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GAMEDAY REPORT FROM SOUTH BEND: RIVALRY RESTORED
September 11, 2010

SCS.com Two coaches entered Notre Dame stadium with a lot on the line. For Brian Kelly, it was quick success at his beloved Notre Dame. For Rich Rodriguez, it was job security on the line again. With Notre Dame losing their quarterback Dayne Crist after the first drive of the game, it took a heroic effort to slow the Wolverine spread. But that is precisely what the Irish did, and despite QB Denard Robinson shattering his absurd records for a quarterback at Michigan in the rushing department, Notre Dame held fast. The Irish also survived three turnovers and stood at the end of the game with their starting quarterback intact and four minutes to make a game winning drive. Then the craziness of college football struck and Notre Dame found lightning in a bottle. But a legend was about to be born in Denard Robinson, as Michigan rolled down the field looking for a game winning score. This is the story of Michigan vs. Notre Dame, 2010.

As Michigan and Notre Dame prepared for battle, the day was rainy and gray. However, sunshine was in the forecast for gametime and with that sunshine comes an opportunity to shine for both offenses. If you've never been to South Bend, you have to go to campus early and appreciate all the history and all the tradition of a college football town. One particular must-see item is off campus and that is the College Football Hall of Fame. Make sure you leave enough time before or after a game to see that museum at its very best. Despite the rainy conditions, I braved the elements to see all there is to see on campus.

Notre Dame has many long green areas between buildings, higlighted by the central green leading up to the campus administration building, also known as the Golden Dome. While the Golden Dome itself is impressive, the interior of that administration building is even more impressive. Wall-sized murals line the corridors with pictures of famous historical/religious events and people, such as Christopher Columbus. If you are visiting Notre Dame as a prospective student, this is where the admissions office will woo you to come to South Bend. The Golden Dome is right in the center of the main part of campus, so other landmarks such as the Touchdown Jesus statue and the Basilica. The Basilica is the place of pregame prayer for the Irish team and coaching staff, and then the team walks from the Basilica across the main campus green over to Notre Dame Stadium. Fans line the sidewalks the entire way and let out a boisterous cheer to let the Irish know they are loved. Brian Kelly looked particularly enthused on this gray day to be headed to the stadium to do battle in his first big game as the ND head coach.

After watching the Notre Dame players and most of the fans file toward the stadium, there will usually be enough time for you to go the opposite direction and check out the two lakes on campus just north and west of the main portion of campus. There are walking trails and lots of great photo opportunities next to the lakes. Across St. Joseph's lake you will see a massive catholic church which serves both part of the campus and the South Bend community at large. The faith of this college campus is evident as you cannot walk more than a few steps before you run into a beautiful painting or statue of some religious figure of the past. The other must-see attraction on this side of campus is The Grotto, which is the party and tailgate location for long-time fans. One is hard pressed to find a better setting for a bratwurst and a cold one. After seeing all the sights around the main part of campus, it's time to head over to the stadium.

Notre Dame stadium is similar in layout to Michigan Stadium, but you come in near ground level instead of at the top. On the east side of the stadium you will find the most populated tailgating area, although it may not have the mystique and aura of The Grotto. The student body and alumni of Notre Dame were in full force, but there was a whole ton of Maize and Blue mixed in with the Blue and Gold. One may think it would be hard to tell the fans apart, but there's a huge difference between the gold and greens of Notre Dame and the bright Maize of Michigan men and women. I spoke with a few random fans before the game and got their take on the season and the game at hand. Both teams seemed to agree that this game was crucial if the had any hope of national exposure in the front half of the season, and both were worried about their defenses with a good opposing offense at hand. Michigan fans appear to look at this game as a chance to resotre their pride in the program and perhaps springboard into a surprise contending year in the Big Ten. Meanwhile, Notre Dame is in the middle of a murderer's row six game schedule to begin the season and seems to look at this as a game that could determine a BCS bowl berth for them. After all, with USC at the end of November on the schedule, Notre Dame can only afford 1-2 losses goiong into that game for all the BCS marbles and money.

