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September 6, 2013

The Week That Was

The build-up to the Michigan-Notre Dame game started with a bang Sunday when ND coach Brian Kelly relegated the rivalry to second-class status. There was good news this week, and bad, and we cover it all in The Week That Was.

Kelly says Michigan is not a historic rival

Speaking to reporters Sunday following the Fighting Irish's season-opening win over Temple, Kelly, talking about Michigan, said, "I really haven't seen it as one of those historic, traditional Notre Dame rivalries. I've seen it as just one of those great football games that Notre Dame has played." Two days later at his weekly press conference, Kelly, certainly feeling the backlash from his initial thought, declared Michigan a historic rival, but the damage had already been done.

What They're Saying

MLive.com's Nick Baumgardner says there is some truth to Kelly's original statement but wonders too if Kelly was responding to counterpart Brady Hoke for making a disparaging remark about ND over the summer: "Michigan and Notre Dame have played 40 games since 1887. From a numbers standpoint, that game is below USC, Navy, Michigan State and Purdue when it comes to traditional rivalry tilts.

"His comments also felt somewhat like a retaliation barb toward Hoke, who explained to a group of Michigan alums and supporters during the summer that the Fighting Irish were 'chickening out' on playing the Wolverines after 2014.

"Asked if he stood by his 'chicken' statement Monday, Hoke responded affirmatively: 'I said it,' he replied.

"As far as the players are concerned, any bulletin board trash talk between the two sides is purely fan-based amusement."

Tom Coyne of the Associated Press said Kelly may be able to justify his comment, but the rest of us know better: "Many Notre Dame fans probably agree more with his statement Sunday, considering the Irish have played Navy (86 games), Southern California (84), Purdue (84), Michigan State (76) and Pittsburgh (68) far more often than the 40 times they've faced the Wolverines. But nationwide, outside of the annual Notre Dame-USC game, few of the other rivalry games get the same attention as the Fighting Irish vs. the Wolverines. The scrutiny Kelly's statement Sunday received is proof of that.

"After all, it's Michigan's winged helmet against Notre Dame's golden helmets; 'Hail to the Victors' vs. the 'Notre Dame Victory March;' the school with the best all-time winning percentage in college football (Michigan, at .735) vs. No. 2 (Notre Dame, at .734)."

Meanwhile, a Foxnews.com article (unattributed, and that you can read here) seemed to argue on behalf of Kelly, flat-out stating that Michigan has been put in its place by the Irish: "Hoke needs Saturday's game against this Notre Dame team way more than Kelly does. This is the one. Hoke has beaten rivals Ohio State (in 2011), Notre Dame (in 2011) and Michigan State (in 2012) already in his first two seasons, but he still needs a meaningful game at the national level. Michigan has the better roster, and a home game Saturday. Hoke should be able to get this one, and it would be the signature moment he needs.

"On the other hand, a loss would hurt Hoke significantly.
The game means more to Michigan, too, than to Notre Dame. That seems to really bug Michigan fans, but it's true. Kelly already got the Irish back to No. 1 last year, and to the national championship game.
Even if it was a crushing loss there to Alabama, fans bought in.
That's why Hoke can call Notre Dame a 'chicken'' for dumping this grand, regular rivalry next year while Kelly can call it just 'a big, regional game.''

"He was needling Hoke with that remark, reminding him who is who this week. Kelly also said that he understands why Hoke would have made the 'chicken'' comment to his fans, as everyone wants to play Notre Dame."

My Take: The war of the words is silly, especially since both sides are going to miss the other when this is all said and done - a thought I explained in detail in my weekly column. What is more interesting to me is the notion that Hoke needs this game more than Kelly.

He doesn't. He needs to win a Big Ten title (or at least play for one) because Michigan fans are starving to be back on top of the conference and because Hoke himself has stated that winning a Big Ten is the single most important goal every year, and each season without one is a letdown. But U-M could lose to Notre Dame this year, still win the Big Ten and all would be right with the world.

Yes, Michigan wants to win. It's good for exposure, for recruiting purposes and because the Wolverines want to go undefeated and play for a national title, but don't think for a second this isn't a big game for Kelly and Notre Dame too. The Irish went 12-1 a year ago and won back a lot of fans, but like Hoke saw when Michigan went from 11-2 to 8-5, one great season does not mean a program is back. It takes sustained success and an 8-4 or 9-3 season in South Bend will not make folks happy.

In that vein, both programs need this one. It would be a big, important victory in a season in which each program has high aspirations and a desire to be in the national conversation.

Drake Johnson suffers a season-ending ACL injury

Just two carries into his career, Johnson has been sidelined after suffering an ACL injury during special teams coverage in Michigan's Aug. 31 win over Central Michigan. Johnson had rushed for nine yards on his two touches. He had worked himself up to No. 2 on the depth chart during an impressive fall camp and was slated to receive a fair amount of carries behind starter Fitz Toussaint. In his stead, freshman Derrick Green has been elevated to No. 2.

What They're Saying: While everyone covered Johnson's unfortunate injury, most moved on to the battle to back up Toussaint, with the Detroit Free Press' Mark Snyder giving rise to the belief it's Green's job to lose: "Green lost ground in camp for a number of reasons - an ankle injury, higher-than-expected weight, trouble with the game speed - but showed progress against the Chippewas, rushing 11 times for 58 yards. He had the day's longest tailback run, a 30-yarder, emerging through a massive hole on the left side. Plus, he showed his power at 240 pounds, breaking tackles as he landed in the end zone for his first touchdown.

"That was enough for U-M to move him into the second spot behind Toussaint for Saturday's game against Notre Dame, up from fifth last week, even though he made a few mistakes."

