With the Notre Dame fight song in their heads, running backs understand the stakes

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By Max Cohen, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 2, 2014

Two brothers, John and Michael Shea, wrote and published the Notre Dame fight song together in 1908. The duo’s lyrics include, “Cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame/Wake up the echoes cheering her name.”

Those echoes have survived the test of time. One hundred six years later, the Michigan football coaching staff is preparing for them. Before the final meeting between the programs for the foreseeable future, they have been blasting the song at the team’s practice facilities this week.

It has become engrained in their players’ heads.

“The coaches said they play it all the time when we’re there, so they just want us to get used to it and not let it bother us,” said sophomore running back De’Veon Smith.

It could be up to a new duo, Smith and sophomore running back Derrick Green, the other member of Michigan’s 1-2 punch at running back, to quiet the spirit that the Shea brothers helped create.

How the running backs and the offensive line adjust to Saturday’s difficult environment in South Bend will be key. Smith and Green are coming off the best games of their college careers. Against Appalachian State, Smith ran for 115 yards and two touchdowns, while Green rushed for 170 yards and one score.

As sophomores, neither Green nor Smith has played on the road against the Fighting Irish, but Green said older teammates and coaches have told him about the extreme crowd noise. At Big Ten Media Day in July, senior defensive end Frank Clark spoke about the hostility of Notre Dame’s environment, saying he has never seen so many middle-finger gestures in his direction in his life.

For Michigan’s running attack, the adverse conditions aren’t ideal. The unit struggled to produce last season and is looking to build momentum after gaining 350 yards on the ground in the season opener.

With a tougher environment to go along with a more difficult opponent, a repeat of Saturday’s results is unlikely, but Smith said he’s confident in the offensive line despite the unit’s uncertainty.

In order to prepare for the loud conditions, the offense has been working on non-verbal communication to call plays. With multiple young players at offensive line and running back, making sure everyone is on the same page could be an issue.

“We’ve got signs for stuff like that, but it’s still hard. ... Like I said, you’ve got to make sure you key in on (fifth-year senior quarterback Devin Gardner) and get the play call,” Green said.

The Notre Dame game is another chance for the running backs to prove themselves, but they understand it means much more for the program.

Both Smith and Green said they didn’t know much about the history of the rivalry growing up in Ohio and Virginia, respectively, but since they’ve arrived in Ann Arbor, the importance of the game has been emphasized.

“I know everything, every little thing about it,” Smith said. “(We) play the fight song, I heard that the crowd is wild and loud, so it’s going to be a great experience being there.”

Green has heard the talk about the noise, but emphasized that preparation will be more of a factor than the environment. He knows his season-opening performance will mean little if he can’t produce Saturday.

“It’s just time to take it up to the next notch,” Green said. “It’s time to turn it up 10 notches.”

Green and Smith both maintained that they only care about the success of the unit, and how carries are split is of little matter. If Green is the number one back, he knows the depth behind him is important.

Now the running backs are tasked with building on the season-opening performance.

“We’re trying, you know, (to) put our name out there,” Green said.

Succeeding in a hostile environment with the stakes raised is the next step to doing just that. Quieting the Notre Dame fight song would be an added bonus.