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Michigan savors rekindling of Notre Dame rivalry

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — They have iconic stadiums, uniforms, fight songs, and college football traditions that run deep.

And yet, “natural” rivals, Michigan and Notre Dame,  have played only 42 times and haven’t met since 2014. The 12th-ranked Wolverines and No. 14 Notre Dame will open their seasons Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium in the first of a two-season series.

Devin Gardner (98) of the Michigan is sacked by Romeo Okwara (45) of the Notre Dame when the teams last met September 2014 in  at Notre Dame Stadium where the Fighting Irish won 31-0.

Wolverines fans probably have erased all memories of the last meeting in the series, a 31-0 rout, in South Bend.

“I know they might have been scared last time,” Michigan senior defensive end Chase Winovich said with a straight face referring to the Irish. Then he smiled. “That was just a joke. Just a joke.”

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Michigan’s annual rivals, obviously, are Michigan State and Ohio State, and, ironically, all three rivalry games are on the road this season. But the Michigan players are thrilled about the chance to play in Notre Dame Stadium.

“I’m happy it got renewed,” Winovich said. “This is a great opportunity. It’s cool for me, two reasons, one because I was on the scout team (in 2014). That was one of my first experiences at Michigan, getting beat pretty bad by Notre Dame, and I don’t intend that to be one of my last experiences at Michigan.”

It is the proverbial measuring-stick game to open the season. In many ways, the teams are similar on offense and defense, and the matchup typically has yielded some of the most interesting games and finishes.

Michigan is coming off an 8-5 season and coach Jim Harbaugh made changes to his offensive staff, added new strength coach Ben Herbert, and quarterback Shea Patterson transferred from Ole Miss and won the starting job.

The Wolverines know they have a potentially special defense, and they’re looking for Patterson to help the offense regain some balance and narrow the gap. This opener at Notre Dame on a big stage in primetime and with ESPN’s College GameDay on site is exactly what the Wolverines want.

“It brings a lot of juice,” safety co-captain Tyree Kinnel said. “Obviously, we want to win the opener and start the season off really well. Knowing it’s Notre Dame, knowing it’s a rivalry we’ve never been a part of. We want to go beat them in South Bend. It’s a great way to start the season to go beat them.”

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That the teams have resumed the series is a credit to Harbaugh and Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, who started discussing the possibility in 2015. The series had ended with the 2014 game.

Former Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said he received a letter from Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick while in South Bend for the game in 2012, indicating the Irish wanted to opt out of the contract after three games.

Three years ago, then-Michigan athletic director Jim Hackett said he wanted to see Michigan and Notre Dame playing each other again.

“That’s a rivalry that should be restored and is destined to have that happen,” Hackett said in 2015.

“The challenge isn’t, frankly what I think or what (Notre Dame athletic director) Jack (Swarbrick) thinks at Notre Dame, it’s now making the schedules work.

Kelly and Harbaugh started the conversations over the phone about renewing.

"There was never any bad blood,” Harbaugh said at Big Ten media days. “No one had ever discussed that, that I was aware of. You just move forward and schedule the games."

Kelly said his players have been looking forward to this game since the beginning of the year.

“We had some guys here in 2014 that did in fact play them,” Kelly told reporters. “So it's not a distant memory from that perspective. And again, there's a lot of guys that are on our team that are from Michigan, that are aware of them. But they know the University of Michigan and its tradition certainly. So I just think that from a player' standpoint, this gets their attention. They knew who they were playing back in January as they prepared for the game. So it just heightens the excitement that they're playing a marquee game right out of the gates.”

Harbaugh would like the teams to play every year.

“It makes a lot of sense,” Harbaugh said this week. “Feel good about renewing the rivalry. Feel good about being in game week. Feel good about starting the season.

Kinnel also thinks Michigan and Notre Dame should be a regular occurrence.

“I watched the rivalry games growing up,” he said. “It was always a special game for me. I think it should be played every year.”

The players have deep respect for each other.

“They’re a great football team,” Winovich said during Big Ten media days. “They want to win just as bad as we do. Just as much as anything, it’s playing at their place. I’m not saying anything nobody here doesn’t know, Michigan’s hasn’t been very good on the road in recent years. There are problems, good or bad we’re going to have to face. It presents a totally unique challenge. It’s something that I really look forward to coming together as a team and attempting to conquer them in a way on the football field.”

Tight end Zach Gentry said he can’t wait to play the Irish.

“It’s time we go down there and get a win,” he said.

While the Wolverines discuss how much they love playing at home at Michigan Stadium, Notre Dame Stadium is one of those venues college players want to say they played in.

“Everyone says we have this tough, hardest schedule, which we do,” Bredeson said. “We have one of the hardest schedules in the country, but really it’s exciting because we get to play in how many legendary college stadiums and the atmosphere there is always incredible.

“Going into Notre Dame at night on the road, it’s going to be a challenging environment for sure, but it will also be exciting for us. We feed off energy whether it’s positive or negative. I think we’ll respond well there.”



Michigan at Notre Dame

What: Season opener for both teams

When: 7:30 Saturday, Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Ind.

TV/radio: NBC/950

Line: Notre Dame by 1