Michigan – Week Two in Ann ArborThe last two contests have been decided by Michigan touchdowns with less than 30 seconds remaining. The Irish have won just once in Ann Arbor since 1993 (a span of six games) after winning three of four in the Big House from 1987 through the '93 victory.
2010 result: Michigan 28 Notre Dame 24
Tenor of 2010 contest: Another Irish/Wolverines classic with the lead changing hands four times, and twice in the final five minutes. Dayne Crist's timely first quarter injury provided Michigan a healthy first half advantage as UM outscored the Irish 21-0 with Crist on the sidelines between the second Irish possession and end of the first half.
But it was under center where Michigan enjoyed its greatest advantage as QB Denard Robinson played the game of his life, torching the Irish defense for more than 500 yards of total offense and three touchdowns (two rushing) in one of the greatest individual efforts by an opponent in Stadium history.
Turning Point: Michigan converted a 4th and 1 and a 3rd and 5 over a four-play span to move from the ND 35-yard line down to the shadow of the Irish goal. From there, Robinson ran off-tackle for the game-winning score with 0:27 remaining.
UM Stars from the contest on hand for ‘11: Robinson returns, though with a different offense to operate under first-year head coach Brady Hoke. (Breaking News: Robinson might still tote the rock…). Top targets Martavious Odoms and Roy Roundtree will again be the top targets – the pair combined for 15 receptions, 173 yards and a touchdown in last year's contest. Three-year starter David Molk returns to anchor the Michigan offensive line – he'll present the Irish nose guards with their toughest test in 2011.
The Wolverines lost their defensive leader and best player in linebacker Jonas Mouton (13 tackles, INT vs. ND last year). Safety Jordan Kovacs is back (10 tackles vs. ND) and I'm higher on junior defensive end Craig Roh than are most observers. Roh made three significant plays in the Irish offensive backfield in last year's contest.
Early Look: New name to know: Backup sophomore quarterback Devin Gardner, a tremendous athlete at 6'4" 210 pounds – and purportedly a better fit for the new offensive system.
Off-season questions facing the Wolverines: Can new head coach Brady Hoke marry his pro style attack to the sublime talents of running quarterback Denard Robinson? Can Michigan's defense stop anyone with a faint pulse? Hired from the NFL's Baltimore Ravens, new Wolverines defensive coordinator Greg Mattison was an Irish assistant spanning both the Bob Davie and Tyrone Willingham eras (errors?). Can his multiple fronts and schemes confuse Irish signal-caller(s) in Week Two?
2011 Storyline: The first prime time game in Michigan Stadium with an 8 PM national kickoff on ABC.
Michigan State – Week Three in South BendMichigan State saw its 12-year, six-game Notre Dame Stadium winning streak snapped in its last visit to South Bend as Charlie Weis' Irish downed the Spartans, 33-30 in September 2009.
2010 result: Michigan State 34 Notre Dame 31 OT
Tenor of 2010 contest: Defense appeared optional, at least until the final period and overtime during which Notre Dame's then-maligned unit buckled down and held the Spartans to minus six (net) rushing yards after Michigan State's athletes had rambled for 209 on the ground over the game's first three quarters. The contest featured 938 yards of total offense and nine touchdowns (seven via the airways) with neither team pulling ahead by more than a touchdown over the 60-plus minutes of action.
Turning Point: Trailing 31-28 in overtime, Michigan State faked a potential game-tying, 46-yard field goal and instead delivered a holder-to-tight end toss for a 29-yard, game-winning score in East Lansing. Two Irish defenders collided on the play, allowing tight end Charlie Gantt an easy path down the right side for the game-winning score – and one of the best play calls of the 2010 college season.
MSU stars from the contest on hand for ‘11: Junior QB Kirk Cousins (46-68, 547 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT in last two outings vs. the Irish); wide receivers B.J. Cunningham (14 receptions, 175 yards, TD in last two vs. ND) and Keshawn Johnson (8 receptions, 96 yards, TD last year) both return as does running back Le'Veon Bell (114 rushing yards, TD in Spartans win last year).
