Notre Dame breakthrough hinges on Michigan win

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

Jimmy Clausen says Notre Dame's players like to think they have a 2-0 record. They view last year's Hawaii Bowl as the start of the current season.

The Irish pounded Hawaii 49-21 and followed that up with a 35-0 shellacking of Nevada last week at home. Clausen and the offense were nearly perfect in those two games.

Of course, there's quite a difference between the WAC and the Wolverines. For Notre Dame to actually reach a 2-0 record, it will have to go in and beat Michigan on the road this week. The team's only road win last year -- if you don't count Hawaii -- came against a winless Washington team.

"This is the next big step for us," Clausen said, "going on the road to Michigan in a hostile environment, 110,000 people there. It's going to be a big test for us."

The Hawaii win hinted at a breakthrough for the Irish. All offseason, talk centered around how more experience and maturity could get this team back into national relevance, maybe even BCS contention. That promise looked pretty good in Week 1, when Notre Dame dismantled a Nevada team coming off four straight bowl games.

"When you think about openers and coming out and making a statement for our season, I can't think of it going much better than it did on Saturday," tight end Kyle Rudolph said.

But if Notre Dame is really on the way back, it needs to go into Ann Arbor and win. With a victory there, it's not hard to imagine the Irish sitting at 5-0 when USC visits on Oct. 17. A loss to Michigan will raise some of the same old questions about Charlie Weis' job security and when this team will truly turn the corner.

"We've talked about it," Rudolph said. "There are positive things coming out of Notre Dame now, and this is a way for us to build even more momentum.

"With each win, every week gets even bigger. If we get a win up there, that makes Week 3 even bigger. But if we fall up there, that makes Week 1 not mean anything."

The Irish are riding as much confidence going into Michigan week as they've ever had under Weis. Of course, the Wolverines finally have a reason to feel good about themselves after last year's 3-9 season and the controversies surrounding Rich Rodriguez right before the first kickoff.

Their 31-7 opening win over Western Michigan has them looking at this week as a swing game, too. With Eastern Michigan and Indiana up next, a 4-0 start would be well within the Wolverines' grasp.

"I think right now they're probably taking a similar approach to us as far as shortsightedness," Weis said. "They're coming off a 31-7 win, and I don't think they're worrying too much about what happened last year."

Last year's problems seemed long ago buried by the way Notre Dame played in the opener. It will take a win this Saturday to truly keep those ghosts down.

"Coming out of the opener, we gained a lot of momentum and a lot of confidence in our team and each other," linebacker Scott Smith said. "Obviously, we realize this weekend at Michigan is a huge game, and they're going to bring their best effort and we're going to bring our best effort. Like we did in the first game, it's all about showing up and performing on Saturday and giving it all we got."