Sept 10, 2002

From the Associated Press

Tyrone Willingham is off to a good start at Notre Dame. Now the competition gets a little tougher.

Willingham gets the biggest test of his tenure with the Fighting Irish when No. 7 Michigan visits Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday.

The No. 20 Irish (2-0) have opened their first season under Willingham with victories over Maryland and Purdue. While both wins were satisfying after last year’s disappointing season under Bob Davie, neither came against an opponent as good as Michigan.

The Wolverines (2-0) have been impressive while winning their first two games, averaging 33 points and a Big Ten-best 247 passing yards. John Navarre has five touchdown passes and a 140.4 passer rating.

Both of their games were at home, however, where the Wolverines play before more than 105,000 fans. South Bend is a tough place for a road opener.

“It’s a challenge to your ability and I love that part of it,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. “You get to watch guys under the greatest of pressures and you see how they respond.

“Going to South Bend is a new experience for almost all of our players. It’s a great place to play, but it’s a tough place to play. We are looking forward to the renewal of this rivalry.”

The teams are meeting for the first time since the 1999 season. They are the two winningest schools in Division I-A history, and Michigan is one of only 10 teams that has a winning record against Notre Dame.

A victory Saturday would be a huge boost for Willingham. The Irish didn’t have enough wins against elite programs under Davie, perhaps the biggest reason he was fired. In fact, they haven’t defeated a top 10 team since Sept. 5, 1998, when Michigan last visited Notre Dame Stadium and was ranked fifth.

Notre Dame would be 3-0 for the first time since 1996 with a win, but that seems unlikely if the Irish can’t get anything from their offense.

The Irish have yet to score an offensive touchdown in the West Coast offense system that Willingham brought to South Bend. They are averaging just 279.5 yards of offense, but Willingham is only concerned with the result.

“I just want to win,” he said. “If that means we run it for 150 yards and pass it for 50 and we win, then I’m happy.”

Willingham wasn’t exaggerating, as Carlyle Holiday did throw for just 50 yards in Saturday’s 24-17 victory over Purdue.

While the offense has struggled, the defense has been superb. The Irish have allowed just 225.5 yards and 8.5 points per game, have a plus-6 turnover margin, and the defense has accounted for all four touchdowns.

Michigan has won three of the last four meetings and leads the series 17-11-1.