Several big questions add an element of intrigue to college football's big game.
Can Notre Dame, which has won its first two games largely on the strength of defense and special teams, find an offense? Can Michigan expect to receive a consistent performance from one of its two walk-on placekickers?
Philip Brabbs kicked a 44-yard field goal on the final play to beat Washington in the Wolverines' opener two weeks ago at The Big House. He subsequently missed two attempts the against Western Michigan and heads in Saturday's matchup against the Irish (2:30 p.m. EDT/NBC-TV) with a batting average of .200 (1-for-5). Troy Nienberg is hitting below that -- he's 0-for-1.
Can Michigan quarterback John Navarre notch his first big victory on the road? Can Irish quarterback Carlyle Holiday throw better than his coach, Ty Willingham? Ex-Willingham assistant Dennis Green through the question open for debate with his remarks earlier this week. Green said Willingham might have the best arm on the Notre Dame team.
The answers to those questions will help determine the outcome of a clash between college football's two winningest programs. Yes, it's Michigan (2-0) vs. Notre Dame (2-0) in South Bend, replete with all the trimmings. Touchdown Jesus. Hail to the Victors. Wake up the echoes. And winged helmets.
"Desmond Howard's catch in the back of the end zone in 1991," Michigan senior tight end Bennie Joppru said of his favorite play in the Wolverine series with the Irish. "I followed both schools growing up. Those were the two best teams that you watched on Saturdays. You can't beat that catch. I think it was THE clutch play in Michigan history."
The clutch play in the 2002 rematch could come from a number of different sources. Navarre has spread the ball around to a number of receivers in Michigan's attack, while Chris Perry has emerged as the tailback the Wolverines were looking for to bring speed and balance to the running game. Fullback B.J. Askew was a proven commodity heading into the season.
The Irish have picked up most of their points and most of their biggest plays from junior cornerback Vontez Duff and placekicker Nicholas Setta. Duff has scored four touchdowns, two on kickoff returns, one on a punt return and one on an interception return. Holiday, by comparison, has yet to lead Notre Dame's much maligned offense into the end zone. He has weapons, including Arnaz Battle, a converted quarterback who brings the home run threat to the Irish passing game with his speed on the perimeter.
"This Notre Dame team is typical," Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. ""It is big and strong and, I think, it is faster than some of the Notre Dame teams I have played against, particularly on defense. I think they have a tremendous defense with guys that are tough to run against, guys that get to the football.
"They pursue the football really well, and they have created some big plays. Outstanding special teams. You look at their 20-yard average on punt returns and 30-yard average on kickoff returns. When you can establish a great defense and special teams -- and the fact they are averaging 23 points per game -- I don't think it matters how you score. You average 23 points per game and play defense and special teams like they have, and you are going to have a hard time losing games."
Ball protection, ball security. Those will be catch phrases for the Wolverines. If Navarre and his teammates on the offense can grind out first downs and take care of the ball -- cutting out silly mistakes and turnovers -- the game is there to be won by Michigan. Holiday isn't likely to hurt the Maize and Blue much with his passing, not with Marlin Jackson heading a talented Wolverine secondary. (Oh, I'm sure Holiday will complete a few balls). The question is whether Michigan sits and zone and gives up some intermediate balls or lines up man-to-man and tries to pressure Holiday.
Like Washington's Cody Pickett, Holiday is fleet-footed. He is most dangerous on the run. The Wolverines never let Pickett slip out of the pocket.
"He is a real good athlete, and that is something we have to be ready for and prepare for," Michigan senior linebacker Victor Hobson said. "He can run just as well as he can throw, so both our defensive line and cornerbacks have to be ready to execute."
Those words come as music to Jackson's ears. He is more than willing and able to spring the Wolverines into action. Might he be the one -- not Duff -- running for a defensive touchdown on the hallowed grounds of Notre Dame Stadium? Or will it be Dan Rumishek creating a fumble off a sack?
"You have to look at the personnel," Rumishek said. "They are playing hard every down. They have big linemen that are aggressive, and they want to get after people. They are fighting every down, and they are going to fight until the whistle. I think you have to be able to react. Football is really just about blocking and tackling.
"As long as we are reacting to our proper reads, we will be OK."
The Wolverines have the personnel to match the Irish in the punting and return games. They also have a quarterback who is emerging as a leader and playmaker.
"You come across a few of those defining moments each season, and this is definitely one of them," Navarre said. "We had one on opening day, and we face another one Saturday against Notre Dame."
Added Perry: "When you think of Notre Dame, you think of tradition. There is great tradition at that school, like there is at Michigan. They are a tough football team. They're very talented on defense. Their offense is getting it together. They're about to be a great team.
"When you think about teams like that, you think about preparing and coming out to play."
Kremer's call: The Wolverines and Perry will do just that. Michigan 31, Notre Dame 21. Just a hunch: Jackson will score the game's only defensive touchdown. Julius Curry will provide a spark on the punt return team.
Thanks for reading. Now I'll go back to my little korner of the world.
ND Forecast: Kremer calls it for the Wolverines
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