Irish Legends: The Rivalry--ND Vs. Michigan

This Saturday, Notre Dame and Michigan will kickoff for the 34th time in the schools' histories. With only 176 miles separating the two schools, it is surprising that the two football powers have not played more often. IrishEyes takes a look back at the origin of the rivalry, some classic rivalry moments, and identifies what bragging rights are on the line this weekend.

The Beginning It was November 23, 1887. On the eve of Thanksgiving, a group of Michigan students traveled by train to South Bend, Ind. It was a far cry from the football we know today, but it was the beginning. Michigan had fielded its first football team back in 1879. Those early years of football were far more barbaric and violent than the game today. As a result, the University of Notre Dame had little interest in fielding a team. However, as football grew in popularity, it matured as well.

So, on a Wednesday morning, a group of Michigan students arrived at Notre Dame to give a teaching clinic on the rules and strategies of football. By midday, when the teaching sessions were over, the Michigan students challenged Notre Dame to a contest. It would be the first game in the rivalry. It probably more closely resembled a scrimmage than a game, but it went down as the first game in Notre Dame history. Not surprisingly, Notre Dame lost the contest 8-0. Afterwards, Notre Dame thanked their teachers for the lessons by treating them to lunch.

Michigan would travel two more times to South Bend the following year, beating Notre Dame 26-8 and 10-4. In the early years, Michigan acted like a big brother to Notre Dame. They taught Notre Dame how to play the game, and despite how hard Notre Dame tried, they would not be able to overpower the more experienced and polished Michigan teams. In fact, Michigan would win the first eight games in the series. It would not be until 1909 that Notre Dame would claim victory.

It had been over twenty years since Michigan had introduced football to Notre Dame. During that time, Michigan dominated the Midwestern landscape. However, football had caught on quickly at Notre Dame. The game was adopted, not only as a great method of exercise, but also as an activity for building character and leadership qualities. While Michigan was steamrolling the Great Lakes Region, Notre Dame was playing anyone that would step on the field. Having primarily beaten up on high schools and smaller colleges, Notre Dame still had little respect from Michigan.

With the great Walter Camp in attendance, Notre Dame surprised Michigan with their rushing attack. Led by Red Miller, father of Creighton Miller, Notre Dame triumphed to an 11-3 victory. It was the first time that legendary coach Fielding Yost, had lost to one of his pupils. Frank "Shorty" Longman, the Notre Dame coach, had played for Yost from 1903-1905. According to Notre Dame archives, Longman lived in Ann Arbor during the off-season. Not one to shy away from his accomplishments, you could frequently see Longman parading the streets of Ann Arbor with his bulldog. His bulldog wore a sweater with 11-3 embroidered into it. Yost went on to claim that the game did not mean anything to his squad, and that they treated it as a scrimmage. When the media did not buy his story, the embarrassed coach became frustrated and refused to play the "Catholics" anymore. The two teams would not meet for another 43 years.

Moments to Remember
Michigan and Notre Dame did not butt heads from 1909 until 1978, with the exception of a two game series in 1942 and 1943. As a result, the rivalry missed many of the Notre Dame glory years, which could have provided some epic battles. Since 1978, however, Notre Dame and Michigan have met 22 times. With the exception of 1987-1990 where Lou Holtz defeated the Wolverines in four straight meetings, neither team has won more than two contests in a row, since 1908. Notre Dame hopes to win its third consecutive victory this Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

Perhaps the most memorable victory for Notre Dame fans, was the September 20, 1980 match up that pitted the No. 8 ranked Irish against the No. 14 ranked Wolverines. Trailing 27-26, with only four seconds on the clock, Harry Oliver—Notre Dame's backup junior kicker—trotted out onto the field. Staring into a stiff breeze measured at 15 mph, Oliver lined up for the potential 51-yard game winning attempt. The ball was snapped and Oliver punched his powerful left leg through the ball. The ball floated towards the goal post. Oliver, who could not see what happened, realized he had made the kick when his teammates piled on top of him. The ball had cleared the crossbar by about three inches.

Two years later, No. 20 Notre Dame would host its first ever night game on September 18, 1982. Led by Blair Kiel and second year coach, Gerry Faust, Notre Dame defeated the No. 10 ranked Wolverines by a score of 23-17. The Irish defense was the story of the day as they held Michigan to only 41 yards rushing and contained the talented Anthony Carter at wide receiver.

In 1988, No. 13 Notre Dame was held without an offensive touchdown, but still managed to defeat No. 9 Michigan. Notre Dame scored on an 81-yard punt return by sophomore star Ricky Watters. However, the real story of the game would be the kicking game. Walk-on, Reggie Ho, made all four of his field goal attempts, including the game-winning 26-yarder with just 1:13 left to play. Michigan had a chance to win, but missed a 49-yard field goal as play expired.

1989 featured No. 1 Notre Dame against No. 2 Michigan at the Big House. In a game that was evenly matched, one man turned out to be the difference. The last time that Michigan had allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown, Rocket Ismail had not even been born yet. After deferring the coin toss, Notre Dame received at the start of the second half. Rocket took the kick at the 12-yard line, darted up the middle, before cutting right and breaking outside. He dashed 88 yards down the sideline and put the Irish up 14-6. The very next time Michigan kicked off, they kicked to Rocket again. Even Rocket was surprised, as Lou had prepared them to expect a squib kick. Rocket took the ball at the 8-yard line. After being temporarily slowed in traffic, Rocket broke a few tackles and sped down the sideline again. This time, he would go 92 yards for the score. That put Notre Dame up 24-12. They would hold on for the 24-19 victory, and leave Bo Schembechler asking himself why he kicked to Rocket, again.

