To the surprise of many, Notre Dame’s defense mostly has outshined coach Charlie Weis’ talent-laden offense. That could happen again if the Irish slow down Michigan’s Mike Hart.
That may be the biggest challenge facing second-ranked Notre Dame (2-0) heading into its showdown Saturday with the No. 11 Wolverines (2-0) at South Bend, Ind.
With Weis’ play calling and players considered to be among the nation’s best, the Irish offense was expected to lift the team back into national title contention. Though quarterback Brady Quinn and the rest of the offense have had their moments, the defense has stood out the most in wins over Georgia Tech and Penn State.
“The defensive coaches have done a nice job of mixing and matching things,” Weis said. “The players have taken on a responsibility if being consistently better.”
That unit will be put to the test by Hart, who is ranked seventh in Division I-A with 262 rushing yards behind a Michigan offensive line that may be among the nation’s best.
“When you play a team with the same amount of talent as you, it comes down to heart, drive and will,” said Hart, who is averaging 5.2 yards per carry and has scored three touchdowns. “That’s why we’ll find out what this team has.”
One reason for Hart’s early success is a new zone-blocking scheme implemented by offensive coordinator Mike DeBord, who held that position with the Wolverines from 1997-99 before being rehired this year.
Hart had 116 yards and three touchdowns on 19 carries in a 41-17 win over Central Michigan last Saturday after rushing for 146 yards on 31 carries in a 27-7 season-opening victory over Vanderbilt. Michigan is 11-1 when the junior has at least 100 rushing yards.
Hart’s recovery from an ankle injury from late last season could help him draw closer to his freshman performance, when he had 1,455 yards and nine touchdowns. He was limited to 662 yards and four touchdowns in eight games last year.
The Wolverines were without Hart for the final three quarters of last year’s 17-10 home loss to Notre Dame due to a hamstring injury. He had only four yards on three carries in that defeat, one year after having just 17 on five attempts in a 28-20 loss at South Bend.
While Notre Dame is seeking its third straight win over Michigan, it is looking to improve to 3-0 for the first time since 2002.
Carr is winless in three trips to South Bend since becoming Michigan coach, and 3-4 overall against the Irish.
“We want to make a statement that we’re not the team from last year,” Wolverines defensive tackle Alan Branch said of last year’s 7-5 season that was their worst finish since a 6-6 showing in 1984.
The Irish defense has demonstrated a difference after allowing a single-game school record of 617 total yards in last year’s Fiesta Bowl. Notre Dame has yielded 642 through two games this season, and 172 of those came in the fourth quarter after the outcome was decided in a 41-17 win over then-No. 19 Penn State last Saturday.
That was the first of four straight games against Big Ten opponents for the Irish, who led 27-0 with 13:58 left in the third quarter after safety Tom Zbikowski’s 25-yard fumble return for a score.
“If we keep making plays and keep getting turnovers,” Zbikowski said, “we’ll develop into a pretty good defense.”
Notre Dame’s offense already was established with Quinn, tailback Darius Walker and receiver Jeff Samardzija returning.
The Irish offense struggled to score in the opener, but closed with the final 14 points in a 14-10 win on Sept. 2 at Georgia Tech. Quinn threw for 246 yards on 23-for-38 passing and Walker added 99 yards with a touchdown on 22 carries, but the Irish fell two spots to No. 4 in The Associated Press poll.
Quinn ended a 10-quarter drought in which he had not thrown a touchdown pass by completing 12-of-18 for 150 yards and two TDs in last Saturday’s 17-0 second quarter. He finished 25-for-36 for 287 yards and three scores, each to a different receiver.
Samardzija was among four Irish players who had at least five catches and 50 receiving yards.
Walker looks for a third straight 100-yard performance against Michigan after having 104 yards on 26 attempts last season and 115 yards and two scores on 31 carries in 2004.
Michigan junior Chad Henne, a three-year starter like Quinn, has completed 21 of 41 passes for 248 yards and two touchdowns this season.
In last year’s meeting, Henne threw four incompletions after Michigan started its final possession on its 42-yard line with 2:11 to play. It was the 11th time in 14 meetings since 1988 the margin was fewer than nine points.
Michigan (851) and Notre Dame (813) are the all-time Division I-A win leaders. The Wolverines lead the series 18-14-1.
“I tell our team, in a game like this, one of the fun things about it is all the hype and attention,” Carr said. “It will be nonstop. That’s part of the fun of it, but it’s also a part you have to deal with.”