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September 5, 2013Unlike Mark May and Skip Bayless I actually did grow up on the Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry - the two played 15 times before I graduated high school in 1998 - and I attended games in 1991, 1993, 1997, 1998 and 1999 before starting this job in 2002, so when I say this rivalry will be missed, I am speaking from real experience.
Michigan and Notre Dame fans are more alike than they care to admit, which is why both have taken the stance that neither will miss the other when this series goes on a permanent hiatus after the 2014 campaign.
Bo Schembechler's 'To hell with Notre Dame' is the refrain U-M fans are shouting proudly for all to hear these days while the Irish have been laughing off Brady Hoke's 'chickening out' comments because the Wolverines aren't even a historic and traditional rival (not like Michigan State and Purdue).
The truth is no one wants to admit what's burning deep inside - this rivalry means a lot to both parties, and when it's gone, something meaningful will be lost.
For me, some of my greatest childhood memories (and biggest nightmares) are from Notre Dame games, like when Desmond Howard made 'The Catch' in 1991; when Remy Hamilton had the game-winning field goal in 1994; and Tommy Hendricks had a diving interception in a 1997 win; and on the flipside, Rocket returning two kickoffs for touchdowns in 1989; the furious comeback that never was in 1993; and going down to South Bend for my first college game only to see ND win in 1998.
Then during my years covering the team (2002-present) there have been incredible matchups in 2002, 2006, 2009, 2010 and 2011.
Those wins and losses stick with fans on both sides much longer than a triumph over Northwestern or Army, or a loss to Iowa or Navy. They mean more because the tradition the two share is greater and the respect (often manifested into hate) is more powerful.
Notre Dame may be smug, but the Irish do it the right way. They play by the rules, take academics seriously and treat the game with the respect it deserves. For Michigan, it's like looking in a mirror. ND may stand atop a pedestal and too often acts like it owns the joint, but then U-M is often accused of riding the same high horse (I hear that all the time as an alum).
Still drawing a line in the sand? Ask yourself, 'Why do I hate Notre Dame?' Then ask yourself, 'Why does everyone in the Big Ten hate Michigan?' Almost all of the answers will be the same.
The best example I can share comes from my youth. Notre Dame and Michigan are like brothers (much more than Michigan State is) competitive, always fighting for their parents' attention, always trying to outshine the other. It's classic sibling rivalry (which I know quite a bit about with two brothers, especially an older that was closer in age and skill level to me).
Somewhere deep in my recesses, I respected my older brother completely because of what he was able to accomplish (he was an outstanding pitcher and quarterback - a potential five-star had cancer not reared its ugly head), but on the surface, I loathed him and wanted him to fail because wherever I went, whatever I did, I was compared to him, and vice versa.
It is that same relationship that Michigan and Notre Dame enjoy, and it is for that same reason that they can't stand each other publicly.
But at the end of the day, the one-on-one basketball games, the 5-on-5 tackle-football games and the home-run derby contests with my older brother - win or lose - brought out my best. I pushed myself harder because I wanted to beat him. Sometimes I won. Sometimes I lost, but the competition is what always brought me back.
My older brother died in 1998 (and my younger brother is a far superior athlete to me, sort of like Michigan playing Central Michigan) so I haven't played one-on-one hoops in more than a decade. I didn't know what that experience meant to me then, a bristling teenager with a chip on his shoulder, but I can tell you now I miss that rivalry and the games we played dearly.
And so will you, when it's gone.
Position Group Under The Spotlight - Linebackers
In the 11-plus years I've been covering Michigan football, one set of linebackers stands out above the rest - the 2006 unit. In my opinion, David Harris is the best linebacker U-M has had since Dhani Jones departed in 1999, making plays in the backfield, but more importantly, taking care of business in the middle of the defense. Since then, U-M has tried many, but no one has come close to his level of production.
