A football game contains a multitude of moving parts, and its outcome can be decided by hundreds of little things that can go right or wrong for either side.
But sometimes, the result has a very simple explanation. That's the case for the last two games between Michigan and Notre Dame. On the most basic level, the Wolverines just had the best player on the field performing heroic acts, and he happened to playing quarterback.
In 2009, Michigan rallied from an early deficit on the strength of Tate Forcier, who threw for 240 yards and ran for another 70. He led the game-winning touchdown drive, throwing for the deciding score with 11 seconds remaining.
That was merely a warm-up for last year's razzle-dazzle by Denard Robinson, who posted 502 total yards in South Bend, including an 87-yard touchdown run. He also led a game-winning drive, running it in with 27 seconds left for a 28-24 victory.
"The whole game was crazy," Robinson said this week. "I enjoyed the whole thing."
So did Wolverines fans. But the question this week, as the two teams reunite under the lights at the Big House, is if Michigan can again get that kind of performance out of its quarterback in its new offensive system. And can it beat Notre Dame without such heroics?
Robinson had a quiet game in the season-opening win against Western Michigan last week, throwing for only 98 yards and running for 46 with no scores. But the game was called off before the third quarter even ended.
"We only ran 39 plays," center David Molk said. "Last year, that was barely half a game for us."
Even in a shortened game, though, the Wolverines liked what they saw out of their backfield guys not named Robinson. Running backs Fitz Toussaint and Michael Shaw combined to gain 134 yards on just 15 carries and scored three times while ripping off a few long dashes. That kind of production from the tailbacks wasn't there last year and gives this offense another dimension.
Could that rushing game help beat Notre Dame even without a huge day from Robinson?
"I know a lot of people this year are going to key on Denard, and there's nothing better to counteract that than a really good run game," Molk said. "We're not going to line up without a quarterback on the field, but at the same time our offense is going to play out like it's going to play out. Either our running backs are going to get a lot of yards, or Denard's going to get a lot of yards. Either way, we're looking forward to getting a good offensive push and a lot of points on the board."
Notre Dame's defense wasn't to blame for the team's 23-20 loss to South Florida last week, as the Irish gave up only 254 total yards and 3.5 yards per play. That defense has improved greatly since last year's game in South Bend, and the memories of Robinson's one-man destruction remain fresh in the Golden Domers' domes.
"Last year, Denard had too many big plays against our defense," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said this week. "So we'll be looking for answers towards keeping him in that realm where he doesn't take over the game."
One of the major storylines for Michigan going into this season was how Robinson would adjust to new offensive coordinator Al Borges' schemes. The answer was inconclusive after a shorter-than-expected Week 1.
"I thought he managed the offense very well for the first time out," Borges said of Robinson. "He didn't create the big plays he's used to, but our tailbacks did. As long as somebody does, we'll be fine. You'll see that part of his game surface eventually."
Maybe this is the week Robinson breaks out with one of his memorable performances. If not, the Wolverines will have to prove they can win this game without a heroic effort from their quarterback. If that happens, it may be the best sign of progress for this program.