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Navarre legacy still up in the air

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- John Navarre will start his 32nd game as the Michigan quarterback on Saturday. He holds or is about to hold every quantitative passing record in Wolverine history. If, as the saying goes, 90 percent of life is showing up, then the fifth-year senior has mastered it.

When No. 7 Michigan (2-0) plays No. 14 Notre Dame (1-0) on Saturday at Michigan Stadium, Navarre will have his first opportunity of the year to work on the last 10 percent of his quarterback life. When measured by quality, Navarre rarely strays far
from average.

The numbers tell part of the story. As a starting quarterback, Navarre is 6-6 against ranked teams. His career average for yards per completion (12.0 yards) ranks well below the top 10 in Michigan history. So does his career percentage of touchdown passes (5.2). In a nutshell, Navarre set the school season record in 2002 for passing yards (2,905) while finishing 56th in the nation in passing efficiency.

Navarre's defenders, of whom there are many, point to his performance against Florida in the Outback Bowl, when he threw for a career-high 319 yards and a touchdown. His skeptics recall the Wolverines' inability to get into the end zone against archrival No. 1 Ohio State last season.

Michigan held the ball for all but four snaps in the second quarter and scored only two field goals. With the Buckeyes leading 14-9 late in the fourth quarter, Navarre fumbled at the Ohio State 36. When Michigan got the ball back at its own 20 with 58 second left to play and no timeouts, Navarre moved the Wolverines down to the Buckeyes 24. On the final play of the game, he threw an interception at the goal line.

He almost got it done.

Navarre's teammates defend the man they selected as offensive captain without hesitation, in part because he defends them. The Michigan receivers have dropped several passes in the season-opening routs of Central Michigan and Houston. "Those guys are here for a reason," Navarre said, "because they can catch the ball. They can run. There's no pointing fingers. I've never said a word to them about dropping passes, and they haven't said a word to me about missing passes."

The criticism, left guard David Baas said, "is something that I think has matured John Navarre. He has dealt with a lot of stuff in his career and I think it has made him a stronger person and a better player. I would not say that he has something to prove every single week."

One of the downsides of starting four games as a freshman, as Navarre did in 2000 when Drew Henson got hurt, is that Navarre had to do his maturing in public. He even attracted a lot of attention as a prized recruit out of Cudahy, Wis. Navarre committed to Northwestern to play for Gary Barnett. When Barnett left early in 1999 to coach at Colorado, Navarre switched his allegiance to Michigan.

When Henson bolted Michigan for George Steinbrenner's millions after spring practice in 2001, Navarre became the starter earlier than he or anyone else expected. If you want to know how difficult that is, call Florida State and ask for Chris Rix.

Perhaps the past four seasons will serve as an overly long opening act to a slambang finish. Maybe this is the year that Navarre figures out how to play consistent football against Michigan's most difficult opponents. His first opportunity comes Saturday against the Fighting Irish, which beat Michigan 25-23 a year ago. Navarre directed two long scoring drives for nine points. The defense scored or set up the other 14 points.

"We're intense every week, but there's an added intensity and level of focus and concentration to this week," Navarre said. "This is one of those great games, one of the reasons that you come to Michigan. One of the reasons you come here is to be a part of the tradition this game holds. Once you're here, it lives up to everything you saw on TV growing up."

Michigan lost the Notre Dame game, like the Ohio State game, on the road. The Wolverines have the advantage this season of playing both rivals in the Big House. With Wisconsin slipping off the schedule this season, Navarre's only difficult road games appear to be at Iowa and at Minnesota on consecutive Saturdays next month. Navarre's senior season couldn't set up better for him. Now it's up to him.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.