SOUTH BEND — Though it was a matchup between the two winningest programs in college football history, this year’s installment of Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry offered none of the usual glamour.

Without high national rankings or marquee bowl-game hopes, Saturday’s game between the Wolverines and the Fighting Irish was primarily a battle for self-respect.

Notre Dame’s senior linebacker Maurice Crum Jr. flat-out said that’s what his team was playing for during the traditional campus pep rally the night before the game.

Former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz and his 1988 National Championship team were at the pep rally, too. But the next day it was this year’s version of the Fighting Irish that made a statement.

“Today was not Lou, it was not the ’88 team, it was those guys in that locker room stepping up and earning the respect that Mo Crum was talking about last night at the pep rally,” Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said. “I think you had a bunch of guys right there that stepped up and said, ‘We want to make a statement that Notre Dame is not just some garbage school out there that everyone can just crap on all the time.’ ”

Notre Dame thrashed Michigan on Saturday and earned respect by capitalizing on turnovers, committing fewer penalties than the Wolverines and executing on big plays.

The Fighting Irish were on the field Saturday to make a statement to the entire college football world.

“It feels great,” Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen said after the game. “I was talking to a bunch of guys before the game, I said, ‘Remember what we felt like last year? That’s never going to happen again.’ ”

Now, Michigan must have a sense of how Clausen and his teammates felt after losing 38-0 last year at the Big House.

As a team with a lot of doubters, the Wolverines knew they were playing for some respect on Saturday, too.

But you don’t earn respect by turning the ball over six times. You don’t earn respect by committing twice as many penalties as your opponent. You definitely don’t earn respect when one of your most veteran players on offense — junior tight end Carson Butler — gets ejected from the game for an egregious personal foul with the result of the game already decided.

So now the questions that have been directed toward at Notre Dame for almost three years will shift to the staff at Schembechler Hall.

Is Michigan still a premier college football program? Will the bowl game streak stay alive? Who’s to blame?

Michigan led Notre Dame in total offense, in time of possession and in first downs, but it was a failure of fundamental football — winning the turnover battle, committing fewer penalties than the other team — that doomed Michigan this week and that’s a bad sign because it’s something that inexperience can’t explain.

Shifting from a pro-style offense to a spread scheme doesn’t explain fumbling three times in the first five minutes of the game, including on each of Notre Dame’s first two kickoffs. But that’s just what Michigan did, giving Notre Dame such a short field that even the supposedly inept Irish offense couldn’t help but put up 14 points.

A new defensive coaching staff doesn’t excuse the safety with deep responsibilities biting on a play-action fake. But that’s just what happened to junior safety Stevie Brown on a 48-yard touchdown from Jimmy Clausen to Golden Tate in the second quarter.

Rich Rodriguez and his staff will have a winning program soon enough, but after the game, he made an unsolicited statement that should give fans some pause.

“Michigan football will be back,” Rodriguez said. “All the naysayers out there, whatever. I’m disappointed but I’m not discouraged. Michigan football will be back.”

Now that Michigan’s head coach has acknowledged his team’s fall from whatever pinnacle historically strong programs perch on, it’s time for the Wolverines to refocus their season on gaining back what they’ve lost: Respect.

— Sandals can be reached at

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