Notre Dame, a notoriously slow starter the past three college football seasons, opens Saturday against a Michigan team whose defense may be as good as any in Coach Bo Schembechler's 11 years at the school.
Scheduling may be one reason the Irish are 2-4 in their opening two games the past three years, then 27-3 the rest of the way, including bowl games.And the oddsmakers say Notre Dame is seven points over its head Saturday.
This time Notre Dame also is inexperienced at key positions: -- quarterback, where senior Randy Lisch did not play a down last season; fullback, where freshman John Sweeney will start, and the defensive front four.
A Michigan Stadium crowd of 105,000 and most of the nation -- the Washington area will get the Maryland-Clemson game -- will see the strong, experienced Irish offensive line try to overcome Michigan's quick defensive unit that did not yield a touchdown in six games last season and has nine starters returning.
"We may kick on first down and wait for them to make a mistake," has been one of Schembechler's favorite, one-liners this season.
Gone from the Wolverines are quarterback Rick Leach, tailback Harlan Huckleby and fullback Russell Davis. Do not cry for the Wolverines. In beating Northwestern, 49-7, a week ago, Schembechler used three quarterbacks and eight running backs.
Despite playing without injured starters John Powers (a 6-foot-3, 265-pound guard rated by pro scouts as one of the nation's top two senior offensive linemen) and Bubba Paris, a 280-pound sophomore tackle, the Wolverines rolled up 315 yards by halftime. Neither will play again this week, having just resumed light practice.
Notre Dame Coach Dan Devine is worried about Michigan's overall speed on offense. Wide receiver Ralph Clayton, the Wolverines' leading receiver, runs the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds, and swift tight end Doug Marsh is averaging 14 yards per catch at Michigan and has turned seven of 23 receptions into touchdowns.
Another quality quickie, sophomore tailback Butch Woolfolk, has run the 40 in fewer than 4.4 seconds, but will back up Stan Edwards. Woolfolk convinced Schembechler that he would be better off not playing fullback in the Wolverines I formation. Lawrence Reid, backup to Davis last season, is the quarterback. He completed six of eight passes last week for 67 yards. The pass seems to have Devine worried the most.
"Defensively, we're going to work things to try to keep from getting in foot races, he said. "We can't win any foot races with Michigan. We don't have anybody back there who can catch them if they get behind us."
In Ann Arbor, the question is, who is faster: Woolfolk or Clayton. A match race was suggested, but Schembechler killed that idea.
"No, no, no, somebody might pull a hamstring," he said.
Notre Dame has had worse injuries than hamstrings. Such as bad backs and broken legs. That is why Sweeney, who figured to be the No. 3 fullback, will start Saturday. Quarterback Lisch is a fifth-year senior who began the Irish's 1977 national championship campaign as top quarterback, only to lose the job to Joe Montana.
Devine claims he has four quarterbacks with equal ability, none of whom he's afraid to play. That sounds like a man with a quarterback problem.
"We don't want any sympathy," he said. "We're going in there to play football.
And, at a Thursday night pep rally in South Bend, the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame, said, "Jimmy the Greek may know his percentages, but I know Notre Dame and we're going to cream them."