If Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s press conference this week proved anything, it’s that Brady Hoke doesn’t have the market cornered on coachspeak.
All week, Hoke and the Wolverines have shot down questions about the two teams’ matchups the last two seasons, both of which ended with last-minute heroics by Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, resulting in dramatic wins for the Wolverines.
When asked about whether there was any sort of “revenge angle” for his team this week, Kelly responded in a fashion that would make the media-repellant Hoke proud.
“(The players) don’t talk about it. They don’t talk about it at all,” Kelly said. “They just want to win. They just want to win games. There’s not much that we reflect on 2011. … Everything is pretty much focused on getting better individually.
“And if we do that, there’s no need to reflect back on what happened last year.”
Thanks to Robinson’s feats in this rivalry game the last two years, Kelly was more forthcoming when the topic of stopping him came up.
The Deerfield Beach, Fla. native has been the most dominant player for either team in the most recent installments of the rivalry, leading the Wolverines on long scoring drives to clinch a win in each of the last two seasons.
Robinson was especially effective in 2010, the last time Notre Dame hosted Michigan. In his second game as the starting quarterback, he accounted for 502 of the team’s 532 yards. It amounted to a breakout game for Robinson, one that first put him on the national radar.
Kelly is keenly aware of the threat that Robinson poses as both a runner and passer.
“It’s a difficult proposition because you can’t sell out on either one of those,” Kelly said. “You have to be balanced. You have to be able to manage it, and you’ve got to keep him from making big plays.
“So there isn’t an easy answer to that. He’s a superior football player. He’s not a great player — he’s the best player on the field.”
If there’s one thing that’s made Robinson particularly effective against the Fighting Irish, it’s been big plays.
In 2010, Robinson threw a 31-yard touchdown pass, ran for an 87-yard score — the longest rushing touchdown in the history of Notre Dame Stadium — and added another 36-yard run for good measure.
Last season, Robinson was more effective through the air. As part of his 338 passing yards, he had a touchdown throw of 43 yards and other passes of 77, 45 and 64 yards. (The 64-yarder was the last-minute heave to wide receiver Jeremy Gallon that set Michigan up for the winning touchdown pass to Roy Roundtree one play later.) The quarterback also added a 39-yard rush.
Over the two games, it comes to a total of 422 yards in just eight plays. Robinson has certainly also made his share of mistakes against Notre Dame, especially last year, when he threw three interceptions. But the big plays have more than made up for the miscues.
“He’s a difference maker,” Kelly said. “So we have to find a way to limit big chunk plays, just like we have the first few weeks. … We have to eliminate and control those big plays that are out there. If we do that, we feel pretty good.”
Saturday will mark the fifth time that Kelly and Hoke will face off as head coaches, with three of the meetings happening when the former was at Central Michigan and the latter was at Ball State.
Kelly brushed off that aspect of this year’s game, pointing to the fact that Hoke has different coordinators now than he did at Ball State, which Kelly said means more. (This came after Kelly joked that Hoke would easily defeat him in a wrestling match, since the Michigan coach is “as big as he’s ever been.”)
So like most games do, this year’s installment of the Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry will likely come down to the players, not the coaches. If recent history is any indication, the Irish will have their hands full.
“The only thing that comes to mind is we have not beaten them the last two years, for me,” Kelly said. “I wasn’t part of the other games. I know it’s a great clash. It’s Notre Dame, it’s Michigan, it’s great college football. But for me, we have not beaten them. That’s what I remember about this series.”