Monday - September 08, 2008
Why this game is more important to ND
For the second straight year, the Michigan - Notre Dame game looks to be a matchup between two down and out featherweights. Last year, both teams stumbled in at 0-2, coming off blowout losses (Michigan's to Oregon, Notre Dame's to Penn State). This year, both teams come in off anemic victories over 2nd rate opponents, lined up as cannon fodder by AD's scheduling in better times.
San Diego State, fresh off a loss to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, a game in which they surrendered 260 yards rushing and 29 points, held Notre Dame to 100 yards rushing and 21 points (prompting Chuck Long to say that it would "tough" to decide who was better between Cal Poly and Notre Dame).
Miami, having lost by 17 to Vanderbilt, pushed Michigan into the 4th quarter before falling.
There's a temptation to say that both teams are likely to be similarly bad, to have similarly bad years, and that the game is no more meaningful in the grand scheme than last year's laugher. And I say that from Michigan's perspective, that is sort of true. Yes, it would be nice to beat Notre Dame, and there's the added feeling that every win we can get is a critical win, as we try to get 7 wins and assure ourselves a bowl berth and a non-losing season. But nothing that happens on Saturday really reveals much about the future of the Michigan program under Rich Rodriguez. This is not a signpost game or a turning point. This is not the barometer.
For Notre Dame, it is. For Notre Dame, this game might as well be a referendum.
Last year, as Notre Dame stumbled to 3-9, Notre Dame fans clung to the explanation that Tyrone Willingham's last two recruiting classes had left Weis nothing to work with. And to some extent, it would be disingenuous for a Michigan fan to disagree; I was there on the boards when 2005 started well and Michigan fans cautioned "he better win big now; year 3 will be a mess."
Weis was trying to get a bunch of highly rated but very green freshman and sophomores to understand his scheme. Some felt he spent too much time on scheme and not enough on practice, not enough on fundamentals, and the failure showed every Saturday. But now, he's got three full recruiting classes, from the juniors on down, and they were excellent recruiting classes. They've had a full season and the ensuing off-season to drill the fundamentals and the scheme.
Meanwhile, in Ann Arbor, Rodriguez is arguably trying a bolder, faster overhaul than Weis ever dreamed of. He has greener talent than even Notre Dame 2007. Sam McGuffie, Michael Shaw, Daryl Stonum and Martavius Odoms, all true freshman, are cornerstones of Rodriguez's offense right now. The offensive line has 1 returning starter, and the 2nd string consists of a walk-on, a guy who has been playing OL for 3 weeks and 3 true freshman. The quarterback, too, is a freshman, having just replaced a walk-on. And Rodriguez's scheme overhaul, from Carr's pro-style to the spread, is a far more ambitious project than Weis turning Willingham's "West Coast offense" into a pro-style attack. Rodriguez didn't even have a single WR on roster ideally suited to man the slot as defined in his spread, forcing him to use a true freshman (Robinson, now injured) backed up by a true freshman (Odoms).
If Michigan can beat Notre Dame, it forces Notre Dame fans to ask "Why is Rodriguez, in week 3, ahead of where Charlie Weis is in year 4." If Rodriguez can get anything approaching competence out of this collection of Not Ready for Prime-Time Players, why is it that Charlie Weis can't? With three years to recruit into his system and a full season of playing experience under their belts, the Notre Dame offense should be night and day better than what Michigan rolls out on Saturday, all other things being equal.
But are all other things equal?