SOUTH BEND – After an excess of hype, nostalgic recollections of games past and obligatory comparisons between the two storied programs, Michigan and Notre Dame played an utterly forgettable game.

Paul Wong
David Horn, Tooting
my own

The renewal of this rivalry, dormant for two years, played more like a Conference USA game than one between the two winningest teams in college football history. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of watching Cincinnati and Texas Christian battle it out on ESPN2 on a Monday night, you’ve had the pleasure of watching a game plagued by penalties, turnovers, missed tackles and big plays allowed by missed defensive assignments. You’ve seen two teams that nobody should probably care about play a game that probably shouldn’t be on television.

That’s what I saw on Saturday in South Bend. The quality of play was simply not good enough for this rivalry game.

The great Michigan-Notre Dame games of the past have been just that: Great. The rivalry boasts of the closeness and competitiveness of its history – especially its recent history. But while Saturday’s game was close, it was far from competitive. It was two overrated teams, neither of which seemed to be intoxicated by the history or setting that should have buoyed their competitive spirit. One team played good enough to lose; its opponent did a better job losing.

Tyrone Willingham and Lloyd Carr are supposed to be the kind of coaches that don’t let games like Saturday’s happen. There were enough turnovers (eight), penalties (a combined 18 for 145 yards) and missed tackles (countless) to last a season. Both teams (and both team’s fans) believed the hype surrounding their respective 2-0 starts, and had inflated expectations entering the game; unfortunately neither’s was really burst. Notre Dame and its fans are talking about the Fiesta Bowl, which is too ridiculous to even comment on. Michigan players know they played sloppily and made costly mistakes, but, well, if my life had a rewind button, I’d have done things differently too.

“We didn’t do what we were coached to do,” captain linebacker Victor Hobson said. “When you’re playing a good team, you can’t make many mistakes, especially on the road, and the mistakes really hurt us in the long run.”

Almost every opportunity the Wolverines had to wrap up a tackle, they failed. Almost every offensive possession that needed to be prolonged was killed by a fumble. Almost every John Navarre catch that needed to be caught – especially in the game’s waning moments – was dropped. Flags flew with such ferocious frequency that there was more yellow than green in Notre Dame Stadium.

Michigan losing is excusable. Michigan losing because of sloppiness never is.

“When it came time to make certain plays, we didn’t make it,” safety Charles Drake said. “Being a defensive guy you take pride in making the right play at the right time, and that didn’t happen.”

Pride indeed.

It wasn’t unfair to expect that the Wolverines would be prepared, disciplined, focused or prideful. Nor was it unfair to expect that out of the Irish. It was Saturday in South Bend on national television, and ought to have been a model of what a great college football game should be. The mistakes that were made were inexcusable, and both teams are a long way from respectability, let alone greatness.

There are at least nine more years of Michigan-Notre Dame. Nevermind the bragging rights or the national rankings, and nevermind who wins or loses. Over the next nine years, let’s hope that these teams produce a game worth watching in the first place, and make the rivalry one worth renewing.

David Horn can be reached at hornd@umich.edu.

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