Irish remember last time, focus on present

Notre Dame has a handful of returning starters from its 35-31 last-second loss in the Big House in 2011. Their memories vary with two constants: the lesson learned from the debilitating defeat and how to best avoid it this Saturday.

For 43 minutes, it was a decidedly one-sided affair.

To the great dismay of stunned Irish fans, it was over the final 17 as well.

Notre Dame's epic fourth-quarter collapse in the Big House two years ago began as the third quarter came to a close. It wasn't fully vetted from the program's fabric until a 12-game run to the BCS Championship game last fall, a stretch during which the Irish evolved from a team that found a way to lose, to one that refused the very notion at all costs.

Saturday night in Ann Arbor won't feature many main players from that 2011 classic, but tremors remain. Still with Michigan are a quartet of starters and a handful of reserves including wide receiver Jeremy Gallon, whose 64-yard catch-and-run set up the Wolverines winning score.

The same holds true for Notre Dame, save for a trio of defenders, captains T.J. Jones and Zack Martin, and of course, quarterback Tommy Rees, the latter the main player in the 2011 Irish tragedy that came oh-so-close to ending in triumph and a spot in program lore.

It was Rees' 31-yard touchdown toss to Theo Riddick that gave Notre Dame the lead with 30 seconds remaining. Two snaps, an unconscionable defensive breakdown, and 80 yards later, the delirious Ann Arbor faithful hailed their victors.

"We don't look at it as the one that got away, but having that experience for some of us, we know you can never step off the pedal," Rees said. "Michigan will fight for four quarters and you have to do so to grind out a win in their house."

Rees' history with Michigan is remarkable: his first career interception (2010, his first career rushing touchdown (2012), his first loss as a starter (2011), his first win in long relief (2012) all occurred vs. the Wolverines.

He more than anyone else know what to expect when the lights shine brightest Saturday night.

"We know it's going to be loud. We're going to have to communicate extremely well," he said. "We'll have to be sharp offensively with communication and execution. We know what to expect with the crowd, but we have to block that out and play football."

The Irish will counter Michigan's crowd noise with the familiar tactic of hand signals and (likely) placards. They'll also use something new to second-time starting center Nick Martin, a silent snap.

"It's something we put in this week," Martin said. "Why not? you know it's going to be loud. You have to be ready, focused, do your job. It's no different for me. The play can't start until I deliver the ball to the quarterback."

Victory -- and Defeat -- Last Forever

A 24-7 Irish lead with a quarter to play.

A four-point deficit for the visitors with 61 yards to cover and just over a minute remaining.

A three-point lead over their hosts with 80 yards of space to defend between victory and the end zone.

A 35-31 defeat.

The roller-coaster contest between Michigan and Notre Dame in 2011 is one no participant will soon forget.

"That's probably the worst loss we've had as a team," said Jones, a four-year starter who scored touchdowns in losses to Michigan in both 2010 and 2011. "Going into the fourth quarter with that kind of lead and letting it slip away, both offensively and defensively. It shows you that the game is never over."

The rivalry, however, will be.

"It's 'Alright, here we go.' This is our rival, Michigan," said junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt of the team's mindset this week. "Everybody wants to go home from this one with that win and that chip on their shoulder saying they beat the other one…the rivalry is amazing."

Tuitt, along with fellow freshmen phenom Aaron Lynch, was held from the 2011 contest despite playing the previous week vs. South Florida. He remembers three things from his experience on the sidelines, two of them weren't so bad.

"I just remember it was a big ol' stadium with a lot of yellow pom-pons," he said.

And? "And I remember the last play."

That last play, a 16-yard touchdown lob from Denard Robinson to Roy Roundtree (both since-graduated), changed the teams' fortunes in 2011. Michigan rode the win to 11-2 and a BCS Bowl win, Notre Dame fell to 0-2 after the loss and finished 8-5, concluding the season the same way they began, with consecutive defeats.

The Irish have gone 13-1 since while Michigan fell to 8-5 last fall, though the Wolverines lost to national champion Alabama, national runner-up Notre Dame, undefeated Ohio State, and Top 10 finisher South Carolina, along with a hiccup at not-so-bad Nebraska.

Both programs are poised for a run through 2013. Both need a in Week Two to make that a reality.

"It's two prestigious programs. It's the two winningest programs of all time," said junior Irish linebacker Jarrett Grace. "Two great teams going at it. It's going to come down to a lot of preparation this week."

Grace's latter comment was echoed by most of the Irish that remember, but don't concern themselves with the collapse from two season's past.

"I'm not doing anything different this week," Rees noted of his role as a leader. "All of us know how to come and practice and what it takes to win football games. It's preparation, execution."

Fans can afford to lament and celebrate past results.

The game's combatants know only the challenge that lies ahead.

"We know what they want to do coming into the game so we have a good idea of what we're going to face," said Grace. "They're a formidable opponent and we're gong to have to be on our A-game."

As is always the case when these teams square off in September. Top Stories