Sixty-three minutes before the Michigan-Notre Dame kickoff last Saturday in Ann Arbor, Wolverine Coach Bo Schembechler strode into a room beneath the packed stands of Michigan Stadium. That room, too, was packed—with high school football stars Bo hopes will be wearing maize and blue in future years. Curtly, the 52-year-old coach said, "I hope you enjoy the game, because this is what college football is all about." Then he paused and somberly delivered his exit line: "Our backs are kind of to the wall."
Kind of? Listen, Bo, when you start the season ranked No. 1, then get upset by Wisconsin in your opener, and now have the new No. 1 team in both wire service polls, Notre Dame, staring you in the face, your back's not only to the wall, but your reputation is on the line. Tell it like it is.
Complicating matters for Michigan was the fact that the Irish seemed to have a hex on the Wolverines, having defeated them by two points in 1979 and by the same margin last year. Also, those Irish victors were supposed to have been dull teams with a dull coach, Dan Devine, while the 1981 Irish had showed in their opening-game rout of L.S.U. that they would be an exciting, wide-open team under their enthusiastic new coach from the high school ranks, Gerry Faust.
So, what happened? Well, Michigan won 25-7, before a crowd of 105,888, third-largest in Michigan history, but we're not just talking victory here. We are talking annihilation, dismantling, demolition and abject demoralization. For example, Notre Dame went from midway in the second quarter to early in the fourth between first downs. Michigan generated 407 yards of offense to 213 for the Irish. In truth, the game wasn't nearly as close as the score indicated.
Fans with short attention spans could have learned all they needed to know by watching the game's first series of plays. The very first play was the key to the entire rout. Michigan Quarterback Steve Smith, who admits he was terrible in the 21-14 loss to Wisconsin—the stats (he completed six of 18 passes, three to Michigan players, three to Wisconsin players) back him up—ran right on a keeper, ducked inside and cut up the field for 26 delicious yards. If ever a young man needed success immediately, Smith did.
And when Smith, a sophomore who saw action in only three games last season, jumped up after finally being tackled on his own 38, he had the look of a man high on success.
Had the Irish been able to stop him, the rest of the game might well have had a different look. Notre Dame Defensive Coordinator Jim Johnson confessed, "We felt we could destroy Smith's confidence after what happened at Wisconsin. But we couldn't. Today, they played like a No. 1 team."
Then, one-two-three plays in a row, Tailback Butch Woolfolk stung the Irish defense, running for a total of 24 yards. Smith, with his newfound confidence, rolled left for eight yards and Woolfolk struck for 15 more (he finished with 139 for the day). The point wasn't that Michigan was moving the ball, but that it was doing it easily. It seemed not a question of whether the Wolverines would score, but when and how often. As it turned out, Michigan did fail to score on that opening drive when Ali Haji-Sheikh missed a 31-yard field-goal try. But Michigan had left its calling card with the Notre Dame defense, and would be back knocking again soon. Insistently. Oh yes, and the Wolverines had done all this without their game-breaker, Flanker Anthony Carter, catching a single pass.
All of which made Woolfolk's observation of last summer seem 100% prophetic: "Our passing game should be elite and our running game superb. I don't understand how we can be stopped." Tackling, of course, would have been one way to stop Michigan, but Notre Dame couldn't handle the vengeful blocking of Michigan's massive offensive line. The smallest member of that front is 6'1", 230-pound sophomore Center Tom Dixon, while the rest—tackles Ed Muransky and Bubba Paris, guards Kurt Becker and Stefan Humphries—average 6'5", 260.
The further significance of Michigan's first offensive series was to cast in concrete the fears Faust had expressed while sitting in his motel room late on the eve of the game. "Great football teams have the ability to rebound," he said. In that first series, Faust—and everyone else—could tell that Michigan had rebounded. Credit that to Bo.