Thursday, September 5, 2013

One More Time

If you had not heard by now, tucked away in a bubble impervious to news: Michigan will take on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish this Saturday in the Big House for the last time in some time.

I highly doubt it will be the last time ever, but given the nature of this series, it is probably unwise to assume a resumption of the series (after it officially ends next season in South Bend, of course) in the near future.

Brian Kelly and Brady Hoke have traded "barbs" (or what amounts to that in the stultifying coachspeakverse of 2013) over the last week with respect to the status of the rivalry. Michigan vs. Notre Dame: is it all it's cracked up to be? I don't know if Kelly (or Notre Dame fans) believes what he said, but I'm not sure it matters. As always, words obfuscate, distort and distract; they are a flock of birds fleeing a loud crash in unison. You look and see the birds, forgetting about the sound at all. It is as if it never happened.

The 2007 game, during my freshman year at Michigan, was my first live, in-person experience of the rivalry. The day was a grim, forgettable one. Michigan was Henne-less, but Notre Dame was overmatched, even against a Michigan team that had just lost two games in a row, extinguishing the expectant fire of its preseason ranking like a weakly flickering candle's flame. The Wolverines romped, 38-0, but that one, like the 2003 game of the same score, was an aberration in this series.

The 2009 game was a strange one, simply because it existed in the post-2008 universe but the pre-collapse universe. In other words, it was September. Notre Dame erased an 11-point 4th quarter deficit but with the chance to seal the deal late, Charlie Weis chose to pass on both second and third downs. Tate Forcier, before all the other stuff happened, was not someone you wanted to give one final chance to on that day in Ann Arbor.

On first and goal, Michigan's LaTerryal Savoy dropped a pass in the end zone. On the next play, Forcier went back to the same side, only this time Greg Mathews reeled the pass in for the touchdown, running back through the end zone toward the Michigan sideline, a run only interrupted by his frantic delivery of the football to the referee.

In 2011, my first game after graduating, the Big House was thrown into a void where nothing made sense. Up became down, down became up, and the simple became difficult. After a long build-up that Saturday, I should've realized that my chance run-in with Lloyd Carr before the game was a sign that this was not a den bound by reality.

Nonetheless, Michigan stumbled through three quarters, as if entrenched in a bad dream. But, eventually the lights against the night sky awoke the Wolverines, and Roy Roundtree caught his first pass of the day with just two seconds left to play.

Even when things haven't gone Michigan's way, something extraordinary has happened. In 2002, Carlyle Holiday fumbled at the goal line. In 2005, Chad Henne appeared to be in the end zone, but fumbled it away (or so they said). In 2010, then safety Cam Gordon gave up a touchdown that, at the moment, seemed to be a death knell. In 2012, Michigan turned the ball over six times, on six straight possessions. I don't know how often that happens in rivalry games, but I'm willing to bet that if it were to happen between any two teams, it would be Michigan and Notre Dame, whether in Ann Arbor or South Bend.

Michigan and Notre Dame won't so much be losing a rivalry; Michigan still has Michigan State and Ohio State, and, in truth, that is probably enough to keep most people occupied. But for anyone who grew up in the Midwest, the loss of Michigan-Notre Dame is not just the loss of another rivalry among a coterie of rivalries.

When these teams take the field, more often that not something very strange happens. Sometimes it benefits Michigan, other times Notre Dame. The football bounces in way it should not, and the better team often loses. Bad calls are made, by both coaches and referees, and young players wilt under the heat (or the cool night) of the early September sun, or South Bend's blue-gray sky.

This isn't a rivalry, an ongoing series of games played one here and one there into perpetuity. No, that would be too simple and quite frankly, a little boring.

What's being lost is this: two Midwestern giants on the stage, as Fate slings arrows indiscriminately at the actors from afar. Michigan-Notre Dame is not just another game: it is theater. Chaotic, anarchic theater. And when the two teams leave the field around midnight this Saturday, the lights will shine somberly. Exeunt. 

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