I asked Michigan fans if they thought Tate Forcier would transfer and most of them agreed that he probably will. This is nothing new for Rich Rodriguez, but this is a golden opportunity lost for Forcier, who led the Wolverines admirably for the first half of 2009. However, the more Denard Robinson plays, the more I hear the Pat White comparison. If that works out like Michigan fans think, then one would expect UM to be Big Ten champions in 2011. The Notre Dame fans appear to be content with Dayne Crist after his first start, but the buzz in South Bend is all Brian Kelly, all the time. Kelly is saying and doing all the right things so far and does not appear to have the fan base divided like they always were under Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis. Notre Dame fans are more realistic about this season's expectations than one might suspect when listening to the national media, but you better believe they expect Kelly to be a national power by 2012 at the latest. The most in-depth conversation I had was with a Notre Dame alumnus who graduated in 1962 and firmly believes that Armando Allen and David Ruffer are the key to winning this game and perhaps even 10 on the schedule. As someone who has watched Ohio State dominate the Big Ten in recent years, I can't help but agree that a good running back and a great kicker can take you a long way. It finally became time to get into the stadium and watch the teams warm up.

Notre Dame took the opening kickoff and had any jitters eliminated on first down when safety Jordan Kovacs had a late hit out of bounds that put the Irish near midfield. While Armando Allen was shut down, Dayne Crist showed off his quarterback running skills with a clutch 20 yard gain and a 10 yard touchdown called back by a block in the back. However, that did not slow the Irish as they zipped into the endzone on a 1-yard sneak by Crist for a 7-0 lead. Michigan did not do anything with their first drive, but when Notre Dame took the field Crist was replaced by backeup QB Tommy Rees, who immediately had a flea flicker (of all plays) intercepted. One 31-yard touchdown pass later from Denard Robinson to Roy Roundtree and we were tied at seven. Rees stayed in the game for the Irish and a big sack on the next possession gave the ball right back to the Wolverines. The teams exchanged possessions and Nate Montana took over at quarterback for Notre Dame, which means Crist is certainly injured and possibly out for the game. Hence, Notre Dame is in full on scuffling mode as Crist was their X-factor against the Michigan defense. With three minutes left in the quarter, Michigan would be denied no longer with a 65 yard touchdown drive taking under 2 minutes for a 14-7 lead. As we reached the end of the first quarter, things look very bleak for Notre Dame unless one of these backup quarterbacks can step up big time.

As the second quarter progressed, neither team moved the ball although there were some solid offensive plays. Each drive kept fizzling around midfield though, as neither team had a drive over 3 minutes long to this point in the game. This trend continued even though Montana was looking better in the pocket. As the second quarter wound down to its final five minutes, Dayne Crist could be seen warming up on the sideline, which means big things for the Irish considering this game is still a seven point margin. Then disaster struck after Notre Dame pinned Michigan at the one. Denard Robinson ran for a first down and then broke the sixth-longest run in Michigan history, an 87 yard sweep for a score with a critical block by WR Roy Roundtree to free Robinson. Michigan took a 14 point lead but Notre Dame was led down the field by Nate Montana, who really came into his own in this first half and capped the drive with a 47 yard throw with 3 seconds left, putting the Irish at the 3 yard line and a tough decision to make. However, then Brian Kelly made a very questionable decision to go for it instead of take the points going into halftime and whiffed on a pass play. Michigan keeps their 14 point margin at halftime, and you really have to question Kelly's decision-making with a green quarterback even after a big play like that. One would figure that if Crist is healthy in the second-half, the decision to not take the points may haunt Notre Dame.

At halftime Michigan has to be happy with the 14 point lead, but it could have been so much more all things considered. Notre Dame did nothing except for the first and last drives of the half, and Michigan should have taken better advantage. However, Robinson already has monster numbers at the half with 174 rushing and 107 passing. While Kelly may be questioned about his first-half tactics, he can be proud of his defense thus far with the exception of one misplay late in the half against Robinson. However, the defense must play even betteri n the second half as there have already been 17 drives this game and probably another 12-18 coming in the second half. If there's anything about this game that stands out though, it is the extremely short drives and that gives Notre Dame a real shot to come back in this game.

