Smash Mouth Football Awaits Irish

Through the years, Notre Dame and Michigan have remained consistent rivals. As they meet for the 34th time on Saturday afternoon, these two fan bases work themselves up into a frenzy when playing each other. That'll happen when you have the two winningest programs in Division 1-A history. Another reason: ten of the last 14 meetings have been decided by a touchdown or less.

"You're recruiting a lot of the same guys," head coach Charlie Weis said at Tuesday's weekly press conference. "You're in the same locale of the country. There are a lot of similarities between the programs. The logistical distance between the two is the logical reason for the rivalry."

The anticipation will come to an end on Saturday when the ball is teed up and kicked away. Game time is at 3:30 p.m. and NBC will have the television coverage. The fact that the Irish are ranked No. 2 and the Wolverines are No. 11 adds national importance to this contest. It's the 24th straight meeting that at least one of teams have been ranked but the first since 1994 that both were in the top-12. The winner of this contest moves to 3-0. The loser must regroup and pick the pieces for the remaining nine games left on their schedule. It won't be a finesse affair.

"It's always a bruising, physical game and each team knows they're going to get the other team's best performance," Weis said. "That's what you do know. You can book that. They're coming up here with the intention of winning. They're not coming up hoping to win. They're coming up here expecting to win and that's what were expecting to them to think. We wouldn't think anything else from a Michigan team that we respect.

"We have a great respect from Michigan and we're expecting a big effort from them. We know we have to match that great effort or we'll lose."

Weis knows this game means a lot to Notre Dame's season and to the rivalry aspect of this game. But every game on the schedule, from USC to Army, means just as much in the end. One game can't mean more than the next.

"I have to respect every opponent the same," Weis said. "I'd be disrespectful to the other 11 teams on our schedule if I treated one team any differently. I treated Georgia Tech the same way I treated Penn State and that's the same way I'm treating Michigan with ultimate respect."

Michigan's first two games have all been about the run. The Wolverines are averaging 249 yards per game on the ground. In a 27-7 win over Vanderbilt, they ran for 246 yards on 51 carries. In the 41-17 victory over Central Michigan, Michigan totaled 252 yards on the ground in 50 carries. This might be the philosophy of new offensive coordinator Mike DeBord, who was installed in the position by head coach Lloyd Carr after last season's 7-5 record. Michigan has passed the ball just 43 times in two contests, mostly because of the 4.9 yards per rush they average.

"So far, you've seen some smash mouth football," Weis said. "People can talk about the quarterback not throwing it but he hasn't had to throw it a whole bunch. In the first two games, they've played smash mouth and done a good job of it.

"They're just trying to smash you in the mouth. Last year, from the research, it was more powers and counters and misdirection plays and that's not what you're getting anymore. They're lining up and saying they're going to maul you at the line of scrimmage. And guess what? That's what they're doing."

The man who leads the rush attack is junior Michael Hart. The running back gained 1,455 yards and scored nine touchdowns as freshman. Big things were expected in 2005 but Notre Dame put a damper in Hart's plan. He was hurt in the Irish contest and the injury nagged him for the remainder of the year. Hart finished with 666 yards and four touchdowns. It appears that he's back to form. In two games, Hart has been the beneficiary of the smash mouth scheme, totaling 262 yards and three touchdowns, including 5.2 yards per rush.

"A lot of times, you see a guy who is 5'9" and a shade under 200 pounds and people think he can't run with power," Weis said. "They think they're scant backs and elusive. The thing is, he runs for power. This guy can run inside and outside. When a guy can do that, you can't say, ‘Oh, Hart's in there and he's going to run to the outside. We'll just press the edge and make him run inside.' You can't give away anything with the guy. He's got vision, he can cut and he's got wheels, too."

But let's make it clear: Weis respects Hart's game but is not and will never be scared of a player heading into the contest.

"I don't think you can ever go into a game thinking like that," Weis said about the scared mentality. "Never, no matter who you're playing. Even Reggie (Bush) and he scared me."

Hart isn't the only stud in the backfield. Sophomore Kevin Grady impressed many with his 483-yard, five touchdown freshman performance. The 5-9, 216-pound native of Grand Rapids, MI averages 4.5 yards per rush this season. Freshman Brandon Minor was a four-star prospect coming out of high school and he averages six yards a rush in 2006. The stable of running backs is deep in Ann Arbor.

"To me, I see multiple running backs that can run on their team," Weis said. "When all of a sudden they're putting in Grady, it's not like they're putting in a crummy guy. They have multiple running backs. Their heart and soul is up front. They're running backs are darn good but they've made a commitment to those guys up front. They're establishing a mentality to beat you at the line of scrimmage."


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