Michigan, Notre Dame set for unprecedented matchup in rivalry
By LARRY LAGE, AP Sports Writer
September 14, 2007
ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) -- Michigan and Notre Dame have competed for many of college football's most significant prizes for more than half a century, from national championships to Heisman Trophies.
From fight songs to helmets to stadiums, fans of the Fighting Irish and Wolverines love to claim theirs are the best in the land.
When the Wolverines (0-2) and Fighting Irish (0-2) play Saturday, the question to be answered really isn't which team is better but which is worse.
For the first time since the AP started ranking teams in 1936, Michigan and Notre Dame will both be unranked when they play.
"I think beating Michigan on the road at the Big House would be a good way to flip the switch and start moving in a positive direction," Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said. "You can't say it any better than that."
On the other side, Michigan tailback had a similar sentiment Mike Hart.
Hart guaranteed a win over Notre Dame soon after Oregon beat the Wolverines 39-7, handing them their worst loss since 1968, and a week after being upset by Appalachian State and becoming the butt of Jay Leno's jokes.
Hart will likely get a lot of chances to back up his words against a defense stacked against the run, since freshman quarterback Ryan Mallett is making his first start for Michigan.
"You have to think they're going to try to pound us and give Hart the ball a whole bunch of times," Weis said.
Hart wasn't worried about his bulletin-board material firing up Notre Dame.
"We have nothing to lose. We're 0-2," Hart said. "People are not going to expect anything out of us."
Michigan has started to earn low expectations.
Including last season's losses at Ohio State and to USC in the Rose Bowl, the Wolverines have lost four straight for the first time since 1967.
Michigan has been booed off the field at halftime in each of its first two games in its iconic venue filled with about 110,000 fans, many of whom have been attending games for decades and haven't seen their favorite team crumble like this.
Weis wouldn't mind if boos are heard at Michigan Stadium again.
"If that were to happen, I'd be most happy about that," Weis said.
The Wolverines -- who have been playing football longer than Washington has been a state -- are in danger of starting 0-3 for the first time in seven decades. They also could open a season with three straight home losses for the first time since 1928.
Offensive tackle Jake Long insisted avoiding infamy at Michigan isn't a motivating factor.
"We're not going to listen to people trying to dog us, talking about history and things like that," Long said.
If Notre Dame loses, its five-game losing streak would be the worst since the 1985-86 seasons -- Gerry Faust's last year and Lou Holtz's first. An 0-3 start would be just the second in school history, pairing Weis with Bob Davie.
Weis said the worst feeling he had as a coach was when New England lost to Green Bay in the Super Bowl -- until now.
"I've felt more miserable the last two weeks because I feel that I have the ultimate responsibility," he said. "So, our performance the last two weeks has not left me feeling very good.
"I've slept a lot less because what happens, just like anyone else that has a lot on your mind, you're thinking what am I going to do about this? What am I going to do about that?"
Weis doesn't expect either team to quit.
"There is too much pride on both teams just to throw in the towel," Weis said. "But the normal psyche of teams that are 0-2 is to be a bit fragile."
Newspapers and Web sites have picked apart both teams -- and coaches. The winless teams have provided talk shows with plenty of fodder.
Columnists have called for Michigan coach Lloyd Carr to step down and have taken shots at Weis.
"As a coach, if you can't handle that, then you won't be in this job long," said Carr, in his 13th season as head coach. "I've been in this job a long time, so it does not bother me a bit.
"But it does present for me a challenge in terms of 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kids, who can be victims of that. And yet, it's one of the great values that athletics has. You have an opportunity to deal with criticism."
Things will only get worse after the game for one team and its coach.
The winners, meanwhile, can finally start watching ESPN, reading the sports pages and listening to talk radio again.
"I watched the History Channel all last week," Hart said after falling to 0-2. "I didn't watch ESPN at all. I did watch the football game on Thursday, but I turned it at halftime because I knew they were going to talk about us."
Mallett is starting in place of Chad Henne, who was injured last week. Jimmy Clausen will become Notre Dame's first freshman to start against Michigan a week after his first career start at Penn State.
"He got touched a few times last week," Weis said. "So the first thing you were concerned with is how he'd handle it mentally and how he'd handle it physically. I've been very encouraged on both accounts, almost pleasantly surprised."
Safety Tom Zbikowski saw enough from Mallett against Oregon to come away impressed.
"He's on the goal line and he can throw it 60 yards like it was nothing," Zbikowski said. "No step up or anything. Just basically planted, threw it 60 yards."