NCF Nation: Steve Stenstrom
September, 19, 2012
By Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com
Notre Dame has the perfect record, the home crowd, the prime-time stage and the more complete team, not to mention three years of frustrating losses as fuel.
Brian Kelly's squad is all set up to finally take down No. 18 Michigan.
There's only one problem: Denard Robinson. Every Notre Dame player, coach or fan will shudder when they see No. 16 in a winged helmet Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium. He's there to ruin their party.
When shamrocks face dreadlocks, dreadlocks win -- in unforgettable fashion.
Ever since Robinson took his first snap in a Michigan uniform -- a 43-yard touchdown run following a fumble in the 2009 opener -- he has been arguably the most exciting player in college football. More accomplished college stars don't have a highlight reel as extensive or as impressive as Robinson's. And no team has been Robinson's foil more than Notre Dame.
The Michigan senior quarterback has tormented Notre Dame the past two seasons.
In 2010, he set Michigan, Big Ten and Notre Dame records in rallying the Wolverines to a 28-24 victory in South Bend. Making his first career road start, Robinson shattered his own team total offense mark with 502 yards; set team records for total plays (68) and single-game road rushing (258 yards); recorded the fifth-highest rushing effort in Michigan history; set the Big Ten quarterback rushing record; recorded the longest run in Notre Dame Stadium history (an 87-yard scoring dash in the the second quarter) and the second-longest ever against the Irish (88 yards by Michigan State's Dick Panin in 1951); and set the single-game total offense record by a Notre Dame opponent.
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesLast season, Denard Robinson led Michigan's improbable comeback against Notre Dame.
Robinson also directed the game-winning drive (12 plays, 72 yards), which he of course capped with a 2-yard scoring run with 27 seconds left. Only three FBS quarterbacks had more yards in a game during the 2010 season than Robinson, and none faced a big-time opponent like Notre Dame.
His statistics against Notre Dame last September weren't quite as insane, although not far off (446 yards of total offense, 338 passing yards, 108 rushing yards, four passing touchdowns, one rushing touchdown). What stood out is that he did almost all of his work in the fourth quarter. Robinson completed only three of his first 13 pass attempts for 59 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions before firing a 77-yard pass to Junior Hemingway at the end of the third quarter.
"For three quarters," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said, "we did nothing on either side of the ball. Denard, in the fourth quarter, played well."
That's putting it mildly.
Robinson connected on 7 of 10 pass attempts for 202 yards and three touchdowns with one interception in the fourth quarter -- translating to a passer rating of 318.7 (he had 105.2 rating in the first three quarters). Robinson rallied Michigan from a 24-7 deficit entering the quarter and then from a 31-28 deficit in the closing seconds, finding Roy Roundtree from 16 yards out for the winning score with two ticks left.
"Man," Robinson said, "it was a great game."
Robinson wasn't available for an ESPN.com interview this week, and Michigan didn't spend much time discussing its recent triumphs against Notre Dame. Besides, it's hard for anyone -- Robinson, his coaches, his teammates -- to truly pinpoint why he has been so good against Notre Dame.
They'd just like it to continue Saturday night.
"It's interesting," offensive coordinator Al Borges said. "I don't know. He pretty much prepares the same way, from my perspective, for every game. He's just had good games against Notre Dame. ... I'm not sure why."
"I don't know if anybody knows [the reason]," Hoke said. "Every year's different, every game's different, the pieces that are on the field are different. It's just been lucky for us, lucky for Michigan, that he's played well."
"It just happened to be Notre Dame, as it should be when it is a big rivalry like that, that he performs his best," Wolverines wide receiver Devin Gardner said.
Not surprisingly, this week's scouting report for Notre Dame's defenders, who are coming off of a brilliant performance at Michigan State, was short and sweet.
"He's a superior football player," Kelly said Tuesday. "He's a difference-maker. ... It's about our defense not giving up those big, chunk plays. We gave them up in the running game in  and we gave them up in the passing game in ."
Robinson has Notre Dame's full attention.
"He's the best player on the field," Kelly said.
Robinson has played only two full games against Notre Dame -- he had 21 rushing yards and no passing yards against the Irish in 2009 -- but already owns the career record for total offense by an Irish opponent (969 yards). He needs four passing touchdowns to tie the record for most against Notre Dame held by former USC star Matt Leinart. He probably won't catch Tony Dorsett for the career rushing record against Notre Dame (754 yards) or Steve Stenstrom for the career passing record against the Irish (1,020 yards).
Still, his impact in the rivalry won't soon be forgotten, especially if he leads Michigan to a fourth consecutive win against the Irish on Saturday night.
"He'll play his best against us," Kelly said. "We're prepared for that."
WolverineNation's Michael Rothstein contributed to this report.