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Players, coaches downplay hype of Notre Dame rivalry week

By Liz Vukelich, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 2, 2013

There’s always a little more hype surrounding rivalry weeks, because, well, that’s the point.

And with the Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry taking a hiatus after next season, it’s only fitting that the game this year will be even bigger than usual.

The stage is traditionally big — over 114,00 fans flocked to Michigan Stadium to see the first night game two years ago.

It was made even bigger on Saturday, when ESPN announced that College Football GameDay would air out of Ann Arbor. This will be the 11th time in history that GameDay is set on Michigan’s campus, the most recent of which was for the last Under The Lights game against the Fighting Irish.

But while fans will likely do their best to rise early on Saturday and carry the wittiest sign in hopes of nabbing an on-air cameo, there’s at least one person on campus that isn’t impressed by any of the hoopla.

“I think in the past, people try to make all of this a huge deal, (but) it’s not for us, it’s for the students,” said fifth-year senior left tackle Taylor Lewan. “For us, we’re playing a game on Saturday, representing 134 years of Michigan football. I’m representing them when I step on the field. I don’t need to focus on College Gameday being here.”

For some, like Lewan, it’s easier to push all the distractions aside. Redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner — who only has classes on Monday — laughed about how the Labor Day holiday meant he had no classes at all this week. Now he has five whole days to do nothing but study for and think about the game.

But for others who maybe don’t have as much rivalry-game experience, Notre Dame week is a completely different beast.

Eleven true freshmen saw playing time last weekend against Central Michigan. Though Michigan coach Brady Hoke said he was pleased that so many new players got the experience of playing in front of 112,000 screaming fans, the fear that the youngsters could get carried away by distractions still lingers.

“We try to educate (the younger players), what it’s going to be like,” Hoke said. “Started that (on Sunday). Tuesday, we’ll talk more about the atmosphere and have some of the older kids talk about what that atmosphere will be like.”

But many of these true freshmen will take on a minor role. Redshirt sophomore cornerback Blake Countess recalled how during the Under the Lights game his freshman year, his principal job was to act as a support system for the older players.

In the meantime, Hoke is using every resource at his fingertips to try and keep a sense of normalcy this week while still promoting the importance of the rivalry.

“With technology today, you can show (the freshmen the atmosphere),” Hoke said. “Then you talk about not being distracted. Taking care of your job, being accountable to the teammates that you have on this team.”

NOTE: Redshirt freshman running back Drake Johnson is out for the remainder of the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament sustained during the Central Michigan game. This makes him the third player since the spring to suffer from an ACL injury.

Saturday was Johnson’s first career game for the Wolverines. He had two carries for nine yards and one tackle on special teams.

“You just hate it for Drake, but he's as tough as anyone on this football team, and he will make it back from this,” Hoke said in a statement. “He worked so hard through his redshirt season and had a really good camp in backing up Fitz (Toussaint), not to mention he was a really valuable special teams player for us.”

According to Hoke, Johnson was injured trying to make a tackle but was pushed from behind. He also said that the strength staff and the trainers would take a look at preventative measures to protect the team from more ACL injuries.