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15 Michigan The Wolverines are loaded up front but must avoid early-season stumbles

The first game means everything to Michigan. An opening victory
at home against Notre Dame could put the Wolverines on track to
be undefeated as they prepare for their grand regular-season
finales against Penn State and Ohio State in November. Lose to
Notre Dame, however, and they'll be facing the same miserable
prospects as last year, when opening defeats to the Irish and
Syracuse cost them any chance of defending their 1997 national

"We lost that aggressive attitude, that hunger, in the game
against Notre Dame last year," senior linebacker Ian Gold says.
"We all seemed content with ourselves. We came out for the
second half knowing we had won the national championship the
year before, and we had a [13-6] lead on Notre Dame in their
house. We were focusing on those things instead of worrying
about playing the game. Now all we're thinking about is the
fourth quarter against Notre Dame this year. We can't wait to
get into that fourth quarter against them."

Michigan has 15 starters coming back, each of whom played on the
championship team. If the Wolverines are to equal that
performance, their veteran front lines will have to do the heavy
lifting while some less seasoned players in the offensive and
defensive backfields settle in. "We sure aren't lacking for
experience up front," says 288-pound nosetackle Rob Renes, a
fifth-year senior. "If we don't have a dominant year, we have no
one to blame but ourselves."

The offensive line has four starters from last year's team
protecting 6'5" quarterback Tom Brady, a fifth-year player who
has thrown for touchdowns in the last 12 games, one short of
tying Elvis Grbac's school record. The concern is at tailback,
which is thin on experience behind junior Anthony Thomas.
Sophomore Justin Fargas is out for the season rehabilitating his
twice-repaired left ankle, leaving sophomore Walter Cross (35
carries) and a freshman class that features a half dozen
tailbacks, led by Ryan Beard and Charles Drake. "We'll have to
find out in a hurry who is going to be able to help us there,"
says coach Lloyd Carr.

Thomas was the Big Ten freshman of the year in '97. He led the
Wolverines with 893 rushing yards last season and was named
Citrus Bowl MVP after gaining 132 yards on 21 carries and
scoring three touchdowns. But he was a slow starter, and
Michigan can't afford to have him stumble early again.

Defensively, the Wolverines' incumbent front seven will have to
rattle quarterbacks to take pressure off the secondary, where
Brandon Williams and Jeremy LeSueur may start as freshmen. "Our
style of defense the last two years has been much more
aggressive than it had been," says Carr, who wants to play to
the speed and power of inside linebackers Gold and Dhani Jones.

Unlike in '97, the Wolverines have no apparent Heisman
candidate--no great player to absorb the spotlight and pressure.
Instead they have a score of players with national title rings.
"Once you win a national title, the most important thing is to
try to put everything into perspective," says Gold. That's what
last year was about. "Now," he says, "it's about putting what
we've learned into action."


COLOR PHOTO: VINCENT LAFORET/ALLSPORT Cannonball After a slow start, Thomas led the team in rushing and was Citrus MVP.

Fast Facts

1998 record: 10-3 (7-1, tied for 1st in Big Ten)
Final ranking: No. 12 AP, No. 12 coaches' poll

1998 Averages Scoring Rushing Passing Total
Yards Yards Yards
OFFENSE 26.2 151.7 225.1 376.8
DEFENSE 17.0 122.3 177.0 299.3

Key Games
Schedule strength: 3rd of 114

Oct. 9 at Michigan State
The Spartans won't be a Big Ten power this season, but they will
be revved up, as usual, for the Wolverines.

Nov. 13 at Penn State
The Nittany Lions are still stinging from last year's 27-0
drubbing. They'll return the favor this year.

The Bottom Line

Back-to-back meetings with Penn State (away) and Ohio State
(home) will be too big a hurdle for the Wolverines to clear.