It's been 10 years since the Notre Dame Fighting Irish have started a season this well. To stay undefeated, they'll have to find a way to beat one of the biggest thorns in their side – Denard Robinson and the Michigan Wolverines.
The No. 11 Fighting Irish seek their first 4-0 start since 2002 when they host the 18th-ranked Wolverines on Saturday night.
The Irish – who won their first eight games in 2002 – have allowed just 30 points in three games, including a stellar defensive performance in a 20-3 upset at then-No. 10 Michigan State last Saturday. Notre Dame has its highest ranking since also being 11th before a loss to LSU in the Sugar Bowl following the 2006 season.
"You want your team with confidence and you want people to talk about your team in the sense that this is a big game," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "Those are the kind of things that coaches want to try to balance. Because if you don't have confidence and nobody cares, that's not a good place to be. These are the dynamics that come with building a program."
If the Irish (3-0) are going to climb into the Top 10, they'll have to find a way to beat the Wolverines, who have won three in a row and five six in the series. And in a game that always seems to come down to the final possession, Robinson and the Wolverines (2-1) have gotten the last laugh his entire career, winning each game the past three seasons by a combined 12 points.
Robinson was a backup his freshman year in 2009, when Tate Forcier threw a touchdown pass with 11 seconds left to lead Michigan to a 38-34 victory. Robinson became the starter in 2010, when he set a school record with 502 yards of total offense and scored on a touchdown run with 27 seconds left to lead Michigan to a 28-24 win.
Last season, there were 2 seconds on the clock when Robinson threw a touchdown pass to cap a furious Michigan rally and give the Wolverines a 35-31 victory. Michigan scored 28 fourth-quarter points to rally from a 24-7 deficit.
"He's a superior football player. He is a difference maker," Kelly said of Robinson. "We have to find a way to limit big chunk plays, just like we have the first few weeks. It's about our defense not giving up those big, chunk plays. We gave them up in the running game in year one and we gave them up in the passing game in year two."
Robinson needs just 191 yards to pass Chad Henne and become Michigan's all-time career total offensive yardage leader. Henne racked up 9,400 yards from 2004-07. Robinson had 397 yards of total offense in a 63-13 win over Massachusetts last week. The big victory continued Michigan's progress back from its crushing 41-14 loss to Alabama in the season opener.
In particular, the offensive line has showed improvement, which bodes well for the Wolverines, who face another tough defensive front against the Irish.
"To see how far we've come from Game 1 to Game 4 is exciting," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "There's no question that it's going to be a test.
"They have been very productive as a football team and as a defensive team. We'll have to block at the line of scrimmage and need to do a great job of protection."
Notre Dame suffered a big loss Saturday when starting safety Jamoris Slaughter tore his left Achilles tendon in the win over Michigan State. Still, the defense is off to its best start since 1988, when the team allowed 27 points over the first three games en route to the school's last national championship.
"The most important thing is our defense continues to be the group that we committed to in building when we started this process," Kelly said. "They are starting to get to that level where they can play with anybody."
This is the second of four ranked opponents Notre Dame will play in a six-game stretch. The Irish face No. 9 Stanford and No. 6 Oklahoma in October.
Michigan leads the all-time series 23-15-1.