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Irish and Wolverines face similar questions

The Notre Dame and Michigan football teams have problems. While fans and experts pontificate on their teams' championship aspirations, the coaches have a somewhat different perspective. The Wolverines and Irish are renewing one of college football's greatest rivalries with serious questions that need answers.

Michigan has 39 Big Ten wins since 1997, most in the league. The Wolverines have been to seven straight New Year's Day bowl games, but have not figured in the national championship picture since '97 because of a very un-Michigan-like running game and untimely lapses on defense and special teams. In only one season during that span has the average yardage per rushing attempt been better than four yards (4.8 per carry in 2000).

While the passing game has been good enough to create great moments, it has not been the kind of sophisticated attack that can carry an offense to the top when the run is not there.

The defense has been good, but not the consistent, dominant unit defensive coordinator Jim Hermann prefers, one which can carry the team when the offense sputters. The kicking game has been adequate with the exception of field goal percentage, which is, remarkably, the worst in the NCAA since 1990.

Having noted all of that it is startling that Lloyd Carr is 12-2 in games against top 10 opponents. So why the periodic collapses that knock Michigan out of the top five every time? For a program with dominating players something simply does not compute.

There is an intangible that seems to affect Michigan like a computer virus, worming its way from one element of the program to another at just the wrong time.

Judging from easy opening wins against Central Michigan and Houston, this year's problem could be the passing game. Neither John Navarre nor his receivers are off to a good start against defenses they should have ripped apart.

The completion percentage is only 50.2, yards per attempt 6.2, and yards per completion 11.6. Despite leading the nation in rushing, the third-down conversion rate is only 32 percent. Not good enough. The rushing numbers will come down as competition improves and a precision passing game will be critical. Dropped balls by the receivers have been a contributing factor to the struggles so far.

Navarre has demonstrated that he can compete, but has never achieved that magic acceptance that comes with charisma -- even though his record as a starter is 21-8. In this media-savvy era the inevitable criticism can affect his relationship with fans and even teammates if he appears to be reverting to his poor habits of 2001. Second-year offensive coordinator Terry Malone has his hands full as the team moves into the meat of its schedule.

Hermann's defense is yielding four yards per rush and Central Michigan ran for more than 200 yards in the season-opener. In Hermann's fiery world of physical football, these are the kinds of numbers he detests and must correct on the practice field.

Carr is a heady, detailed coach and hungers after championship performance. He finds creative motivational tools each year so that his men play hard. The key to getting back to the very top of the game is attention to these tiny details, and he knows it.

Notre Dame's issues are a continuation of its late-season swoon last year. The fact that the Fighting Irish staged a stirring comeback against Washington State is nice, but three coaching nightmares were evident in the game.

In the first half the Irish looked as if they were punch-drunk. They lost three fumbles, one for an opponent touchdown, gained eight yards rushing and their longest passing completion was for 11 yards. They were extremely fortunate to trail only 19-3 at halftime.

The first question Tyrone Willingham and his staff must answer is how on earth the team could come out flat in the opener. How could the staff and team endure an offseason of reflection on their performances against USC and in the bowl game without chomping at the bit? Either the team lacks leadership or there is some internal issue distracting the men at the most crucial moments.

The second question is an extension of the first. After their remarkable good fortune, big plays by Glenn Earl and Julius Jones and great kicking by Nick Setta that resulted in a fourth-quarter lead, what happened?

Imagine the emotion Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium, the most famous home-field advantage in all of football. You have just come back from the dead, you have taken the lead after trailing 19-3, you have a veteran defense that finished ninth in the country last season -- and you let Washington State drive 80 yards to tie the score. Again, leadership and internal distraction must be addressed in a powerful way.

While the above specifics involve units and individuals, they are crucial team issues.

The third nightmare is the offense. Bill Diedrich is a proven coordinator, and certainly understands the intricacies of the vaunted West Coast offense Notre Dame employs. But the fact is the Irish have yet to mount a consistent offense in the 14 games this staff has been together at South Bend.

More disturbing is that with the lead, finally, mercifully, at 23-19, the Irish got the ball back on a turnover, could not capitalize and had to settle for another Setta field goal.

With that the defense took the field and yielded an 80-yard drive to the Cougars, forcing the game into overtime. All of this, combined with the fact that Washington State missed an extra point and a 34-yard field goal, means Touchdown Jesus was working overtime to deliver these guys from their self-imposed football hell.

Notre Dame turned the ball over four times, and third-down conversions were a very poor 4-of-13.

While the obvious football details cannot be overlooked by Willingham and his staff, the more important facet of the team is the leadership, the killer instinct, and an explanation of just how to avoid another horrific start.

The intensity of the microscope under which Notre Dame coaches operate will not distract Willingham. He has a veteran staff that can find solutions and develop leaders. How soon that is accomplished is going to be the challenge, because I assure you they were surprised by their team last Saturday.

The game within the game this week is the internal leadership capacity of the Notre Dame team. The veteran secondary would be the most obvious group to call upon to stoke the furnaces as the team goes on the road in fragile emotional condition.

Hidden yardage should favor the Irish because of Setta and because Michigan has yet to settle on a kicker (as usual). Michigan's net punting is superb at 40.7 yards per punt, but Jones and Vontez Duff may be Notre Dame's best return tandem ever.

ESPN college football analyst Bill Curry coached for 17 years in the college ranks. His Game Plans for marquee matchups appear each week during the college football season.