2 powers get early test on rebuilding efforts

Michigan-Notre Dame seems so last century now.

The game typically burnishes reputations, showcases a handful of top NFL draft picks and often signals whether either Midwestern power was likely to land a spot in the national championship picture. But the meeting of the sport’s two winningest programs in South Bend on Saturday resembled something closer to “Extreme Makeover: College Football Edition.”

Jim Litke

Neither has been relevant the last few years and both are in the midst of rebuilding. On the admittedly slim evidence of Saturday’s openers, each suggested a change of fortune may be in the offing.

“We’ve been through a lot. It’s been tough on the coaches. It’s been tough on the players,” Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said after the Wolverines pounded visiting Connecticut.

“This is just one win,” he added, “but I’m going to let our players enjoy it.”

“I took on the challenge at Notre Dame because I want to see this program back to where I believe it should be,” said coach Brian Kelly after a convincing win over Purdue in his first game in charge of the Irish, “and that’s amongst the elite in college football.”

While their problems have been similar, the programs have gone about rebuilding differently.

The Irish have been impatient. Kelly is their sixth coach since the start of the decade — counting George O’Leary, who never coached a game, and Kent Baer, who served in an interim role for a bowl game after Ty Willingham was fired — and the lack of continuity has shown on defense.

Like his predecessor, Charlie Weis, Kelly brought glittering offensive credentials and a reputation for developing quarterbacks to South Bend.

But against Purdue, the rigorous offseason conditioning program Kelly installed yielded immediate dividends on defense — four sacks and two interceptions by a team that was losing the turnover battle regularly. And Notre Dame’s ground game was just as tough, piling up 153 yards with Armando Allen and Cierre Wood taking turns slicing and dicing the Boilermakers’ defense.

Purdue coach Danny Hope called Allen “the biggest difference-maker in the game. He’s going to make a lot of other people miss, too.”

Connecticut coach Randy Edsall said something similar about Michigan’s quarterback, the breakout star of the opening weekend.

“Denard Robinson is going to make people look bad,” he said.

Robinson’s debut couldn’t have come a moment too soon for Rodriguez. Michigan has always taken the long-term view, and Rodriguez’ predecessor, Lloyd Carr, held the job for the 13 seasons before that. Rodriguez was brought in to update the offense, but the results were so poor in his first two seasons that more than a few high-profile programs wouldn’t have kept him around for a third.

Throw in run-ins with the NCAA over practice time — a first for the Wolverines’ football program — and Rodriguez’ continued employment prospects were dimming. But his Michigan higher-ups weren’t the only one counseling patience. Rodriguez told anyone willing to listen that the spread offense that worked so well at every one of his last stops would succeed in Ann Arbor once he had the personnel in place. And Robinson turned out to be just the guy.

He ran 29 times for 197 yards and threw for another 186 yards, completing 19 of 22 passes. That’s a lot of touches without even one turnover, something that killed Michigan down the stretch last season.

Speaking of which, the Wolverines began last season with plenty of promise, slipping past Notre Dame en route to a 4-0 start, only to lose seven of their final eight games, including five in a row. The same game proved an accurate barometer of where the Irish were headed. They stumbled to a 6-6 finish.

That explained Rodriguez’ refusal to make too much of what might have been his biggest achievement so far in charge of the maize and blue. In his mind, preparations for Notre Dame couldn’t begin soon enough.

“I will enjoy this for the next three hours and 10 minutes,” he said, “and try to get five hours of sleep.”

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for the Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.

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