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Thursday, September 14, 2006

Wolverines Looking To Make A Statement

When you own the most victories in college football history, the highest winning percentage, the most distinctive helmet and the best fight song, you're not typically burdened with statement games.

But sometimes, not even an NCAA-record 31 straight bowl bids, 11 national titles or three Heisman Trophies are enough.

Mike Hart is averaging 5.2 yards per carry in 2006.And right now, they are not enough for Michigan.

Not this season, and definitely not this week.

The Wolverines (2-0) will most assuredly make a statement Saturday at Notre Dame (2-0).

The only question is, will that statement be, "We're back," or will it be, "Never mind."

Oh, Michigan won't fall from the polls and it won't be eliminated from Big Ten championship contention with a loss in South Bend. But after failing to escape September unbeaten since 1999, it's clearly time for Michigan to say something other than "Uncle" in its first major nonconference test.

"We're not just playing Central Michigan; we're not just playing Vanderbilt," Michigan tailback Mike Hart said, listing the Wolverines' victims so far. "It's a game, but there's a lot on the line."

What's not on the line in Saturday's meeting at Notre Dame Stadium is respect.

Michigan has that, because of its tradition, because of its talent and because it's not likely to finish below second in a (beyond No. 1 Ohio State) woefully weak Big Ten.

What this is about for the Winged Helmets is legitimacy.

Are the Wolverines all the way back from their 7-5 swoon of last season, when they lost a fourth-quarter lead four times?

Or are they bound for another disappointing finish on par with the eight straight seasons that have followed Michigan's last national championship in 1997?

Since then, Michigan has gone 73-26.

That .737 winning percentage looks great, but there have been no unbeaten or once-beaten seasons in there, and only one two-loss campaign.

In the current BCS-blight of a system, that won't get you a national championship. It won't even get you a role in the drama beyond an occasional gig as a warm-up act in some other no-one-cares BCS bowl to whet appetites for the title game.

Michigan has always been about loftier goals than that, which is why it heads for South Bend with more to avenge than a losing streak there that dates to 1994.

Chad Henne and the Wolverines can make a statement on Saturday."We want to make a statement that we're not the team from last year," defensive tackle Alan Branch said.

There would be some serendipity to the Wolverines' winning at Notre Dame, since the Fighting Irish seized upon their trip to Ann Arbor last season to accomplish the very thing Michigan now craves.

That 17-10 victory at The Big House brought a legion of converts to the opinion that Charlie Weis was the right choice to champion Notre Dame's rebirth.

Lloyd Carr won't confess to desiring such a seal of approval, partly because he's won enough big games to be secure in his abilities, and partly because he knows he has the administrative support to coach as long as he wants.

But a man as proud as Carr knows it's a lot easier to walk in the legendary footsteps of Fielding Yost and Bo Schembechler if 106,000 maize-and-blue critics aren't riding your back every home game.

"In a game like this, one of the fun things about it is all the hype and attention," Carr said. "It will be nonstop. That's part of the fun, but it's also a part you have to deal with. You want to go in a positive frame of mind, focused on the things you need to do as a player and a coach to help your team win."

For Michigan, those things include a continuation of the rushing success it's enjoyed offensively and the defensive dominance it's displayed rushing the passer.

But even those things might not be enough if quarterback Chad Henne can't shake whatever has held him to 135 and 113 passing yards against Vanderbilt and Central Michigan defenses far less talented than Notre Dame's.

"This proves how good a team you really are," Hart said. "When Notre Dame beats Michigan, they have a great year. When Michigan beats Notre Dame, they have a great year. It says a lot about how good your team is and what you're going to do the rest of the year. I think we're a good team. But to come to Notre Dame, you're going to find out how good you really are."


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