CORAL GABLES — Miami running back Mike James is almost always smiling. When talking about facing Notre Dame this week, he was not.
"Notre Dame is a big game," James quietly said, "for a lot of reasons."
The Hurricanes and No. 9 Fighting Irish meet Saturday at Soldier Field in Chicago to resume an overheated rivalry that helped decide at least five national titles in an eight-year span, 1983-90.
For James, it's also personal. Very personal.
The last time these teams met was the 2010 Sun Bowl, a day he'll never forget for reasons that have nothing to do with football.
That game started at the same moment as the funeral for James' mother Elgusta James, who died in a car crash 11 days earlier. Mike James wasn't at the funeral; he played in the bowl game after family members convinced him that's what his mother would have wanted.
And when it comes to the importance of this game, his thoughts are clear.
"The biggest game I've ever played," James said last week after Miami beat North Carolina State. "I would say so. I'm serious about this one. … Last time we played Notre Dame, they were burying my mom at the same time as the game. So anybody can do the math."
This season the senior has 278 yards rushing in five games — 3 more yards than he had in the whole 2011 season. He has four touchdowns, all in an overtime win Sept. 22 at Georgia Tech. He says he's healthier and happier than he can remember in some time.
The pain of that phone call on Dec. 20, 2010, however, lingers, he said. Every day.
"It was a devastating moment, a tragic moment for Mike," Miami defensive back Brandon McGee said. "When he first heard the news, I was right there with him."
Elgusta James was the passenger in a vehicle driven by her daughter that day, when another car hit the driver's side. Elgusta was ejected from the vehicle and police said she died at the scene. For months, Mike James said he cried every day, and not long after got two tattoos — one image of his mother holding him as a small child, the other an angel.
He said that he wished it was him who died in that crash, not his mother.
"Coming back off of that, Mike James is probably the strongest man I've ever met, physically and mentally," quarterback Stephen Morris said.
JURISPRUDENCE: An Alabama man pleaded guilty and faces a two-year prison sentence for rubbing his genitals on an unconscious LSU fan in a Bourbon Street restaurant after the BCS title game in January. Prosecutors reached a plea deal with Brian H. Downing of Smith Station, Ala., on the day he was to be tried on charges including sexual battery. Downing won't have to register as a sex offender. A video of the incident went viral on the Internet.
MICHIGAN STATE: Freshman receiver Aaron Burbridge will start at Indiana after not playing in Saturday's 17-16 loss to Ohio State.