With victories over Vanderbilt and Central Michigan now out if the way, the warm-up period for the Michigan Wolverines is officially over. Their first real test will come this weekend in South Bend when they take on the second-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish. The rivalry-hype amongst fans and media attention on the teams have both intensified for the game, and so too have the players.
“It’s you or them and everyone’s watching” said junior running back Mike Hart. “It’s either yes or no…you either win or you don’t. So you have to go out there and give everything you've got. You want to go out there and perform great. It’s just exciting going out there knowing the whole nation is watching the game.”
As the team leaders, Hart and co-captains Lamarr Woodley and Jake Long will set the tone for their Maize and Blue brethren this week. Though each player has his own story heading into this game, the common thread among them is that they're all chomping at the bit to make their marks versus the Irish.
Hart’s performance record against Notre Dame has been wrought with frustration. He had five carry, 17-yard performance in the loss in 2004. He followed that up by sustaining an injury in the early portion of the 2005 loss. That injury knocked him out for the rest of that game and left him below 100% for the rest of the season.
“I am just going in there with the mindset to win” said Hart. “I do not care if we have two running backs rushing. If we win the game, that is all I care about. (Kevin) Grady can go in there and have 300 yards rushing and I have two yards…if we win the game, then that is fine with me. We have to work hard this week. It’s going to be hard. Nothing is going to come easy, but we definitely really want this game.”
While it is clear that Hart is more concerned with the collective goals of the team rather than how he does individually, he admitted to feeling that this could be his chance to cement his name in Michigan history. “This is when guys make names for themselves," he said. “Guys like (Tim) Biakabutuka…when he played Notre Dame or Ohio State, he always had big games. Tyrone Wheatley, A-Train (Anthony Thomas), Chris Perry…that’s where you make your name… in these big games. If you don’t perform in these big games, you're just another average back.”
For senior captain Lamarr Woodley, the game is about going out on a high note. After contributing to a Michigan victory during his freshman campaign, the senior defensive end felt the sting of losing to the Irish in each of his next two seasons. Now he is back and hungrier than ever for a win.
"I would definitely like to even the score,” Woodley said. “This is my last year and I have another chance to come back and do it again…so you definitely want to go out with a win.”
The Wolverines would greatly increase their chances in for victory Saturday if the defense can continue to play at a high level. According to Woodley, Michigan defensive coordinator Ron English is pleased with the play so far, but he isn’t satisfied.
“Coach E is never satisfied with how we are playing," said Woodley. "He always says we can do better. Sometimes when guys get tired, and we do, he tells us we’re loafing. He always strives for us to get better.”
Woodley and company know they have their work cut out for them Saturday. How they perform against one of the most explosive and unpredictable offenses in the country will be a strong indicator of just how good the Wolverines defense is.
“They just change up so much that you never know what to expect coming into the game," Woodley explained. "They just have a lot of good formations they come out in. They change it up. They might go no backs in the backfield or they might go no huddle, so you just never know what to expect. Eventually you adjust to it. When you first come out it’s hard to adjust but as the game goes you adjust to it.”
Like Hart, the talented lineman understands that he will be judged on how he performs in games like the one he will play in on Saturday. “Being the underdog in this game, we're coming out there and trying to earn respect pretty much.” said Woodley. “Big time players show up for big time games."
If Woodley does come through with a "big time" effort, he will surely give some of the credit to the man that he lines up across from in practice everyday, 6-7, 313-pound left tackle Jake Long. Though he is a redshirt junior, Long will be getting his very first taste of the Fighting Irish this Saturday. “This is going to be my first time playing against Notre Dame," said Long. "I didn’t play my second year and I was hurt last year. It’s a big game for me and our whole team. It’ll obviously be a big test for us and were going to prepare hard and hopefully come out on top.”
"It's a hostile environment," Long continued. “You go in there and it's just a sea of green. It's loud and everybody hates you there. You only have a small group of your fans, so it's fun. You've got your back against the wall and you just have to play under the pressure. It's loud and hard, but it's fun at the same time. We’re a lot more hyped up," he said. "This is why we come to Michigan… big games like this…to play against Notre Dame.”