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September 15, 2006

Game of the Week: Michigan at Notre Dame

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The College Football Wire

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Mike Hart knows how Michigan fans define greatness.

"All great Michigan backs, they perform in this game," Hart told TheWolverine.com. "You can't be considered a great back until you perform against Notre Dame."

Hart hasn't performed much at all against Notre Dame thus far.

He carried the ball just five times for 17 yards at Notre Dame two years ago while working his way up the depth chart. Last season, Hart carried three times for four yards before a first-quarter hit from Irish linebacker Corey Mays knocked him out of the game.

It's probably no coincidence that Michigan went on to lose both games. The last two years have proved this much about the Wolverines' chances of beating Notre Dame: They've got to have Hart.

This weekend, they'll have him.

A healthy Hart has rushed for 262 yards in Michigan's first two games while breaking the 100-yard plateau each week. And that last stat is critical.

The Wolverines own an 11-1 record when Hart rushes for at least 100 yards. They're 7-7 in all other games since Hart's arrival.

His performance could determine whether the 13th-ranked Wolverines (2-0) win at No. 2 Notre Dame (2-0) for the first time since 1994. Although Hart hasn't played much against Notre Dame, his versatility certainly has caught the Irish's attention.

"Usually a running back is good at running either inside or outside except for the great ones, like (LaDainian) Tomlinson," Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said. "This guy can run inside and outside."

But it's another running back who has taken center stage in this series the last two years.

Notre Dame's Darius Walker staged his coming-out party against Michigan as a true freshman by rushing for 115 yards and two fourth-quarter touchdowns in a 28-20 Irish victory. He gained 104 yards last season in a 17-10 triumph at Michigan.

"Darius Walker is one of the most patient runners I've seen," Michigan defensive tackle Alan Branch said. "He'll wait for a block to open up a hole. He follows his blocks. He reads his linemen's backside really well, so he knows where to cut. He's probably the most patient runner that I've seen on film."

Walker already has proved himself in this rivalry.

Hart believes this weekend represents his chance to make a statement. And it also represents a great opportunity for his team as it attempts to bounce back from the disappointment of a 7-5 season last year.

The Wolverines opened the season with victories over Vanderbilt and Central Michigan, but Hart knows the national perception of the program won't change until it beats a top-level team such as Notre Dame.

"If we go beat Vanderbilt, we're a good team," Hart said. "But if we beat Notre Dame, then we can be a great team this year. That's what rides on this game, what other people think of you and your team."