Michigan State lost four-year linebacker stalwart Greg Jones and highly undervalued LB cohort Eric Gordon, to graduation. Chris Norman (8 tackles, forced fumble and fumble recovery vs. ND) returns to lead the position in 2011.
Early Look: New name to know: WR/DB Tony Lippett – the redshirt-freshman was the two-way star of the Spartans spring.
Off-season questions facing the Spartans: Michigan State's best season in 45 years ended with the epic beating of the bowl season, a 49-7 humbling at the hands of three-loss Alabama. Can the Spartans fight incoming power Nebraska and take the suddenly wide open Big 10 title? Can they win 10-plus games in back-to-back seasons under fifth-year head coach Mike Dantonio?
2011 Storyline: Kelly/Dantonio, Take II. Round one between the ex and former Cincinnati head coaches was a shootout for 64 minutes, then Dantonio delivered the decisive coaching blow – of either team's season – with his infamous "Little Giants" play-call for the victory. Dantonio is 3-1 vs. the Irish since taking the reigns in East Lansing...2-0 vs. Kelly would be a quick feather in his five-year cap.
Purdue – Week Five in West LafayettePurdue lost its third straight in South Bend in last year's season opener. The Irish have won just three of their last seven appearances (dating back to 1997) at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette – a stretch that followed five straight road conquests by the Irish under ex-head coach Lou Holtz.
2010 result: 23-12 Notre Dame
Tenor of 2010 contest: The Irish controlled the proceedings thanks to a stout defense and a disjointed effort from the Boilers offense with new quarterback, Robert Marve. Notre Dame took a 20-3 edge into the game's final quarter before holding on for an 11-point victory to open the 2010 season and Brian Kelly's Irish tenure.
Turning Point: Leading 20-3 with 14:48 remaining, Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan tackled Irish runner Armando Allen for a three-yard loss in the Notre Dame end zone. The resulting safety cut the lead to 20-5 and the Boilermakers responded with a 55-yard touchdown drive to move within one score, 20-12 at the 11:55 mark. Two possessions later, Irish QB Dayne Crist found tight end Kyle Rudolph on a key third-and-7 from the Purdue 25-yard line. Irish kicker David Ruffer later booted home a 37-yard field goal for a decisive 11-point edge with 4:30 remaining.
Purdue stars from the contest on hand for ‘11: Nine defensive starters return with safety Logan Link (91 tackles on the season/5 with a fumble recovery at ND), cornerback Ricardo Allen (two interception touchdowns last fall and in his first career start as a true freshman last September against Notre Dame, helped limit Irish receiver Michael Floyd to five receptions for 82 yards,) and linebacker Joe Holland (27 career tackles vs. the Irish) highlighting the unit.
Quarterback Rob Henry, who ran three times for 16 yards in a special offensive package vs. the Irish, took over for Marve under center when the latter tore his ACL late last September.
Top-tier kicker Carson Wiggs – he of the 67-yard field goal during the Boilers spring game – also returns.
Early Look: New name(s) to know: 2009 freshman sensation Ralph Bolden looks to return from a season on the sidelines due to a spring ACL tear in April, 2010. The Georgia native accounted for 1,196 yards from scrimmage with 11 touchdowns as a sophomore two years ago. He'll be challenged for time by JC transfer Akeem Shavers.
Off-season questions facing the Boilermakers: Purdue lost its two best players in defensive end Ryan Kerrigan and (injured) wide receiver Keith Smith. Can third-year coach Danny Hope survive a third straight losing season after taking over for Joe Tiller? Can the two-way threat Henry guide the Boilers out of the offensive doldrums? (105th in scoring offense/104th total offense, last fall.) Can Marve reclaim his starting spot after multiple ACL tears?
2011 Storyline: Purdue concluded the season on a six-game losing streak after a 4-2 start. The final two contests came down to the wire including a four-point loss at Michigan State. The light appeared to come on for the snake-bitten Boilers in late-November: can they build off the improvement in the wake of a losing streak?