My Take: Very disappointing for the kid, especially considering he is a local that played at Ann Arbor Pioneer and was a late offer in the 2012 class that was beginning to prove he was worth that scholarship tender. The good news is Johnson will return (not this year, though). The bad news is he is not eligible for another redshirt and he will return to a roster that will have a much better feel for its running game in 2014.

That running game will include a bevy of talented runners -- Green, freshman De'Veon Smith, junior Thomas Rawls and redshirt sophomore Justice Hayes - that will gain valuable experience this season. There will be a pecking order, a knowledge of who can do what, and unless all four struggle this season, Johnson will likely find himself fourth or fifth on the depth chart when he returns.

Speaking of Green, it was clear Saturday he's a talent, but he was third in line behind Toussaint and Johnson, and probably needed a break to move up to No. 2. He's gotten that break (albeit in a way he wouldn't wish for) and he'll get a chance to show what all the hubbub was about. Rawls will also get a shot, and one of them must emerge by the time the Big Ten campaign begins Oct. 5.

Thomas Gordon speaks about his suspension

Suspended for the opener for a violation of team rules, Gordon addressed the media earlier this week: "I spoke to the team during camp. They knew what was going to be the outcome, and it was important to me to tell them that, so they can learn from my mistakes. I am certain they will learn from it, and they won't make the same mistake I did. It was a letdown on my behalf. Coach Hoke was obviously hurt by it, and I was, too. That's a mistake that can't be afforded and won't happen again."

What They're Saying

While no one is saying what caused the suspension (and won't, nor do they need to), Gordon has known it was coming, Baumgardner wrote: "Gordon was told of his eventual suspension during the team's fall camp last month. Upon learning his fate, he chose to speak to his teammates about the situation, telling them how sorry he was for letting them down.

"Instead of being on the field for the first game of his senior season, Gordon watched it on television with his family in Detroit.

"After the CMU win, Hoke explained that Gordon's suspension would only last one game, and that the senior safety was still very much a "part of our family.

"He'll be back on the field Saturday (8 p.m., ESPN) when No. 17 Michigan takes on No. 14 Notre Dame, and he'll likely be back in the starting lineup at strong safety."

My Take: We were surprised when Gordon was not named a captain, but if he was informed in fall camp he would be suspended, and spoke to the team, then the team knew before casting their ballot, and that probably explains it all.

Hoke has repeatedly suspended his players for violations, proving he will not places football above all else, and this is another example. Sure, rivals will say the coach chose to suspend Gordon for the Central Michigan game and not Notre Dame but without knowing the infraction no one is in a position to judge. Besides, considering how he's handled these matters so far, Hoke deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Gordon will be an asset this weekend against a Notre Dame offense that likes to attack down field. He is an experienced defender with 27 career starts, and did a superb job in 2012 keeping big plays to a minimum alongside Jordan Kovacs. He is also a capable playmaker, though he needs to be more of that this year than he has been.

In his absence, redshirt junior Josh Furman played and played well, while sophomore Jarrod Wilson really had a nice game in the win over CMU as he answered one question at safety. Furman now has invaluable game experience and should improve immensely. He's not the same difference-maker Gordon is, but he proved he can step in when needed.

Looking at Gordon's suspension with the glass half-full, an important player learned a key lesson, while Michigan was able to give a critical backup much-needed playing time in a game that was never in doubt. That's a positive outcome from a negative situation.

Stephen M. Ross donates $200 million to U-M

A Michigan alumnus and owner of the Miami Dolphins, Ross has been very generous with his resources previously, donating $100 million to the business school in 2004 for a complete renovation (and is now up to $313 million to Michigan over the course of his lifetime).

Half of this donation will again go to the business school (now named after him) and half will go to the athletic department to help Athletics Director David Brandon complete his vision of an entire remodel of the south athletic campus, including facilities for lacrosse, track, rowing, volleyball and more at a cost of $350 million.

"This is a huge down payment in a project that is going to be ongoing," Brandon said at the press conference. "I sent email messages to many of our large donors last night and said, 'This isn't going to let you off the hook. This is a huge down payment, but we need a significant increase in the balance of our fundraising to get where we want to go ultimately with those 16 projects."

What They're Saying

Mark Brush of MichiganRadio.com said Ross is setting an incredible precedent as a philanthropist: "In the history of major gifts to the University of Michigan, the $200 million gift from alum Stephen M. Ross is the biggest in the University's history. In the annals of gift giving to higher education, it's not the biggest, but it is among the biggest.

"He's got a lot of money, and he plans on giving most of his money away. Ross signed the "Giving Pledge," a effort organized by Warren Buffet and Bill and Melinda Gates, which calls on the world's wealthiest individuals to donate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy."

My Take: I'm a Michigan alum, but even if I wasn't, I would be impressed and inspired by Ross' generosity.

One could argue with a net worth of $4.4 billion, he's not taking a hit with this donation but is that even the point? Plenty of folks live a comfortable lifestyle and never give back. Signing the pledge with Buffett and the Gates to continue donating to this country and this planet, Ross will have the opportunity to make a tremendous impact in the lives of others, and U-M should consider itself blessed that he has decided to include his alma mater in his philanthropy.

As for how this project will impact - athletes in so many overlooked sports will benefit from this greatly. Michigan's vision for a complete athletic campus is one of the more impressive I've ever seen, and it's justly deserved for the student-athletes that put in the effort every day but don't receive nearly the acclaim and kudos that the football, basketball and hockey teams do.

Frankly, as an alum I couldn't be prouder, and I look forward to the day I can tour some of the facilities and resources that Ross will help create.

Michigan NEWS


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