Will Robinson break Irish hearts again?

BY foxsports • September 18, 2012

This isn't Rivalry Week in Ann Arbor or South Bend.

For Notre Dame, that will always be Southern Cal, and the Wolverines worry first and foremost about "Ohio."

Both the Irish and Michigan also spend more time these days worrying about that school in East Lansing than they do on each other.

Still, it's Michigan vs. Notre Dame, and that's meant a lot special things over the past 125 years. Add in Notre Dame's 3-0 start and the possibility of Denard Robinson breaking Irish hearts with a third straight last-minute victory, and you have a game worthy of national attention.

"When you come to Michigan, you know there are three very special rivalries," tackle Taylor Lewan said. "There's Ohio State, there's Michigan State and there's Notre Dame. You come to Michigan to get a chance to play in those games."

The rivalry literally dates back to the beginning of Fighting Irish football. The first Notre Dame team was taught the game by visiting players from Ann Arbor, and, on Nov. 23, 1887, Michigan beat the Irish 8-0 in the school's first game.

Since then, the teams have split the highlights.

In 1991, Desmond Howard made THAT catch to preserve a 24-14 victory and win himself a Heisman Trophy.

Two years earlier, it was Rocket Ismail's pair of kickoff returns that beat the Wolverines 24-19 and made him into a superstar.

Reggie Brooks scored a touchdown while being knocked unconscious. Remy Hamilton made a game-winning field goal, but Mike Gillette missed his.

The Irish ruined Michigan's shot at a national title with a 35-12 win in 1943, and blew out the defending champions 36-20 in 1998.

In 1982, Michigan was the guest for the first night game at Notre Dame Stadium, and last year, the Irish played in the first game under the Big House's new lights.

Even Gerry Faust's one shining moment at Notre Dame — being ranked No. 1 in the country after beating LSU in his first game in 1981 — came to an end when Michigan routed the Irish 25-7 in Week 2.

The future of the rivalry is uncertain — Notre Dame might not have room on the schedule for Michigan because of the new agreement with the ACC — but there's now one player at the center of it now.

Two years ago, Robinson put up 502 yards of total offense, including the winning touchdown run with 27 seconds left in Michigan's 28-24 victory.

As a junior, he was at it again last season, helping the Wolverines come from behind twice in the fourth quarter to win 35-31 in the first night game at Michigan Stadium. Robinson had 446 yards of total offense in that game and accounted for all five Wolverines touchdowns.

"Denard isn't a great player — Denard is the best player on the field," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. "To beat Michigan, you have to find a way to contain him, and that's not easy when he can beat you in so many different ways."

Robinson hasn't changed — he put up 426 yards of offense in a win over Air Force and led the Wolverines to eight touchdowns in the 10 drives he played against Massachusetts — and both schools know that he's Michigan's only chance of knocking off the Irish.

For much of the game last season, it looked like Notre Dame had figured Robinson out — the Irish led 24-7 going into the fourth — and that concerns Michigan coach Brady Hoke.

"Well, they obviously have some answers," Hoke said. "For three quarters last year, they had answers because we didn't do anything offensively."

That's why Robinson, although he likely won't win a Heisman Trophy or be a high NFL draft pick, is so exciting. Teams know what he can do, game-plan to stop it and then watch him do something they have no way to stop.

Although UMass is nowhere near Notre Dame's level, the Minutemen got a taste of that on one play last weekend.

Robinson dropped back to pass, pump-faked twice and waited in vain for a receiver to get open. After several seconds, almost reluctantly, he tucked the ball under his arm and used his world-class speed to zigzag through the Minutemen defense for a 36-yard touchdown.

"I couldn't believe that play when he made it, and it was even better when we saw it on film," said Devin Gardner, Robinson's former backup who is now his top wide receiver. "He made one cut on that play that was a right angle. I've never seen anyone do that before.

"After that play, I told him that he's the best player that I've ever seen."

The stakes are even higher for Robinson's possible third straight showcase outing vs. the Irish. Notre Dame is looking for its first BCS bowl since the 2007 Sugar Bowl, and the Wolverines don't want to enter Big Ten play with losses to both Alabama and the Irish.

"We beat Michigan State on Saturday, and all of our kids got to spend Monday with everyone telling them how great they were," Kelly said. "I told them that I hope they enjoyed that because now we move forward.

"To accomplish the things we want to accomplish, we need to learn from what we've done, then forget about it. Now we focus on Michigan."

Focusing on Michigan means focusing on Robinson. He can be stopped — Alabama held him to 27 yards rushing in an easy Week 1 victory over the Wolverines — but it isn't something Notre Dame has come close to doing.

Saturday, under the lights and Touchdown Jesus, the Irish will get their last chance.

They think they're ready. So does Michigan.