Commentary

Michigan-ND rivalry's best games

No. 4: QB Leach's unexpected but inspirational halftime speech spurs victory

Updated: September 9, 2011, 2:31 PM ET
By Michael Rothstein | WolverineNation

The Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry is one of the biggest and oldest in college football. Michigan played Notre Dame in the Irish's first football game in 1887, and, with some breaks in the middle, the teams have been rivals since.

"This is important," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "This has always been a game where you get, for both teams, I remember Coach [Bo] Schembechler talking about this, it's a game where you get a gauge of where you are at as a team.

"It's always been in the national spotlight and gives you expectations of how your guys are going to play."

Now, WolverineNation looks at the top five Michigan-Notre Dame games of the modern era leading up to Saturday's matchup at 8 p.m. at Michigan Stadium.

Date: Sept. 23, 1978

Result:: No. 5 Michigan 28, No. 14 Notre Dame 14

[+] EnlargeJoe Montana 1978
Tony Tomsic/Getty ImagesJoe Montana may have gone on to NFL greatness, but he and the Notre Dame offense could muster only 14 points against Michigan when they met in 1978.
What happened: They hadn't played in a generation, 35 years separating the last Notre Dame-Michigan game in 1943 and the next one in 1978. Children had become parents, parents grandparents.

In between the matchups both teams were in the midst of resurgences -- Notre Dame under Ara Parseghian and then his successor, Dan Devine, and Michigan with its most iconic coach, Bo Schembechler.

It was Notre Dame, though, that had won the national title in 1977, led by a spry quarterback named Joe Montana. But the Irish had dropped their season opener before the matchup in South Bend, falling 3-0 to Missouri.

It didn't matter. Michigan's players had been waiting literally a lifetime to play this game.

"It was a big deal just the fact that we were restarting the tradition again," then-Michigan captain Jerry Meter said. "Let's face it, whether you're a fan of Notre Dame's or not, going into the stadium, seeing the gold helmets and packed house, back then it was only like 55,000-60,000. It was one of the highlights of the opportunity I had playing at Michigan.

"It was that special."

The game lived up to it.

Both Meter and defensive back Mark Braman remember the stadium being as loud as any place they ever played. And it stayed that way throughout the first half, as Notre Dame took a 14-7 lead.

Halftime changed the game -- and perhaps Michigan's season. In a rare change, Meter and Braman both said quarterback Rick Leach stood up next to Schembechler, who was standing on a bench, and gave a quick, passionate halftime rallying cry just before the team took the field in the second half.

Thirty-three years have fogged the exact words of the speech, but the message was simple: Michigan was going to come back and win.

"Very rarely did you have any player stand up in front of the team during a halftime speech that I've been involved in and do what Rick did," Meter said. "It was not only what Rick did at halftime but going out and doing it was a big, big deal."

Leach led Michigan back in the second half.

In the third quarter, Leach hit receiver Doug Marsh for a floating touchdown pass to tie the game at 14.

Marsh also caught the game-winner -- a 17-yard strike from Leach to give Michigan a 20-14 lead in the fourth quarter. For the game, Leach completed 8 of 20 passes for 110 yards and three touchdowns.

And the Wolverines completely took over. Michael Harden and Meter also had critical interceptions of Montana to seal the win.

""Bo opened it up a little bit," defensive lineman Dale Keitz said. "[Notre Dame] had to play from behind and I just think we had, knock on wood, really good defense and a lot of good players that were starting for their second year.

"I think we were the better team."

Significance to season: For the Irish, it wasn't how they anticipated their national title defense starting. Notre Dame dropped to 0-2, but rebounded to win eight games in a row before dropping the last game of the regular season at USC.

For Notre Dame, that season is best remembered for the Montana "Chicken Soup Game" in the Cotton Bowl. Montana had the flu, ate some chicken soup at halftime, and led the Irish back to a 35-34 win over Houston on Jan. 1, 1979, to finish the year 9-3.

The year turned out well at Michigan, too.

The Wolverines lost just once in the regular season, to in-state rival Michigan State, en route to a share of the Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl appearance. Michigan lost to USC, 17-10, in the Rose Bowl and finished the year 10-2 with a No. 5 ranking.

"It was a really big game," Braman said. "It kept us on course to win the Big Ten, to win the national championship, which was our goal, our goal every year.

"That win early in the season gives you a lot of confidence because it is such a big game, and it gave us a lot of confidence going forward in our schedule."

Historical significance: The game started an almost yearly revival of one of the Midwest's best rivalries. Most of the players on both teams know each other because of their Midwest roots.

But this particular game, for the Michigan players, stood out because of what Montana did after he left Notre Dame.

"It's always a game you talk about because your kids know who Joe Montana is, your friends do," Braman said. "It's like, 'You played against Joe Montana? what was he like?' And it was bragging rights. The biggest Notre Dame game of our career as players was playing Joe Montana, and we beat him."

They said it: "For Rick to stand up and take the lead at halftime was a really big deal," Braman said. "Bo had tremendous respect for Rick, and all of us did, frankly. He was the right guy at the right time. I'll never forget that."

Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. He can be reached at michaelrothsteinespn@gmail.com or on Twitter @mikerothstein.

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