Sep 18, 2012, 5:06 PM EDT
When you ask Irish football fans the question, “Who is Notre Dame’s biggest rival?,” you will undoubtedly get one of two answers – USC or Michigan (or some variation of these, depending on how family-friendly your respondents choose to be).
What will come as a surprise to some fans, however, is that Saturday will mark just the 40th meeting between the Fighting Irish and Wolverines (Michigan leads the series, 23-15-1). By comparison, this past week’s Notre Dame-Michigan State game was the 76th in the series. USC and Notre Dame have met 83 times.
Nevertheless, the Notre Dame-Michigan series is one of the game’s biggest rivalries, dating all the way back to November 23, 1887, when Notre Dame played its first football game in school history (losing 8-0 in South Bend).
Notre Dame lost to Michigan another seven times, before breaking through with an 11-3 win in 1909. Following that Irish win, the series took a 33-year hiatus.
The teams split a pair of games in the early 1940′s, with #1 Notre Dame pounding #2 Michigan, 35-12, in Ann Arbor during the 1943 season. The series took another extended break, with the squads not meeting again until 1978 – perhaps the birth of the rivalry that fans are familiar with today.
Since that meeting in 1978, 24 of 28 games featured at least one team in the top-25, and 19 of those were played when both squads were ranked. With Notre Dame and Michigan currently ranked 11th and 18th, respectively, Saturday’s game will add another to the impressive line of top-25 matchups.
Thirty years ago today, the Irish prevailed 23-17, in the first night game at Notre Dame Stadium. Since the House That Rockne Built did not have lights, temporary fixtures from Musco Lighting were set up outside the stadium.
Four seasons later, Notre Dame welcomed Lou Holtz to the helm (perhaps you’ve heard of him). In his first game as head coach, the Fighting Irish lost to #3 Michigan, 24-23, but left the field to a standing ovation, as fans recognized the beginning of a new era in South Bend.
In 1988, kicker Reggie Ho booted four field goals, including a 26-yarder late in the fourth quarter against the #9 Wolverines. The 19-17 season-opening win was the first of twelve straight, that culminated with a national championship. Believe it or not, the sellout crowd was so loud during that game that it was whistled for a penalty.
And of course, no one can forget the following season, when #1 Notre Dame traveled to Michigan Stadium for a matchup with the second-ranked Wolverines. Rocket Ismail returned two kickoffs for a touchdown, cementing his place in Notre Dame football lore and leading the Irish to a 24-19 win.
These moments, just a few of the memories from the Notre Dame-Michigan series, have already been featured on the 125 website (Several more are coming up within the next few days).
On Saturday, the Fighting Irish will look to continue their undefeated 2012 campaign, while also aiming to avenge the heartbreaking losses of the past three seasons (I’m not going to post links to those games, but if you’re a glutton for punishment, you can easily find highlights on YouTube).
Michigan (.7355) and Notre Dame (.7321) are ranked first and second, respectively, in all-time NCAA winning percentage. Over the past 27 meetings, 17 have been decided by a touchdown or less and looking at the all-time series, the average margin of victory has been just 4.3 points.
So whether it’s the Irish or the Wolverines who end up celebrating on Saturday night, don’t be surprised if the game comes down to the wire.
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