On Saturday, junior Desmond Morgan provided a glimpse that maybe, just maybe, he could be that guy. Morgan had seven tackles, assisting on one for loss, and broke up a pass. He was seemingly always in the right place at the right time, and by my account (from a film review) didn't miss a tackle in space or even with linemen trying to block him. U-M needs that type of performance from him every week.
Sophomore weakside linebacker James Ross III was my pick for breakout player of the year, but he seemed to struggle Saturday, missing tackles in the open field too often while really getting stuck and failing to disengage from a blocker. As the game wore on, he seemed to use his speed and quickness better to avoid those blocks altogether, which is a key element when you're undersized, but he didn't turn his free reign into tackles. Ross needs to step up his game.
In relief of both Ross and Morgan, sophomore Joe Bolden did a nice job. He's a guy that just has a nose for the football.
At the strongside, both senior Cam Gordon and junior Brennen Beyer had excellent games, as has been detailed here.
Overall, I would have graded the linebackers an 'A' for their efforts against Central Michigan. Gordon and Beyer will not remain that productive (three sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss) but they can be strong performers while Morgan needs to continue to be that player that just engulfs everything, and Ross needs to bounce back and be the difference-maker he has the talent to be.
Offensive Player of the Week - WR Jeremy Gallon
Gallon finished with four catches for 47 and a score, and he is my pick because early on, with quarterback Devin Gardner missing his first three attempts and looking a little shaky even on his completions, someone needed to settle U-M's signal-caller. Gallon did that, catching two balls on Michigan's third drive that weren't perfect.
At the end of that drive, Gallon caught a TD pass thrown slightly behind him. The play was nullified by a penalty but later in the second quarter, Gallon did the exact same thing, and this one stood.
Gardner probably would have found his groove regardless, but his top target helped him immensely early on, and that's he's this week's pick.
Defensive Player of the Week - S Jarrod Wilson
One of Michigan's biggest question marks defensively coming into the year was at that safety position next to senior Thomas Gordon. With Wilson looking uncertain, the coaches even moved senior nickel back Courtney Avery to safety midway through camp, but with Avery out due to injury, Wilson earned the start Saturday and left little doubt he's capable of holding down the job.
Wilson played fast, making a few big hits on ball carriers, and he also kept the ball in front of him on pass plays, doing so not by giving a 15-yard comfort but by playing tight coverage on the deep threats, refusing to give them an inch and the CMU quarterbacks a spot to drop the ball into.
Wilson had four tackles, including one for loss, and a pass breakup, and is this week's pick because he quieted concerns that he wasn't ready and that the free safety position would be a weakness this fall.
Coach of the Week - Curt Mallory
Coming into the first game, Mallory's challenge was already great - breaking in a new starter at free safety, re-acclimating redshirt sophomore cornerback Blake Countess after he missed the 2012 season with an ACL injury, and getting true freshman Channing Stribling up to snuff for his debut - and then a few days prior to the opener, head coach Brady Hoke had to make a tough call to suspend Gordon, leaving U-M without any experience at safety.
Redshirt junior Josh Furman was thrust into the lineup, and played better than one might have expected, while Wilson solidified the deep secondary, and all three corners - Countess, junior Ray Taylor and Stribling - played well. This unit could have been a major weakness against a CMU receiving corps that features some nice talent, but instead, the defensive backfield was one of U-M's strengths.
Freshman Of The Week - QB Shane Morris
I've already mentioned Stribling and certainly tailback Derrick Green made an impression, but all eyes were on Morris in his career debut, and he made the most of his opportunity. It is not easy for a true freshman to be the No. 2 QB, and it is not easy for him to step in front of 110,000 his first week of the season and direct the offense in meaningful drives. Yet that's what he did.
Morris cannot waste time (and the coaches cannot waste time with him). He needs valuable experience and he needs it now, but it would have been perfectly understandable for him to be nervous and to struggle. Instead, he played with a calm, collected attitude, completing 4 of 6 passes for 59 yards. He threw one pick and rushed a decision in the pocket, leading to a sack, but he can learn from both missteps.