This year on September 10th, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish will travel to the "Big House" to play the Michigan Wolverines in the first night game ever in Michigan Stadium history. Both teams will wear throwback jerseys in what will almost certainly be one of the most anticipated games of September. But is it really the most important game of the season for Notre Dame? In my opinion, it is without a doubt the most pivotal game on the schedule this year. Now let's examine the reasons why.
This prime-time game will feature a national television audience on ESPN, throwback (actually referred to as retro) jerseys, and two traditional superpowers battling it out at the largest stadium in the nation.
There will be tons of sub-plots, can Notre Dame prove that it's back? What will Brady Hoke's troops look like against a quality adversary? Will this game be decided in the final minutes for the third year in a row?
Leave no doubt about it, people will be watching and they will be interested.
Can Notre Dame Finally Win a "Statement" Game?
Let's assume that no major disaster befalls the Irish against South Florida and they come into this game most likely ranked in the top twenty. How many times have the Irish been in a "statement" game this decade and failed to pass the test? Depending on your definition of "statement", you would probably have to go back to 2002 (most likely the Sunshine State beatdown) to find a game where Notre Dame really flexed it's muscles on the big stage.
Since then, the Irish have simply failed to live to the billing in a crucial game, especially on the road. You could name quite a few examples (2005 USC and Fiesta Bowl, 2006 Michigan, 2008 Pittsburgh, 2010 Michigan State, etc...), but one stands out above the rest, and that's the game at the Big House in 2009.
Remember how dominant the Irish defense looked against a team that would end up leading the nation in rushing the week before (Nevada)? That same defense was gashed by Rich Rodriguez's spread option offense and Tate Forcier looked to be a Heisman contender. While Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate kept the Irish in it, the defense wilted when it came down to crunch time and we lost a heart-breaker against a team that had been repeatedly been referred to as "inferior" all throughout the previous week. It was here that Charlie Weis' foundation started to crumble and we all knew in the back of our minds that 2009 wouldn't be "the year".
This must be a game where the Irish come out firing on all cylinders and be ready to play because we all know that the past is too big of an indicator that if those two things don't happen, the 2011 season will be in a world of trouble.
Will the Irish Defense Prove That It's Back on a Big Stage?
Going back to the Irish defense, they were not only sliced up in 2009 against Michigan, but in 2010 as well when Denard Robinson ran a one-man show that torched the Irish for 502 yards and the game-winning touchdown.
However, Notre Dame did a decent job of containing the Wolverine offense in the second half of that game (only seven points in the last two quarters) and finished 2010 with one of the most dominant stretches in Notre Dame football history.
The big question is, will the defense that allowed only 10 points per game in the last five games of last year show up against Robinson and company?
This will be the first major test that the Irish defense will face in 2011 (sorry South Florida, but replacing 80% of your linemen ain't gonna fly against Te'o and Lynch). Brady Hoke's new offense involves placing Robinson under center and having him run much less while throwing more.
The question is, can the Irish defense fluster him and force him to make rookie mistakes? Judging from last year's performance against the second half of the schedule, the answer would be yes, but then again, you never know around "Shoelace". After so many failures on the big stage, can the Irish finally put together a dominant defensive performance against a quality offense?
Will the Irish Offense Take Advantage of Michigan's Defense?
Michigan's defense was absolutely horrific in 2010. There is no way to sugar coat it. Giving up about 35 points per game and almost 450 yards of offense is terrible for any team, but for Michigan it's downright embarrassing.
However, Brady Hoke made a masterful hire by bringing in Greg Mattison to rebuild a defense that ranked 110th last year in total defense (and Notre Dame fans thought finishing 86th in 2009 was bad). Mattison is a proven defensive mind who has coached some of the greatest defenses of the last decade in the NFL.
Notre Dame's 2010 offense was in a word, inconsistent. At times it seemed like nothing could derail the Irish offense while at others Dayne Crist was taking a sack or the offensive line would let Cierre Wood get dropped for a loss. However, there is a ton of potential for this year's offense with a year of Brian Kelly's spread under it's belt and playmakers all over the field seem ready to emerge.
Can the Irish finish what they started last year against the Wolverines? Dayne Crist was seemingly moving the ball at will against the admittedly awful Wolverines defense, but it was the snaps he didn't play due to an injury that cost the Irish the game in South Bend. If Notre Dame comes out firing under whomever the quarterback will be in the Big House like they did under Crist last year, a blowout may be in the making.
Where Will Notre Dame Go After This game?
This game will decide which direction the season will take. Should the Irish win, they will go into a showdown with Michigan State at Notre Dame Stadium in what will be two premier teams looking to improve to 3-0. A win there and then the hype will really skyrocket for this Irish team that will be bursting with confidence and looking for a BCS bowl invitation.
A loss would mean that Michigan will have won five of the last six meetings against the Irish and may make the difference between a great season or another average one. Notre Dame will have to get off on the right foot in order to have a shot at a BCS bowl (or...dare I say...a National Championship?) and the "Big Game at the Big House" will prove to be the perfect spotlight for the Irish to show the country that this is not the Notre Dame of Willingham or Weis. There is no room to overlook the Wolverines, who will be looking at this game the same exact way.
On the field in Ann Arbor against an ancient rival will be the time to prove that Notre Dame is back.