Week 3 Games of the Week: No. 11 Michigan at No. 2 Notre Dame
Michigan running game vs. Notre Dame run defense: Although the Notre Dame defense overall has shown tremendous improvement this season, the Irish are still allowing 4.5 yards per carry. Penn State TB Tony Hunt gained more than six yards per attempt last week. Michigan running back Mike Hart is better than Hunt and has added motivation after barely playing in the last two Notre Dame-Michigan games.
Edge: Michigan.
Michigan passing game vs. Notre Dame pass defense: Michigan QB Chad Henne has completed only 51.2 percent of his passes. The talented receiving duo of Steve Breaston and Mario Manningham have combined for only 164 yards and one touchdown. Notre Dame's pass defense has held its own thus far despite facing Georgia Tech star WR Calvin Johnson and Penn State's talent-laden receiving corps. The Irish do need to provide more of a pass rush after compiling just three sacks in their first two games.
Edge: Notre Dame.
Notre Dame running game vs. Michigan run defense: Notre Dame tailback Darius Walker has rushed for more than 100 yards against Michigan each of the last two years, but he may struggle to find running room this time. LB David Harris is the leading tackler for a Michigan defense that ranks fourth in the nation against the run. The Wolverines have allowed only 1.2 yards per carry, while the Irish are gaining just 3.3 yards per rush. Edge: Michigan.
Notre Dame passing game vs. Michigan pass defense: Irish QB Brady Quinn proved his slow start in the season opener against Georgia Tech was an aberration by throwing for 287 yards and three touchdowns last week in a 41-17 triumph over Penn State. Quinn threw for a season-low 140 yards against Michigan last year. He will have to watch out for DE LaMarr Woodley, who delivered a pair of sacks in each of Michigan's first two games. Irish WR Rhema McKnight and TE John Carlson could play a major factor if the two All-America candidates Notre Dame WR Jeff Samardzija and Michigan CB Leon Hall line up against each other most of the day. Edge: Notre Dame.
Michigan special teams vs. Notre Dame special teams: Notre Dame's Carl Gioia made both his field-goal attempts against Penn State after missing two in the season opener. But he still isn't in the class of Michigan's Garrett Rivas, who is 12 field goals away from becoming the Wolverines' all-time leader. Michigan's edge in place-kicking could mean plenty in a rivalry that often comes down to a late field goal. Notre Dame's Geoff Price is averaging 48 yards per punt. Zoltan Mesko and Ross Ryan share Michigan's punting duties and have teamed up to average 41 yards per attempt. Both teams have returners with breakaway ability: Tom Zbikowski for Notre Dame and Steve Breaston for Michigan. Edge: Michigan.
Michigan coaches vs. Notre Dame coaches: Michigan coach Lloyd Carr owns a 3-4 career record against Notre Dame and has never beaten the Irish in South Bend. Carr changed both coordinators after a disappointing 7-5 season last year. Offensive coordinator Mike DeBord is back at the position he held from 1997-99, while defensive coordinator Ron English leads an attacking unit that already has recorded 10 sacks. Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis beat Michigan as a road underdog last year. Defensive coordinator Rick Minter has won praise this year for his unit's early season improvement. Edge: Notre Dame.
Michigan will win if: Hart needs to stay healthy and at least approach 100 rushing yards. The Wolverines have to hold Walker below the century mark and continue putting pressure on the quarterback. And it would certainly help if Henne improved his accuracy.
Notre Dame will win if: The Irish don't necessarily have to run the ball well if their passing game works as well as it did last week. The defense must do a better job defending the run, and the offensive line has to give Quinn enough time to look for secondary receivers.
X-Factor: LaMarr Woodley.
This Michigan defensive end has been one of the nation's most dynamic players through the first two weeks of the season. Woodley is tied for the NCAA lead with four sacks and has caused so much commotion that it has resulted in pass-rushing opportunities for teammate Rondell Biggs, who already has three sacks. Notre Dame has allowed five sacks this year and is starting true freshman Sam Young at one tackle spot. In their season opener, the Irish watched Georgia Tech linebacker Philip Wheeler enter the backfield and wreak havoc for much of the night. They can't allow Woodley to have a similar impact.
Notes: A Notre Dame victory Saturday would improve its all-time record to 814-266-42 (.74398) and would allow the Irish to replace the Wolverines (.74379) atop the all-time NCAA winning percentage list. Michigan has lost its last six road openers. The Notre Dame-Michigan game has been decided by a touchdown or less 10 of the last 14 times. Michigan owns a 7-7-1 record in its last 15 trips to Notre Dame, but the Irish own a three-game home winning streak in this series. Michigan leads Notre Dame 18-14-1 in the all-time series. Carr owns a 3-1 record when facing the second-ranked team in the nation. Notre Dame hasn't turned the ball over in its last three games. The Irish last turned the ball over in the second quarter of their 2005 regular-season finale at Stanford. Hart has touched the ball 469 consecutive times without losing a fumble. His streak of 450 touches without a fumble ended last weekend against Central Michigan, but teammate Mario Manningham recovered the loose ball.
Megargee's pick: Michigan 24-23
Other Rivals.com Expert picks:
Olin Buchanan, national college football writer: Notre Dame, 24-20
Bobby Burton, editor-in-chief: Notre Dame, 27-21
Bill King, RivalsRadio host: Notre Dame, 28-21
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