Notre Dame and Michigan meet under the lights for the first night game in the history of Michigan Stadium on Saturday. It will be a terrific atmosphere, though the Irish's opening loss to South Florida took a little luster off the game itself. This is the first of three Notre Dame versus Big Ten matchups, so to preview this week's game and the other two contests, Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett and new Notre Dame blogger Matt Fortuna square off:
Brian Bennett: Matt, it was nice of Notre Dame to save us time by going ahead and failing to live up to expectations early this year. At least in the past two years, the Irish had a little head of steam going into Michigan week before falling to the Wolverines. Now that they're already 0-1, how desperate a Notre Dame team will we see in Ann Arbor?
Matt Fortuna: Brian Kelly and Tommy Rees have said they are approaching this like any other game, but I'm not buying it. A loss to the Maize and Blue would put the Irish at 0-2 going into a tough Week 3 matchup against an experienced Michigan State team, not to mention virtually kill any BCS dreams this team had left. With a new quarterback at the helm while senior Dayne Crist watches from the sideline, the stakes are certainly raised from Notre Dame's end.
I'm curious about Michigan, Brian. Momentum from two big wins against the Irish the past two years did not exactly carry over for the Wolverines in 2009 and 2010. Are things different with Brady Hoke at the helm?
BB: Matt, Brady Hoke just proved he could coach his team to victory in (almost) three quarters of a game. Other than that, the jury is mostly still out. The Wolverines' defense looked better in the opener, but Notre Dame should offer more of a challenge than Western Michigan, provided of course the Irish don't turn the ball over in the red zone as much as they did against South Florida. I'm most curious to see how Denard Robinson fares in this game; he didn't do much and wasn't asked to do a whole lot in the opener, but of course he nearly single-handedly won the game in South Bend a year ago (as Tate Forcier did two years ago in Ann Arbor).
Notre Dame faced a mobile quarterback last week in South Florida's B.J. Daniels. Are the Irish more equipped to handle Robinson this time around?
MF: Brian, facing Daniels certainly couldn't have hurt, but he is a different kind of runner. Daniels will run you over, whereas Robinson is gone after the first sign of daylight. The Irish actually did a decent job on Robinson last year for much of the second half, though it obviously wasn't enough. The coaching staff has spent all week raving about Robinson and is aware that no matter how disciplined the defense is, Shoelace will still put up big numbers.
Switching to the other side of the ball, why should anyone believe Michigan's defense has turned the corner? Sure, the unit had a couple of big plays against Western Michigan, but it also let Alex Carder go 8-for-8 on the game's opening drive.
BB: It's way too early to say Michigan has turned a corner on defense, but there were some signs of improvement as the game went on last week. You've also got to like how the Wolverines came up with turnovers, thanks to linebacker Brandon Herron's two-touchdown day (giving him the same amount of scores as Michael Floyd in 2011).
The Irish should still have plenty of opportunities to make big plays, both in the running game and with Floyd down the field. But can Notre Dame stay out of its own way? I think they've got the right quarterback now in Tommy Rees, but the offense has yet to really click in a big way like I thought it would by now under Brian Kelly. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison certainly saved some schemes for the Domers that he didn't show in Week 1.
We also can't ignore the atmosphere in this one. First night game in the Big House, a record crowd of more than 110,000 expected. That's got to play in Michigan's favor. Notre Dame is used to big-time environments, but how do you think this factors in?
MF: Brian, every player and coach I've talked to this week insists it won't matter. Given the fact this is the first of a school-record five night games this season, they had better be right. The players have spent more time talking about their new uniforms for this game than they have about the prime-time atmosphere.
Though I was surprised by the early pulling of Dayne Crist, I do think Tommy Rees is the right guy, especially for a game like this. Every single person says the exact same thing about him -- he doesn't get fazed by anything. Growing up in a football family, the guy just knows how to step right in and play the same way in front of 100,000 fans as he does in practice. And his ability to bounce back from mistakes -- as he has shown time and time again -- will also be a big plus for the Irish.
The atmosphere can only play so much of a factor, as in the end the game is won between the stripes. Which makes me think next weekend's game against Michigan State will actually provide a stiffer test for the Irish. What do you feel about Sparty as they relate to their in-state brethren, Brian?
BB: Michigan State should be a more complete team than Michigan, assuming the Spartans clean up some of their sloppy mistakes from last week's opener. The Spartans have some issues on the offensive line they will need to address before facing what has become a pretty good front seven for Notre Dame, and they won't have faced nearly the competition level the Irish have faced in the first two weeks. That game has come down to the last play each of the past two years and is probably another toss-up. If Notre Dame is 0-2 coming into it, Irish Nation will be at DEFCON-1 level of panic.
Notre Dame also faces Purdue on Oct. 1. The Boilers have an inexperienced quarterback and barely escaped Middle Tennessee in Week 1, but they will have a bye week to game plan for the Irish, who must come to West Lafayette. If Caleb TerBush continues to mature, Purdue could be in position to pull that one off.
OK, Matt, it's prediction time. What happens this weekend, and what's Notre Dame's final record against the Big Ten in 2011?
MF: Call me crazy, but I saw enough good out of this team Saturday to make me believe it can still take off. I just can't see another five-turnover game riddled with dumb penalties, at least not in the immediate aftermath of Week 1. I expect Tommy Rees to deliver in the pocket and the defense to do just enough to keep Denard Robinson from running wild. I've got Notre Dame coming out on the winning end of another high-scoring affair between these two teams, and, at least right now, I think the Irish take two out of three against the Big Ten this season. How about you?
BB: Fine, Matt. You're crazy. Just kidding. I do believe Notre Dame is a better team than what it showed last week, but I also think Michigan wins this weekend. The Wolverines will be jacked up in that atmosphere, and I think Notre Dame's confidence has to be a little shaken right now. I also see the Irish rallying together and upsetting Michigan State, because they will be incredibly desperate to avoid an 0-3 start. They'll also take care of Purdue to finish 2-1 against the Big Ten, just not the same way you see it.