
--WR Darryl Stonum, who would have been a senior this year and Michigan's most experienced receiver, is taking a redshirt year as he continues to work through legal issues surrounding his arrest on drunken driving charges.