KALAMAZOO, Mich. -- A number of Western Michigan football players filed out of Waldo Stadium on Monday night whistling the "Notre Dame Victory March." It was one of several Fighting Irish tracks that bounced around the empty stands on a loop throughout the hour-long practice session, becoming lodged between their ears.
Considering it's the first time WMU coach Bill Cubit's done that since the Broncos geared up to play Florida State in 2006, it's clear how big Saturday's game is for his program.
Ironically, Cubit blasted a Seminoles soundtrack all those years ago because his team needed a lift before leaving for Tallahassee on the heels of a dismal loss to a Brian Kelly-led Central Michigan squad.
At first, Cubit downplayed the music selection.
"No, it's the noise factor," he said. "That's why we play music and to get guys back on track," he said. "It was a great win for us this past week [against Ball State]. But I don't want these kids to think they've arrived. ... OK, we're playing a great, great football team this week with great tradition. I just want to make sure our kids know, ‘Hey, this is who you're playing now. You better ratchet it up because it's going to be hard.’"
But difficult non-conference schedules are nothing new for Western Michigan.
In 2006, Western dropped a 39-21 decision at Indiana but rebounded two weeks later with a 17-10 victory against Virginia. In the second-to-last game of the year, WMU nearly scored a touchdown in the final seconds at Florida State, but a holding call negated the score and the Seminoles slipped away with a 28-20 win in Tallahassee.
In 2007, the Broncos’ first three games of the year featured No. 3 West Virginia, Indiana and No. 25 Missouri. Despite an 0-3 start that season, the Broncos finished 5-7, including a 28-19 victory over Iowa on November 17.
In 2008, Western Michigan knocked off Illinois to finish 9-3 and earn a Texas Bowl berth. It's been tough sledding since then, with lopsided losses at Michigan and Michigan State in 2009 and a mistake-filled opener this fall in East Lansing.
That hasn't changed Cubit's position on gladly playing the role of underdog.
"If you're going to do this for a living, you want to go play the best," he said.
Of course, Kelly will be pacing the opposite sideline again.
"It's really funny," Cubit said. "I was giving out the Assistant Coach of the Year award for the American Football Coaches Association and I walked down and I [say to Kelly], 'You know, every time you take another job, you're always on our schedule.' He kind of laughed and said, 'Yeah, we've already been preparing for you guys.' ”
Central Michigan's win over the Broncos in 2006 gave it a MAC West Division title and then Kelly was lured to Cincinnati just a few weeks before the Bearcats' International Bowl appearance against, yep, Western Michigan.
Kelly won that one, too, after a Broncos’ field-goal attempt to tie the game missed in the closing seconds.
Broncos quarterback Alex Carder doesn't care about all that history. He wasn't around then. But he made no effort to mask his enthusiasm about this weekend's 75-mile trip to South Bend.
"I don't think there's any reason to play it down at all," the self-assured sophomore said. "There's a lot to be excited about, because I think if we are, you know, that's how much more we care about it and how much more effort we're willing to put into it. I really don't have a problem with being excited to play Notre Dame."