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by Frank Scicchitano

Tate Forcier’s last-minute heroics stole the show for Michigan in 2009.  The Wolverines’ electrifying playmaker Denard Robinson put on a clinic in both 2010 and 2011.

Manti Te’o and Notre Dame’s defense exhibited their dominance with six takeaways in the 2012 contest.

This year wide receiver Jeremy Gallon hauled in three of quarterback Devin Gardner’s four total touchdown passes and the Maize and Blue defeated the Fightin’ Irish 41-30.

This past Saturday marked the beginning of the end of one of college football’s most storied traditions.

Notre Dame and Michigan met for the final time at Michigan Stadium in what was dubbed “Under the Lights II” as it was only the second night game in the 86-year history of The Big House.

These two teams met in the stadium’s first night contest in 2011.  Their meeting next season in South Bend will, at least for the foreseeable future, be the final regular season game between the Irish and the Wolverines.

Few can argue for a better rivalry over the years than the one shared between the two winningest programs in history.

Each team has claimed 11 national championships and there have been 10 Heisman Trophy winners combined between the two programs.

After Saturday’s victory, Michigan holds a 24-16-1 advantage dating back to 1887.

Given the accolades the two programs boast, it seems almost imperative that they meet once a year.

However, the teams’ agreement to bring the legendary rivalry to a halt after next season has perplexed many, including college football experts.

With Notre Dame making a commitment to play five games against ACC opponents, they are all but a logo-on-their-pristine-field away from being members of the conference.

The commitment to the ACC will allow the Irish to continue their traditional game against Boston College and it is predicted that teams like USC, Navy, Purdue and Michigan State will all remain annual members of Notre Dame’s controversial independent schedule.  Why not Michigan?

Sure, Notre Dame may have played the aforementioned teams more often throughout history, but their games with Michigan feel just as important and equally special.  From a Michigan perspective, perhaps only Ohio State is hated more than the Irish.

With less than 200 miles separating the two prestigious universities, there is a significant overlap of recruiting territory.

Many of the top-tier players that take the field in this rivalry were heavily recruited by both sides and had to make a very difficult choice on decision day.  Both teams set out to make those players regret their decision.

Some fans and experts who are critical of Notre Dame’s independent status may argue that because they turned down multiple offers to join the Big Ten they cannot play up to the level of competition that the conference possesses.

Michigan is annually among the best the Big Ten has to offer so each year the Irish use the game as a chance to prove themselves to their critics.

For Michigan, the Notre Dame game is an excellent way for them to add quality to their non-conference schedule, which helps capture the attention of the national poll voters.

Typically played within the first two or three weeks of the season, this matchup has always been a solid tune-up for the Wolverines as they get set to navigate their always challenging Big Ten schedule.

Although Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly told the media last week that he did not see the historical significance in the matchup (although he later retracted that statement and said that he did), the players on both sides certainly know what’s at stake.

With the impending completion of the series set for next fall, this year’s matchup was as important as ever.

The Irish offense started the game slowly and after forcing two consecutive three-and-outs, Michigan quickly found themselves up 10-0.

Just when the momentum seemed to be flowing completely in favor of the home Wolverines, veteran Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees led the offense down the field for a touchdown and again for a field goal to knot the game up at ten apiece.

Late in the first half with the score 20-13 in favor of Michigan, Rees threw his first of two interceptions that gave Wolverine quarterback Devin Gardner a short field to work with.

He took advantage of the miscue by connecting with star wide receiver Jeremy Gallon on a 12-yard touchdown pass that gave his team a 27-13 lead at halftime.

Big tight end Troy Niklas reeled in a touchdown pass from Rees in the third quarter that brought the Irish back within a touchdown.  Momentum quickly shifted again when, sparked by a big run from Gardner, Michigan scored another touchdown to go back up by fourteen points.

Notre Dame’s last gasp came when defensive back Austin Collinsworth put pressure on Gardner in the fourth quarter and chased him all the way back into his own endzone.

Gardner forced a bad pass that was intercepted by Stephon Tuitt for a Notre Dame touchdown.  A field goal on the next Irish possession made it a four-point game with less than 10 minutes remaining.

Two costly pass interference penalties on the Irish kept the ensuing Michigan possession alive and they were able to score yet another touchdown. Rees threw an interception in the endzone on their next offensive series that sealed the victory for the Wolverines.

It may not have been an instant classic like some of the more recent games in the series, but the 2013 installment of this epic rivalry has certainly reminded the college football world why this rivalry is so important to the sport.

Perhaps the two programs are just looking for some breathing room and we will be treated to a reboot of this rivalry in five or six years.  Or, to the dismay of college football enthusiasts across the country, we will see a period similar to the one between 1943 and 1977; no Notre Dame-Michigan games at all.  Now that’s a scary thought.

After a disappointing night this past Saturday, Irish fans across the nation will be uttering the cliché, “There’s always next year.”  Well guys, I hate to break it to you, but there is only next year.

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