Published September 09, 2011
ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan is trying to make the first prime-time game at the Big House a spectacle.
The school plans to distribute 100,000 maize pompoms, pay tribute to graduates who lost their lives on Sept. 11 a decade ago and honor Desmond Howard, their standout receiver who won the Heisman Trophy back in 1991.
Then, there will actually be a game. And it should be a good one.
Notre Dame is coming to town, smarting from an ugly 23-20 loss at home that got Brian Kelly's second season in charge off to a sour start. The Irish haven't forgotten last year's loss against the Wolverines, either.
New Michigan coach Brady Hoke has been working all week to get his players focused on Notre Dame, not the pomp and circumstance surrounding the first night game at Michigan Stadium and one that might set an NCAA attendance record.
"It is easier said than done," Hoke said. "That's our job."
The Wolverines are trying to build momentum after routing Western Michigan in a weather-shortened game in Hoke's debut. And even with less emphasis on quarterback, Michigan is likely to rely a lot on Denard Robinson in the next installment of a rivalry that stretches back to 1887.
Robinson had his way with the Irish last season in just his second start at quarterback.
Robinson racked up a school-record 502 yards — 258 rushing, 244 passing — scored the game-winning touchdown with 27 seconds left and had an 87-yard scoring run, the longest in Notre Dame Stadium history.
Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges have talked about using Robinson in different ways, putting him under center at times and asking him to delegate more to teammates. But he ran a sweep out of the shotgun on his first snap last week in what looked like a play out of Rich Rodriguez's playbook.
"He's definitely one of the best offensive players in the country," Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith said. "So just having the option to almost use him like a running back and at the same time he can throw the ball is something that I think if, no matter who the coach is, they're going to utilize that. It starts with him."
Kelly started Dayne Crist last week in the opener against South Florida, but yanked him after trailing 16-0 at halftime and played Tommy Rees in relief. The sophomore won all four of his starts last season but couldn't rally the Irish last week.
The Wolverines prepared for both quarterbacks, but Kelly said the job is Rees' to keep.
"We don't come to this decision thinking, 'Well, he'll give us one game and then we'll go back to Dayne,'" Kelly said. "That's obviously not why we made this decision. We believe that Tommy is capable of leading this football team just as I believed strongly that Dayne is capable."
One factor that helped Rees is his ability to connect with star receiver Michael Floyd, who had 12 catches last week — 10 of them from Rees — after being reinstated to the team following brushes with the law over drinking.
The player who simulated Floyd in practice this week for Michigan was Darryl Stonum, who Hoke redshirted this season — his senior year — after he went on probation for a second time for drunken driving.
"(Stonum is) a team guy and he has jumped in with both feet and really has done a good job," Hoke said.
Both schools have changed their looks for the marquee matchup.
Michigan will wear what it is calling legacy uniforms, combining elements from different eras, with a big block 'M' on the chest, numbers above the heart, striped sleeves and numbers on the side of the winged helmets.
The Irish will be sporting throwback white jerseys with green lettering and stripes, gold pants, white socks with green stripes, white shoes and a large shamrock will adorn their helmets for the first time in a half-century.
Like Hoke, Kelly hopes his players are more into blocking and tackling than the hype, but acknowledges there's something special about the series.
"College football watches the Michigan-Notre Dame game. It has that ring to it," he said. "It's on prime time. It's got all the tradition, all the great players that have played for both teams, and should be an exciting atmosphere."