SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Dayne Crist dropped back into Notre Dame's own end zone, bounced on the balls of his feet and trusted his best friend to get behind Michigan's secondary. The rest was up to Kyle Rudolph, who plucked a perfect Crist pass from the sky at midfield and finished the 95-yard touchdown play with speed few 265-pounders possess.
Irish fans weren't the only ones wondering if Rudolph's hamstring would hold up.
"I was one of those people questioning it," he said of an injury that kept him out of several preseason workouts. "I felt great and was able to outrun [safety Cameron Gordon]. [No pain] the next day, nothing two days later. So I think I'm completely over that."
The quick strike ignited Notre Dame Stadium and gave the Irish a 24-21 lead with 3:41 to play -- far too much time, as it turned out, for Wolverines wunderkind Denard Robinson, who led Michigan to a game-winning drive in the closing seconds. Back to the drawing board for 1-1 Notre Dame and coach Brian Kelly, who at least clearly identified his spread offense's most reliable pair of hands.
"I'm not taking Rudolph off the field," Kelly said following the loss.
The 6-foot-6 junior is the only returning Mackey Award finalist from last season and currently leads the nation at his position with 13 receptions for 207 yards heading into Saturday's 7 p.m. game against Michigan State in East Lansing. A good chunk of that yardage was gained after contact. Seemingly allergic to praise, Rudolph evenly distributed the credit.
"I think Coach Kelly has a great scheme, and we game plan every week to get our guys open," he said. "I mentioned before, it helps a lot having [Michael Floyd] on your side because he's a big play waiting to happen. We've seen it for the last two years; Mike can make a big play on any play anywhere on the field and [opponents] have to respect that. Being next to him definitely helps us a lot. We have five guys that could be the No. 1 receiver on any Saturday."
Not at the moment they don't. Sophomore Theo Riddick, still learning the nuances at receiver after spending last season in the offensive backfield, has yet to make a significant impact. Freshman T.J. Jones has been electric at times but still makes rookie mistakes. As for Floyd, he just hasn't seen much daylight. It's not that opponents haven't also harassed Rudolph, ND offensive coordinator Charley Molnar said, but that the Cincinnati native has managed to shrug off the heavy coverage.
"I would say that they're paying attention to him, he's just made some nice plays -- that's just the truth," Molnar explained. "He's caught a couple balls with guys right on his back and guys collisioning him as the ball's touching his hands, and he's just managed so far to come up with most of those grabs."
Like on third down, when Kelly dials Rudolph's number like roadside assistance. The Irish are only 10-for-24 on third down attempts through two games, but Rudolph, who has always provided a comforting presence for Crist, has extended six of those drives.
"Dayne and I, since we got here, have been really close," Rudolph said. "We have the same major [business], so we're taking a lot of classes together. We live together in the dorms, we're just around each other all the time and have built a great relationship. I brought Dayne into my dorm [O'Neill Hall] freshman year and we shared a room. He lives across the hall now.
"I'm always trying to help Dayne out. Whether it's as far as execution, offense or just questions about little things, I'm always there. I've got a couple more games under my belt, and I'm willing to do anything I can to help him out and help put him in the best situation."
To be exact, Rudolph has 23 more games under his belt than Crist, who agrees the rapport they share factors heavily into their relationship on the field.
"I think it's a combination of both," Crist said. "I think we've got a pretty good chemistry. You know, that just comes with repetition and practice, and time spent away from here. But also just by game plan and just by read. He just ended up getting open pretty well."
Rudolph does plenty of things well, like further disguising his dry sense of humor with an expressionless face and also burying his emotions completely when it's most difficult. For the majority of the first half last Saturday, Rudolph was forced to push back his concern for Crist, who left the game after a shot to the had blurred his vision, and turned his attention to a pair of rookie quarterbacks who needed a calming veteran voice in the huddle.
"I was just focused on getting Nate [Montana] and Tommy [Rees) ready to go," Rudolph said. "I was just giving them all the confidence in the world and, you know, just making sure I echo the fact that they're ready for this and they're prepared for it."
Last fall Rudolph caught six balls for a career-high 95 yards against MSU, and he's itching at the opportunity to silence Spartan Stadium.
"I think as an away team going into a hostile environment, you're goal by the end of the game is to just have your fans there -- to clear out the seats and have the people there rooting for you. We're playing at a great venue, under the lights and on national television. It doesn't get any bigger than this. It's a great opportunity for us to show the country that, hey, we are a good football team and we can play."