Sep 9, 2009, 7:00 AM EDT
There’s really nothing to be said about the Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry that hasn’t already been said. It is not just another game. As a wide-eyed freshman, I remember the football season as follows: The Michigan game… and everything else.
Five days ago, both Notre Dame and Michigan were at low water marks. Michigan coming off an embarrassingly historic 3-9 season, and Notre Dame’s wallowing during a 7-6 season that nearly sunk Charlie Weis’ career. Adding fuel to the Michigan fire was the report that Rich Rodriguez and his staff may have committed numerous NCAA violations with regards to practice time and coaching presence since his arrival in Ann Arbor.
Yet Saturday afternoon brought a collective sigh of relief amongst both Notre Dame and Michigan fans. Both teams made marked strides from last season in their debut, easily overmatching their respective opponents.
There’s nobody will as unique of a perspective on the upcoming game as Michael Rothstein. Rothstein covered the Irish beat for almost four years and wrote the popular ND blog “Irish Insights” for the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. Mike left the Journal Gazette for an opportunity to write for the newly relaunched AnnArbor.com, where he’s covering both the Michigan Wolverines basketball beat, and a certain football team in Ann Arbor.
We’ve been friendly with Mike since back when he was covering the Domer beat, and he was willing to make some room in his busy dance card this week to spend some time chatting with us.
Hope you enjoy…
Inside the Irish: Was there a collective sigh of relief at halftime for the Michigan faithful?
Mike Rothstein: Ha. Probably say the end of the first quarter almost. Michigan was dominant Saturday against Western Michigan in all phases. Offense was crisp in the first half. Defense shut down Tim Hiller. Zoltan Mesko continued to punt like an All-American and Michigan even saw first-time kicker (and fifth-year senior) Jason Olesnavage make a field goal. That’s a pretty good half.
ITI: What was this week like as a journalist? Was there anything like this during your tenure covering the Notre Dame beat?
MR: It was really, really busy. I woke up Wednesday morning thinking it was Friday. Consider that in the span of 72 hours, Michigan had been accused of NCAA violations. Then the revelation that Rich Rodriguez was being sued for defaulting on a loan. And that his business partner was a twice-banned booster from Clemson. And that press conference Monday was surreal. Rough 72 hours for Rich Rodriguez. It also happened to be the first week I started writing regular columns. It’s great because there was a ton of material to work with. None of it, though, was football related until Thursday. Tough to compare to any single week on the Notre Dame beat.
The closest I’d say was the Notre Dame 2008 stretch from after the Pittsburgh loss to the football banquet. That was insane. You didn’t know what was going to happen from week-to-week and each game meant so much to the future of Weis’ career. I remember covering a Notre Dame basketball game the night it broke that Charlie Weis would be returning. It was a long, long night. Got it confirmed just ahead of the official announcement, but I was getting up from my press row seat so much during the game that one of the basketball coaches asked me after the game what was going on. It was that noticeable. Granted, the Irish were well in control of that game.
Remember, too, that Michael Haywood was interviewing at Washington, which opened up the ability for Weis to take back playcalling (although everyone knew it was coming after the shutout at Boston College). And the week everything got crazy before Navy, I was in Washington, D.C. getting stuff for a few Navy stories, a story on Fort Wayne native Jason Fabini (then an offensive lineman with the Redskins) and keeping tabs on everything going on in South Bend. That said, this past week was one that’ll stand out to me for a long, long time.
ITI: Do you think there’s a way that this whole controversy almost engendered Rodriguez to Michigan supporters?
MR: There were a bunch of “In Rod We Trust” signs this week. By the end of the first half, the students were chanting Rich Rodriguez’ name. With the fans, a lot of times, winning cures all. It doesn’t mean the allegations or the lawsuit are going away, it just means Rodriguez and Michigan won a football game. It’ll be interesting to see what happens Saturday if Notre Dame wins, although I think Rodriguez won himself some fans with the way he handled last week and the way his team played.
ITI: You obviously followed Notre Dame closer than most of us the past few years. Is the Michigan-Notre Dame game “just another game” for either of these programs?
MR: I don’t think Notre Dame-Michigan is just another game for anyone within these two programs. If they say that, it’s bunk. This game has been such a tone-setter, too, for the rest of both teams’ seasons in the past that they have to take it seriously. Remember in 2005, much of Weis’ first-year hype came after beating then-No. 3 Michigan. The next year, Michigan used a win over then-No. 2 Notre Dame to springboard a run of 11 straight wins until the Wolverines played Ohio State. And getting back to an earlier question, I’d bet that weekend was equally insane to this past week. Prepping for a No. 1 vs. No. 2 game is tough on reporters. Remember that Bo Schembechler died the day before that game, too, sending reporters
Anyway… I don’t believe it is. Most of the players in this game were recruited by both schools and it’s pretty historic. As an example, Michigan offensive lineman Stephen Schilling grew up just outside of Seattle. He knew about Michigan-Notre Dame along with the Apple Cup. How many people in the Midwest, besides your diehards, know about the Apple Cup?
