Notre Dame's better coaches have done better against Michigan. Devine was 2-1; Faust was 1-2; Holtz was 5-3-1, Davie was 1-2 and Willingham is now 1-0. All of them other than Willingham, interestingly enough, lost their first game to Michigan
The only N.D. coach other than Willingham to beat the Wolverines in his first try was Frank "Shorty" Longman who was 11-1-2 in brief career that spanned 1909-10. His 1909 11-3 victory in Ann Arbor was N.D.'s first after 8 losses to Michigan (so note that almost half of Michigan's wins in the series pre-date Rockne's reign by more than a decade). This win threw Michigan athletics into such a tirade that they refused to play N.D. again until 1942-43. Michigan won the 1942 game in South Bend but then Leahy's squad thrashed Michigan 35-12 in Ann Arbor in 1943 leading to another tirade that prevented the teams from playing again until 1978, despite repeated overtures by N.D. under Ara in the 1960's to revive the series.
Let's look at the effect of the game on each team's season. In the 10 years since 1978 (not including 2002) that N.D. has either tied or beaten Michigan, N.D.'s combined record for those seasons is 93-22- 2 (.803), which works out to 9.64 wins per 12 games. In the 8 years that N.D. has lost to Michigan, N.D.'s combined record is a mediocre 52-42-1 (.553), which works out to 6.63 wins per 12. In other words, the difference between beating Michigan or losing to them is 3 games in either direction. If we look at the other side of the coin -- Michigan's records -- we don't see nearly such a dramatic effect. In the 9 years Michigan has beaten or tied N.D., Michigan's record is 89-16-4 (.835), which works out to 10.01 wins per 12 games. In the 9 years Michigan has lost to N.D., Michigan's record is 80-28 (.741), which works out to 8.89 wins per 12 games.
Part of the reason that losing a close game to N.D. has had less of an effect an effect on Michigan than the reverse effect on N.D. is that a Michigan loss does nothing to dash the Wolverines' Rose Bowl hopes. For N.D., however, an Irish loss has often been the practical end of national championship aspirations. In Faust's first year, N.D. vaulted to #1 after beating L.S.U. in the opener and Michigan fell from #1 after a stunning opening loss to Wisconsin. Excitement was high on the N.D. side as the Irish traveled to Ann Arbor, where they were beaten 25-7 in one of the most lopsided games in the modern history of the series (second in that respect only to Holtz's 26-7 demolition of Michigan in 1987). N.D. never recovered from that loss, losing five of its last nine games on the way to a 5-6 season. In 1987, however, Michigan recovered well enough to finish 8-4 with a nice bowl win against Alabama.
Weirdly, though, those bad seasons for N.D. have often been a springboard to beating Michigan the next year. Including 2002, N.D. is now 5-1 against Michigan in years in which it suffered 5 or more losses the previous year, and the only loss was the heart-stopping 1986 game where N.D. came up short 24-23. Having something to prove often means an N.D. win.
As I discussed last week, there's no particular magic for N.D. to the Michigan game by itself. In years where N.D. hasn't played Michigan, getting out of the gate without stumbling has almost always set the Irish on a course to a successful season. But in years where N.D. plays the Wolverines, the Irish had better win the game, because Michigan losses have often proved difficult things from which to recover.
Now some thoughts on where N.D. stands at this point in the season. Aside from record, there are some fairly sure guides for measuring a team's progress. In 1985, N.D. ended the season with a point differential of negative four (230 scored, and 234 allowed) but in 1986 under Holtz N.D. was positive 80. Last year N.D. was negative one on points (214 scored and 215 allowed) and thus far is positive 31 (71 scored and 40 allowed.) Through three games last year N.D. was negative 45 with 23 points scored and 68 allowed. Obviously, therefore, N.D. appears headed the right way.
Successful coaches (particularly if taking on a rebuilding project) are also usually able to turn at least three of the four fundamental yardage statistics -- yards per pass attempt and yards per rush, and yards allowed on those two -- in the right direction their first year. Ara moved all four the right direction his first year and Holtz three of four. Last year N.D. averaged 5.1 per pass, 3.9 per rush and allowed 3.5 per rush and 6.9 per pass. Thus far, N.D. is gaining 6.5 per pass (an improvement of 1.4), 3.1 per rush (worse by .8), allowing 3.0 per rush (better by .5) and 5.0 per pass (better by 1.9).
Only the per play rushing number continues to be a concern, though this one may be a little deceptive. Holiday has been sacked 14 times (a disturbing number to be sure, but not one that is normally associated with rushing totals), which leaves him with a modest 54 yards gained on 34 carries. N.D.'s tailbacks this year are carrying for a combined 129 yards per game on 31 carries per game (4.18 per carry). Last year N.D.'s tailbacks carried for 125 yards per game on 29.4 carries per game (4.24 per carry). So thus far, N.D.'s tailbacks are running about as well as last year. Gven that N.D. lost three experienced and talented tailbacks from last year's squad (Fisher, Jones and Howard) and has thus far played three teams that last allowed less than three yards per carry in 2001, there are reasons for optimism that N.D.'s running game is fundamentally sound.
N.D.'s run-pass balance has changed very little from last year. If one eliminates the sacks from the rushing attempts and includes with the passing attempts, then N.D. this year is averaging 42 rushes per game and 26.7 passes per game (about 61% rushes). If one does the same to N.D.'s statistics for last year, N.D. averaged 45.8 rushes per game and 22.1 passes (about 67% rushes). So while N.D. is throwing a little more often than last year, primarily it is throwing a lot better. While Holiday's completion percentage continues to hang around the 50% mark where it rested last year, the key number of yards per attempt has taken a giant step in the right direction and would be even stronger if he had not had so much trouble against Purdue. If that game turns out to be an aberration, it will have much less of an effect on his averages by the end of the year.