Two of the more storied programs in all of college football square off in South Bend this Saturday night, as the 18th- ranked Michigan Wolverines pay a visit to the 11th-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
Michigan (897 victories) is the all-time winningest team in college football history, while Notre Dame (856 wins) certainly isn't far off the pace. The two teams are meeting for the 40th time this week, with the Wolverines leading the series, 23-15-1. Michigan is one of only 11 teams that owns a winning record against the Irish, and this is the first night game in South Bend between the two since 1990 when then top-ranked Notre Dame bested No. 4 Michigan in a 28-24 final.
Michigan got the 2012 season off on the wrong foot, as the team was dismantled by defending national champion Alabama, 41-14, in Arlington, Texas. Not content to let that demoralizing defeat define their season, the Wolverines put one in the win column the following week at home versus Air Force (31-25), and then scored early and often in what turned out to be a 63-13 rout of FBS newcomer Massachusetts last Saturday.
The Wolverines will be idle next weekend, giving them additional time to prepare for their Big Ten Conference opener at Purdue on Oct. 6.
Notre Dame opened the season with a 50-10 rout of Navy in Dublin, Ireland, but then scored fewer points combined in its next two outings, although both were victories. First, it was in-state rival Purdue that fell to the Fighting Irish in a 20-17 final, which set the stage for last week's road clash with No. 10 Michigan State. That game also wound up in favor of UND, 20-3, which snapped a six-game losing streak against ranked opponents in the process. The Irish are off to their first 3-0 start since 2002 when they opened the year with eight straight wins.
Following their third consecutive game against a Big Ten opponent, the Irish will take on Miami-Florida in Chicago, and still to come are tough bouts with Stanford, BYU, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh, Boston College, Wake Forest and USC.
A total of eight different players scored a TD for Michigan in last week's easy win over UMass, with QB Denard Robinson accounting for four scores (three passing, one rushing). Robinson, who has completed 54.7 percent of his passes for 699 yards, six TDs and four INTs this season, finished with 291 yards through the air and 106 more on the ground. RB Fitzgerald Toussaint rumbled his way to 85 yards and a TD against UMass, while WR Drew Dileo had just three catches but turned them into 91 yards.
Robinson, who is far and away the team's leading rusher this season with 351 yards and four TDs, currently sits fifth on the school's all-time passing list with 5,630 career yards, and he is a little more than 500 yards away from taking over the top spot on UM's total offensive yards list (Chad Henne, 9,715).
The Wolverines have allowed only two sacks this season.
The Michigan defense permitted just 259 total yards last week to the Minutemen, who were penalized 10 times for a loss of nearly 70 yards, and averaged just 3.9 yards per offensive play compared to 8.6 ypp for the Wolverines.
Coach Brady Hoke's club is giving up an average of 26.3 ppg this year, with that number clearly skewed by the 41-spot Alabama put up in the opener. Michigan has had some difficulty stopping the run thus far, allowing 211.3 ypg and five of the enemy's seven offensive TDs. The effort against the pass however, yields just 157.7 ypg.
Through three games, Jordan Kovacs (23) heads a group of 10 players in double- digit tackles, and the Michigan defensive unit as a whole has logged 19 TFL, but only three sacks.
Coach Hoke, while obviously pleased with the outcome of last week's game, knows his team has to get more consistent in all phases if its going to challenge for the Big Ten title.
"First and foremost, it's great to win a football game. At the same time, we've got a lot of things that we did well, but we need to do a lot better job at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the football."
Far from an offensive juggernaut, Notre Dame relies more on sure and steady performances by most of its skill players rather than electric, game-breaking ability, and that's just fine with head coach Brian Kelly and the Fighting Irish faithful -- provided the team keeps winning. UND is averaging 30 points and 388.7 yards per contest, with the run producing 155.7 ypg and seven TDs, and the pass 233.0 ypg and three scores.
QB Everett Golson is completing 58 percent of his passes thus far, and has done a nice job of spreading the ball around, as three players share the team lead with nine grabs apiece, and five guys in all have at least six receptions. As for the Notre Dame running game, it relies more on balance rather than one guy carrying the mantle, as Theo Riddick and George Atkinson III have both rushed for at least 144 yards, with each scoring a pair of TDs thus far.
Golson had both a rushing and passing TD in last week's upset of Michigan State, which had won its previous 15 home games. The team's top ground gainer on the day was Cierre Woods (10 carries, 56 yards), and its leading receiver was Robby Toma (five receptions, 58 yards). The Irish managed to win the game despite gaining only 300 total yards, and converting just one of their 14 third-down opportunities.
The Notre Dame defense stood tall against what had been a potent Michigan State offense coming in, as the Spartans put forth their worst offensive showing at home in more than 20 years in producing a mere 237 total yards. MSU failed to score a TD and managed a minuscule 50 net rushing yards in the game. Manti Te'o led the UND stance with 12 tackles, and he added a fumble recovery and two PBU to his solid stat line. The Irish were credited with four sacks.
Te'o has amassed 30 total tackles through three games, his next closest teammate being Zeke Motta with 19. Bennett Jackson has two of the team's three INTs, and Stephon Tuitt has five of its 11 sacks.
Kelly, while acknowledging the relative importance of the recent win, knows its time to turn the page and get ready for what lies ahead.
"As a program, it was a big win, but as a team it was just another win to us. Mark it off the calendar and on to the next, which is Michigan. We will focus on them."