In 1990, Notre Dame once again entered the matchup ranked No. 1, while Michigan came to South Bend ranked No. 4. The game marked the first start in Notre Dame stadium for "Golden Boy" Rick Mirer. Mirer did not disappoint, as he connected with Adrian Jarrell for a last minute touchdown pass, as Notre Dame defeated the Wolverines 28-24. That would be the end of the winning streak for Notre Dame.

1991 would be the emergence of Heisman Trophy Winner, Desmond Howard. Facing fourth-and-inches, Michigan quarterback, Elvis Grbac, lofted a spiral to the back of the end zone. It appeared that the ball would fall incomplete, but in a superman effort, Howard dove completely outstretched and caught the ball for a touchdown. It immediately became known as "The Catch" in Ann Arbor, and propelled Howard to the front of the Heisman race.

The famous tie in 1992, left both teams unsatisfied. However, fans at the game can say they witnessed one of the greatest runs in Notre Dame history. Lining up at the 22 yard line, Mirer took the snap and ran an option right. Mirer pitched the ball to Reggie Brooks, who immediately spun left out of the grasps of a Michigan's Corwin Brown. Nearly losing his balance, Brooks squirmed through three more Michigan defenders. Slowed up at the 6-yard line by a shoestring tackle attempt, Brooks broke free and then pin-balled his way into the end zone. The initial goal line hit was so vicious that Brooks was knocked unconscious as he crossed the goal line. However, he managed to hold onto the ball just long enough to make it count. Brooks managed to elude a total of eight Michigan defenders on his scamper to the end zone. Unfortunately, Notre Dame would not be able to stay ahead, as the game ended in a 17-17 tie.

In more recent match-ups, Notre Dame has had success on the ground against Michigan. In 1998, Autry Denson 163 yards and two touchdowns as Notre Dame went on to win 36-20. In Ty Willingham's first season, Ryan Grant rushed for 132 yards and two touchdowns, while Shane Walton put the nail in the coffin with an interception on Michigan's final drive, to preserve the 25-23 victory over No. 7 Michigan. Finally, the Michigan series also saw the emergence of freshman running back Darius Walker. Making his debut in 2004, Walker rushed for two touchdowns and 115 yards in the defeat of Michigan. In several interviews following their 28-20 loss, some Michigan players admitted that they didn't even know who No. 3 was.

Since 1978, the Notre Dame and Michigan game has been decided by one score or less, 16 of the 24 times. Given that the last two games were decided by eight and seven points respectively, percentages would tell us that this game may not be as close. Of course, every year is a new ballgame, and this year will certainly be just as tough as the others.

Bragging Rights
So what is on the line this weekend? No, there may not be a shillelagh or a megaphone up for grabs this week, and there may not be a little brown jug. However, there is something much greater than any trophy—the All-Time Winning Percentage Title is up for grabs. The winner of this game will be in first place as college football's all-time winningest program. Michigan still holds a sizeable lead with the most victories, but they also have played more games than Notre Dame. Prior to the demise of Notre Dame football during the "Davieham" Era, Notre Dame held the distinction as the program with the highest winning percentage of all-time. However, after several mediocre seasons, Notre Dame slipped behind Michigan. With Michigan also slipping over the past year, and Notre Dame on the rise again, the title is once again up for grabs. A Notre Dame victory would leapfrog the Irish over the Wolverines by .00019% in the record books.

Also up for grabs, but of far less significance is a winning record at Notre Dame. This will be the 16th time that the two schools have played at Notre Dame, and heading into Saturday, they are deadlocked at 7-7-1. Michigan still leads the all-time series 18-14-1, but keep in mind that Michigan won eight consecutive games against Notre Dame, while they Irish were still learning the sport. In the modern-era, Notre Dame is 12-9-1 since 1978.

One other potential claim that is on the line is the race for the 12th championship. Notre Dame and Michigan both claim 11 National Championships. However, Michigan only has 9 consensus National Championships, which is the standard that Notre Dame uses to count their own. Notre Dame's last National Championship was in 1988, while Michigan claims the 1997 split with Nebraska as their last.

Historical Prediction
While IrishEyes certainly realizes that every year is a new set of teams, there isn't any fun in saying that. Things to consider:

Since 1978, no team has won more than two games in a row, with the exception of Lou in 1987-1990. Edge: Michigan

The home team has won five of the last six meetings. The exception was last year. Edge: ND

Charlie Weis has never lost to Lloyd Carr. Lloyd Carr has never won in Notre Dame Stadium. Edge: ND

With a combined 15 games played at Notre Dame, the series is tied 7-7-1. Edge: Push

Two out of every three meetings is decided by one score or less. Percentages say that this year will be decided by greater than one score. With the way that Notre Dame can score, one would have to think that a closer game would favor Michigan. Therefore, since history says the game will not be close…Edge: ND

Heisman Trophy Winners. Michigan has three. Notre Dame has seven. Edge: ND

Rankings: This is the 10th time that Notre Dame has entered the game ranked higher than the Wolverines. In those games, Notre Dame's record is 4-4-1. Edge: Push

Years of Football: Michigan—128 years. Notre Dame—120. Edge: Michigan

Despite none of this actually having an ounce of relevance in Saturday's game, the scales seem to be favoring the Irish in this one (insert Michigan fan claim that the categories were selected to favor Notre Dame). Regardless, history says…

Notre Dame 34—Michigan 19

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