After Michigan opened the third quarter with a 3-and-out, the crowd roared when they saw Dayne Crist the starting quarterback come back out onto the field. With great field position near midfield, it only took two plays for Dayne Crist to find T.J. Jones for a 53 yard touchdown pass that made this game a one-score affair again just 2 minutes into the second half. The stadium is alive for the first time since 3 minutes into the game, and Michigan will find it very hard to hear on their second offensive possession. Before moving on, replays showed that T.J. Jones actually dropped the ball before entering the end zone, so a good break caught by Notre Dame on a stupid play by the receiver. Michigan had a other 3 and out, and Notre Dame rolled right down the field despite a 60 yard run by Armando Allen called back to midfield for a block in the back. With Crist in, the Irish would not be stopped and a few plays after the penalty, but the drive stalled in the red zone and the Irish settled for the first field goal of the game to make it 21-17 Michigan. Michigan did finally respond with a good drive, but a crucial holding penalty on center David Molk stopped the drive cold and a field goal attempt was pulled wide right to keep the margin at 4. Despite getting an immediate interception after the miss by Kovacs, Michigan failed to capitalize again and pinned Notre Dame deep with 3 minutes left in the third. Michigan stopped Notre Dame at the end of the third quarter and looks to have stabilized against Crist finally.

The start of the fourth quarter brought Michigan another good drive but another field goal pulled wide right by Gibbons. With only 11 minutes left in the game, Notre Dame could feel the pressure to score but could not capitalize and punted to bury Michigan deep in their own terriotry. Robinson had a good drive about to midfield but another costly holding penalty killed another drive and gave the Irish new life with 6 minutes to go. But the Irish could do nothing with it. However, the fun was only beginning as the Irish got the ball right back with 4 minutes to play.

After being buried at the 5 yard line, Dayne Crist dropped back into the end zone and held the ball for what seemed like an eternity as the Michigan linemen crashe din on him. But he stood tall and found a throwing lane to Kyle Rudolph, who broke the play for a 95 yard touchdown. The fans went absolutely crazy as Michigan had finally surrendered the lead. But looking across the sideline at the Wolverines, they did not seem phased at all despite not scoring since the second quarter. Denard Robinson came out of the huddle and calmy marched the Wolverines down the field. Run after run, and throw after throw, the Wolverines chipped away until they ended up in the end zone. Then Denard made the play of the game by taking a designed run around the left side for one of the first times in the game and he plunged into the end zone for a 2 yard score and a Michigan lead 28-24 with 27 seconds left. The Irish did not go down without a fight though, as they used their last 20 seconds to march down the field and they had one jump ball play on a 30 yard pass to the end zone as time expired. Just like the first half though, the Irish quarterback overthrew his target and the Wolverines escaped with the victory.

So what does it all mean? After the game Rich Rodriguez was surprised at the toughness of his quarterback, who shattered his own rushing record for a Michigan quarterback from a week earlier by nabbing 258 on the ground to go with 244 in the air. While Rodriguez insists that they cannot run Robinson this much in the future, he also acknowledged that as long as you win you are fine. This makes sense from a man who must gain a lot of wins to turn the negative emotions surrounding the Michigan program back to his favor and soon. Denard Robinson came into the press room with a huge grin on his face, and you could tell he was sore but he reveled in the moment of being the game winning drive-leader. Robinson indeed looked a lot like Pat White today and that means trouble for the Big Ten opposition. Michigan now looks forward to an easy stretch leading up to home games with Michigan State and Iowa at the middle of the season. Michigan should be 6-0 when they face Iowa, and that will cool a lot of the heat in Ann Arbor.

For the Irish, Brian Kelly will have some down days and with a young quarterback who did not play half the game, he has to live with the result. Notre Dame's defense stepped up huge to hold Michigan scoreless throughout the game after falling behind at least until the final drive. But sometimes magic happens with a player like Robinson, and the Irish should not have a hangover heading into East Lansing next week. On the whole I actually think Notre Dame was the better team today, and Crist is turning into a great quarterback quickly. He will make some mistakes, but he will be a net benefit for this team. Look for Notre Dame to continue tweaking the offense a bit in the coming weeks as they traverse through the most difficult part of their schedule.

In the end, Notre Dame and Michigan will look at this as only one game on the schedule. But it was a mighty important game for both teams and both coaches. The good news is that it looks like both coaches may stick around with the way their teams are playing. One cannot believe these are the same teams who started 4-0 and 4-1 last year onl to stumble to 5-7 and 6-6, respectively. The Wolverines and Irish have a long way to go still, but both teams showed that they deserve to be nationally ranked and in the discussion every week of the football season. Congratulations to the Victors, and thanks as always go out to Notre Dame for inviting SCS to cover the game and do a feature. We very much appreciate it, and we look forward to bringing you either Oklahoma at Cincinnati in two weeks or Ohio State at Illinois in four weeks. Until next time, cheers to college football, great finishes, and the renewal of great rivalries such as this one.

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