(I do! I do!!)
ITI: What did you see from Forcier and Robinson that impressed you?
MR: I’ve said it the past few days and I’ll echo it again: Denard Robinson is the fastest player I’ve seen in person in college football. When he gets to top speed, it’s going to be a touchdown if it’s a footrace. In four years covering Notre Dame, I saw one player I think could catch him: David Bruton. And that’s just because of his really long strides. Put it this way, for Notre Dame folk, I’d take Robinson over Golden Tate in a footrace. Easy.
Forcier impressed me with his poise. Some of the throws he made, specifically his second touchdown pass to Junior Hemingway, looked like something a junior or senior would do, not a guy playing less than a half of college football. Same goes for his first scoring drive. He was directing Hemingway to a spot and then hit him perfectly. Don’t see that from freshmen too often. Didn’t see it from Jimmy Clausen as a freshman, although they are vastly different quarterbacks. Now that I’ve said that, both will have bad days this season. They are freshmen. It’s bound to happen. But there is a lot of raw talent and leadership there.
ITI: It’s very clear that Robinson’s speed is legit. Who should the Irish be more worried about?
MR: Forcier will play more, so Forcier. But if Robinson’s on the field, he can turn a botched snap into an electrifying touchdown run (he did it against Western Michigan). Robinson is more dangerous from a quick-strike perspective but Forcier is going to be the guy who takes the majority of snaps, I’d think, as long as he’s playing pretty well. Plus, Forcier has a bit more balance. With him, you have to be concerned about the pass. Not as much with Robinson. So, a long answer to your question is Forcier.
ITI: Brandon Graham didn’t show up in th
e boxscore, but he did suppl
y some pressure off the corner. Is he who the Irish needs to worry about most?
MR: Absolutely. He’ll likely be the best defensive lineman Notre Dame plays this year. He was in the Western Michigan backfield from the first play on. Graham may have only been credited for an assisted tackle, but he seemed to be everywhere. The rest of the line is still unproven, although freshman Craig Roh and sophomore Mike Martin looked pretty good. But if I’m Notre Dame, I’m doubling Graham because he’s the guy who could get into the backfield and into Clausen.
ITI: A Michigan skeptic would say the offensive performance wasn’t all that impressive. The offense still attacks horizontally, and the running game (save Robinson) didn’t do much of anything. Other than actually being competent in running the spread offense, why should ND fans be worried about the new and improved Wolverines attack?
MR: Well, starting running back Brandon Minor didn’t play. He’s been nagged by injuries in camp, but here’s betting he’ll play Saturday. He changes things a little bit. Also, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more of speedy freshman running back Vincent Smith, who is another gamebreaker with his speed like Robinson. And I wouldn’t say Michigan did nothing on the ground. The Wolverines gained 242 yards. And Rodriguez let up a bit in the fourth quarter. From watching Notre Dame, I was unimpressed with its defensive line. Nevada was able to gash through the front pretty easily when I watched the game. If Michigan is given those types of holes, that gives guys like Robinson some space to make big plays. And Forcier can run a little bit, too, he’s just not as fast as Robinson.
ITI: Your thoughts on the ND performance Saturday?
MR: Offensively, impressive. Everything seemed to work. Floyd is better than last year. That jump ball that turned into a touchdown elicited an audible ‘Wow’ from me and I was watching it over 24 hours later. I like Kyle Rudolph’s game a lot, too. He could be the difference for Notre Dame on Saturday. The Irish ran better than I saw the past two years, but Michigan’s front seven is going to be bigger and more talented than the Wolf Pack. On defense, Manti Te’o is as advertised. He’s going to have a great career if he’s healthy. Notre Dame’s linebackers seemed to be everywhere. I got into the defensive line earlier, still think that’s the weakest part of the team. I didn’t get a good read on the secondary, but that’s because Nevada didn’t pass all that much. But I thought coming out of the spring that it was the deepest position group Notre Dame had. I really like the game of Harrison Smith and Sergio Brown might be the team’s most athletic defender and technically he’s not a starter unless the Irish open in nickel.
ITI: Do you think their psyche is fully prepared from the disappointment and downward spiral that last season’s regular season ended on?
MR: For who? Can’t really answer that yet for Notre Dame. I haven’t been around them since late April. At Michigan, yeah, I think the 3-9 season is behind them – for now. Notre Dame fans saw what happened when a team coming off that type of year faced adversity a year ago.
ITI: What do you see happening on Saturday?
MR: Good question. Not sure yet. I think both teams won’t look as good as they did in the opener. Forcier and Robinson will struggle a little bit. Clausen’s going to get hit some, too. I see Notre Dame’s defensive line getting gashed a bunch again, but that’ll be countered by the weaknesses in the Michigan secondary, especially if cornerback Boubacar Cissoko is limited in any way. I won’t give a score yet except to say I think it’s going to be close, a one-score game. I’m leaning toward picking Notre Dame because of Floyd and Golden Tate and that passing game. But I’m not sold yet.