Darrell Campbell had to play the Washington State game without seeing a familiar face next to him in Cedric Hilliard most the game. Campbell says he misses Hilliard when he's not in the game. "Ced wasn't in there the whole time and whenever Ced's not in there I don't feel too comfortable—that's like my guy. If he's not next to me, you can just feel his presence missing in the hole because there's this big space that I always adapt to when I get out there then (Derek) Landri or somebody and I have to close up the gaps."
Campbell believes Hilliard brings something to the field that is hard to replace. "He's an All-American, he's a ball guy. Practice sometimes, we'll make mistakes and we'll do things that we don't normally do, we'll iron them out then we'll come out on Saturday and he always shows up. His focus is just impeccable, he gets out there and he gets the job done. If he does his job, it makes it so much easier on me to do my job."
Hilliard has been nursing an ankle injury that limited him late in fall camp and against Washington State. "Big Ced" was running full speed on Tuesday and participated in every drill—something Campbell was very excited to see. "It makes me pretty happy because he has a little bit of an impediment with his ankle but to have a guy out there that really doesn't care. The only thing he cares about is this team. He goes balls out, no matter what ails him. That made me even more proud."
Campbell and Hilliard arrived at Notre Dame in the same year in 1999 and Campbell says their friendship has grown stronger over the years. "It's grown a great deal. When we first got here, I used to make fun of him all the time because he was so massive. He got off the plane and the plane went up because he was 350 pounds. He always gets back at me because of how skinny I was when I came here. I was 235 pounds and I looked like Gandhi. We just relive those days and we take shots at each other but its all love."
The Irish face the top-ranked offense in the country in Michigan and the leading rusher in the country in Chris Perry. Campbell says the Irish are looking forward to the challenge. "Big rivalry, extremely large rivalry," said Campbell. "Those guys bring it and we bring it too just because we can. We heard a few lines by big Tony Pape out there, I'm not going to comment on that but we'll go out there and see what they have on Saturday. It's going to be a war, like the man said, it's definitely going to be a war but we're ready."
The Notre Dame/Michigan rivalry is always a battle of wills. Two teams battling it out and probably one of the best games college football can offer. Campbell agrees that this is always a game of smash-mouth football. "We're going in there and we're keeping it simple. Reading our keys, doing the right thing we're supposed to do and just playing the game the way it's supposed to be played. Make the people that wore this jersey proud of us on Saturday."
The Irish defense has been excellent against the run—Michigan is an excellent rushing team. Campbell says their focus is always to stop the run first. "We predicate ourselves on this defense with stopping the run. We don't want anybody to run on us. We stop the run and they have to throw the pass and that's when we can let everything hang out and get loose. We stop the run and blow those guys up and it makes it so much easier on everyone else to do what they have to do."
The return of middle linebacker Courtney Watson also excites Campbell. Watson makes everything right with this defense according to Campbell. "Courtney has some of the greatest celebrations and he's all over the place. There'll be times where he will knock me over trying to get to a guy and I like that. The intensity he brings to this is just crazy. He sees the game now, to the point where everything is slow to him and he can be that much more fast. He sometimes says ‘I'm kind of like the matrix,' everything slows down and he's like Neo."
Campbell says Watson's absence was felt during the Washington State game and he's glad Watson will be back. "It's just like Ced, when Ced is not in there, you can definitely tell. When Courtney is not back there, it's a good thing we always have backups that can bring it like Brandon Hoyte and some other guys on the team. When he's not there, you can definitely tell."
Campbell showed a lot of respect for the Michigan offense. He says great teams do what they are supposed to do. "You never downplay anybodies offense. If they're number one, those are the statistics you have to believe in. Just because they play Houston, just because they play Central Michigan, it really doesn't matter. Great teams come out and dominate and that's what they did and that's why they have the rankings that they do now. It's a great opportunity for us to go out there and do that too."
If the Irish are going to steal a win in Ann Arbor, all three—Campbell, Hilliard and Watson must have big games. If the Irish can stop the run, Campbell will have a hard time removing that smile for some time.