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Underneath hype, Notre Dame game is full of emotions for Wolverines

Paul Sherman/Daily
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By Liz Vukelich, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 5, 2013

Beyond the week-long banter between Michigan coach Brady Hoke and Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, beyond the tradition of the rivalry and beyond the lights being turned on at Michigan Stadium again, there are only two feelings that seem to matter to the Michigan football players who have faced the Fighting Irish before.

The first was the indescribable electricity of Michigan Stadium before, during and after the Wolverines’ now-legendary, come-from-behind win in the first Under the Lights game in 2011.

The second is about as far off the first as possible: leaving South Bend last year after taking a literal and figurative drubbing from the Fighting Irish.

Both feelings are motivators for Michigan this week. The players know it. The coaches know it. It’s Notre Dame week, after all.

“It’s a rivalry game to us, that’s us picking up intensity,” said fifth-year senior wide receiver Jeremy Gallon. “The whole game of football is changing for that 60 minutes. It’s a different level. There’s more to it than just playing football, it’s about winning it and having the upper hand on your opponent.”

Last week against Central Michigan provided a relatively easy test for the Wolverines and their new pro-style offense. Now it’s time to see how redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner and the rest of the Wolverines will stack up against a team that was on the cusp of a national championship last year.

Gardner threw two interceptions last Saturday, and according to offensive coordinator Al Borges, one was preventable and the other was not.

But considering six turnovers against Notre Dame proved to be Michigan’s downfall last year, the challenge for Gardner will be walking the fine line between ball security and making the necessary big plays.

Gallon said he doesn’t mind what Gardner does, because at the end of the day he said he has trust in his quarterback. For the most part, Hoke shares those sentiments, but there’s always that lingering feeling of concern.

“For Devin, believe me, we started this conversation in July about how we’re going to make decisions, how we’re going to take care of the football,” Hoke said. “I’d rather have a quarterback like Devin that you have to pull back a little bit than I would a quarterback who you have to kick in the pants to get out there to compete.”

Where nerve-racking might be the resounding phrase Hoke uses to describe some of Gardner’s spontaneous tendencies, the one adjective he picks to describe Tommy Rees, his Notre Dame counterpart, is “accurate.”

And when it comes to the Fighting Irish’s defensive line? Maybe the best words to use there are huge and experienced, especially when considering Notre Dame defensive tackle Louis Nix III, who weighs in at a hefty 342 pounds. With that mind, Borges is putting even more pressure on the offensive line to take care of Gardner and prevent a 2012 repeat.

“(Former quarterback) Denard (Robinson) took a lot of physical and figurative hits in (last year’s) game,” Borges said. “A lot of those balls he got intercepted, he was hit on, which tells us we need to take care of our quarterback so he can see the throws.”

Saturday will be the last Michigan-Notre Dame game in Ann Arbor for the foreseeable future. But amid all the glitz and glamour of the all-day festivities and the lights turning on, the game is, first and foremost, a measuring stick.

“I think (Michigan-Notre Dame) was always a game that really (gave) you a little bit of a true north of what kind of football team you’re going to have,” Hoke said. “You’ve got two traditional national powers playing each other. I remember coach Schembechler all the time talking about, how that game, you kind of get an idea of where you were as a team.”