66F Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, MI
Brian Kelly got a lot of attention on Sunday for saying he didn't think of Michigan as one of Notre Dame's traditional rivals, a statement he backed off a few days later.
Regardless of how Kelly views the series history, his team's trips to Ann Arbor are about to become a thing of the past.
With two of college football's giants unable to agree upon a schedule beyond 2014, the 14th-ranked Fighting Irish will make their last visit to The Big House for the foreseeable future Saturday night to face the No. 17 Wolverines.
Notre Dame (1-0) canceled its scheduled dates with Michigan (1-0) from 2015-17, something the school claimed was a result of its five-games-per-year entrance into the ACC starting in 2014. The Wolverines made it clear that the Irish were solely responsible for the at-least-temporary end to the series, which began in 1887 and has been played annually since 2002.
Coach Brady Hoke took things a bit further in May by telling a Grand Rapids luncheon panel that Notre Dame was "chickening out of" the rivalry.
Kelly, it seems, has some reservations about just how much of a rivalry there is. On Sunday, he referred to it as a "big regional game" before changing his tune Tuesday, calling it "a great and historic rivalry."
Some saw Kelly's remarks Sunday as the return salvo for Hoke's defensiveness in May, but Kelly didn't see it that way.
"He's never been one to show disrespect to anybody or anything," Kelly said of Hoke. "It's really, for me, about two programs that share a border, that it makes sense to play. I get that. It's just there's so many complexities with our schedule and our agreement with the ACC that it's difficult and frustrating. I can see the frustration that would be there."
As for Kelly's thoughts on whether a series Michigan leads 23-16-1 is a rivalry, Hoke had his own thoughts Monday.
"He speaks for Notre Dame, and I speak for Michigan," Hoke said. "Maybe they don't consider it a big rivalry, but we do. This is a game that started in 1887, and we've won 904 games and they are pretty close behind, so you are talking about two of the great programs in the history of the sport."
Notre Dame won 13-6 last season in South Bend while forcing six turnovers, but the Wolverines have won three straight at home in the series - including a 35-31 thriller two years ago that was the first night game at Michigan Stadium.
Saturday's contest will be the first under the lights in Ann Arbor since, and Michigan players said that along with the break in the series will add to the intensity.
"That's going to be huge," right tackle Michael Schofield said. "That's going to add to the atmosphere."
Irish players said they always look forward to the game.
"It's always a good game and they're always a good team," linebacker Dan Fox said.
Kelly said he doesn't believe playing at Michigan for the last time in a while adds anything extra for players.
"They really don't need any more motivation. There's going to be over 100,000 people and it's a very electric atmosphere. They're not going to need any more motivation other than the team that they're going to be playing against Saturday. That will be enough."
The two programs with the highest winning percentages in college football history - Michigan (.735) has a slight lead on the Irish (.734) - certainly weren't caught looking ahead. The Wolverines racked up 242 yards on the ground in a 59-9 win over Central Michigan despite having new starters at each of their three interior line positions.
"Jack (Miller), Graham (Glasgow) and Kyle (Kalis) - we told them that they did a nice job last week, but it gets a little tougher this week," Hoke said Monday. "No disrespect to Central, but Notre Dame has some big guys up front who have played a lot of snaps. They line up in an odd front, so Jack's going to have a big guy directly on him, and they are really active. It's going to be a much bigger test."
Notre Dame beat Temple 28-6, racking up 543 yards of offense as Tommy Rees looked sharp. The senior threw for 346 yards and three touchdowns against the Owls in his first game since regaining the starting job due to Everett Golson's ineligibility.
"One of the questions coming in was: `Can we push the ball downfield?' I think we answered a lot of those questions right away with his ability to push the ball downfield. I think his patience was better and it will continue to get better," Kelly said.
Rees was the starter at Michigan Stadium in 2011, going 27 of 39 for 315 yards with three TDs. The Irish led by 17 in the fourth quarter before the defense coughed up the lead, but Rees had three turnovers - two of which came in the red zone.
"I think any time that you put a veteran quarterback in that situation, it has a calming effect to everybody because he's been through it," Kelly said. "There's no question that that's going to help in this instance."
Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner's only previous experience against the Irish came when he had three receptions for 40 yards in last season's loss. Gardner threw two interceptions last week against Central Michigan but had three TDs - two on the ground.
The backfield behind him, however, took a hit. Redshirt freshman running back Drake Johnson tore his ACL against the Chippewas after being listed as the No. 2 tailback on the Michigan depth chart.
Highly touted freshman Derrick Green, who rushed for 58 yards and a touchdown in his first game, will now move up to the No. 2 spot behind starter Fitzgerald Toussaint.