Undoubtedly the defense improved with the return of two stellar athletes in Marlin Jackson and Ernest Shazor, along with the rededication of coaches and players in practice. That said, this is the game that will accurately evaluate where this team is defensively. The magnitude of the game increased after Notre Dame’s improbable comeback last week versus Washington State. Despite being down 19-0, the Irish found a way to claw back into the contest. That resilience was evident last year as well, and the Michigan players recognize that according to Larry Stevens. Notre Dame always has ways of if they’re not dominating the game, finding ways to win,” Stevens said. “We know that Notre Dame is a team that if you’re up 10, 14, or 17, it doesn’t matter. You’ve got to prepare to go four quarters, and that starts in practice. You have got to EXPECT to go to the end of the game because Notre Dame isn’t going to lie down for anybody.”
Some might look to Notre Dame’s struggles last week and find solace in the visible chinks in their golden armor (like the number of times the Irish offensive line allowed Carlyle Holiday to be hit), but it has become apparent over the years that the performances in other games mean very little in this one. Stevens intimated that he subscribes to that theory. “The line that they had last year was more veteran and anytime you have to put younger players or players not experienced in there, they have to go through things. Everybody goes through it,” Stevens said. “People say they had a bad performance against Washington State, but that doesn’t matter! What does matter is everybody knows that when they come to Michigan, they’re going to bring their best game. We’re not even looking at the Washington State film with the mindset that these guys don’t look good. It’s not even about that. We’re expecting a dogfight.”
Stevens wasn’t the only Wolverine expecting a fight. Tony Pape seemed to have similar expectations. “When you come into the Big House, it’s going to be Notre Dame and they’re going to step up their level of play,” Pape said. “We’re going to step up our level of play because we know it’s that type of game. It’s going to be a fight. It’s not going to be a football game. It’s going to be a brawl!”
The offense has been a juggernaut this season, but they too are expecting the Irish to be a litmus test for their early season standing. “I think they’re a GREAT defensive front,” Pape exclaimed. “They’re quick, athletic, smart, well coached and just a great college defense. They cause turnovers and make plays and they’re going to give us some problems.”
Neither of the first two opponents have been significant obstacles to Michigan’s bulldozer like running game. They have, however, limited Michigan’s passing game. According to coach Carr, the opposition’s success was aided by the mistakes of his own unit. “Offensively, I’m disappointed that in our passing game, “ Carr said. “We’re not where we need to be. The key to our passing game is to have people spaced properly, people in the right position, and people running good routes.” The importance of the passing attack reaches its early season apex in Saturday’s contest. Failure to field a threatening aerial assault will allow the Irish to load up against the run. Fortunately Coach Carr has identified the source of the problems, and is confident that they can be rectified. “I think that (our troubles are do to) a combination of things. Obviously we’ve got to catch the football better, but it goes beyond that. We had a couple of problems in the protection area. We had a couple of times where we looked left when we should have looked right. So there are some things in there that we just need to do better and I think that we will.”
The maize and blue faithful certainly hope that the coach is right!