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Breakdown: Offenses will steal the show in South Bend

Paul Sherman/Daily
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By Alexa Dettelbach, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 4, 2014

The rivalry is coming to an end, but first, there’s one more game to be played.

As Michigan (1-0) travels to South Bend to face No. 16 Notre Dame (1-0) under the lights, both sides of the ball will be tested. The Wolverines have won six of eight against the Fighting Irish and look to continue that momentum.

Last season, Michigan stole the show in Ann Arbor, winning, 41-30. Fifth-year senior quarterback Devin Gardner led the way, accounting for 376 yards and five touchdowns.

But the home team has won the matchup the last three years, and the Wolverines have a difficult task ahead. In all, the teams match up evenly, with the offense in better standing for both, which should provide for an entertaining conclusion to a historic rivalry.

Michigan pass offense vs. Notre Dame pass defense

Gardner’s chemistry with junior wide out Devin Funchess looked lethal against Appalachian State last week, but the duo faces a much harder test in the Fighting Irish. With Funchess inevitably drawing increased coverage, Michigan will look to junior slot receiver Dennis Norfleet and redshirt sophomore wide receiver Jehu Chesson to mix up Gardner’s looks.

Without a reception last week, look for freshman wide receiver Freddy Canteen to get in on the action along with redshirt sophomore Amara Darboh, who caught his first career pass against the Mountaineers.

On the other side, Notre Dame will likely be without starting cornerback KeiVarae Russell because of alleged academic violations, significantly hurting its secondary. Last week against Rice, the Fighting Irish let the Owls march down the field on their first possession, with a 30-yard pass and a 26-yard touchdown pass to cap the drive. This week, coach Brian Kelly pointed to a lack of communication between his defensive backs hindering their success, but he says the issue was addressed in practice.

Kelly’s secondary, which also lost safety and defensive captain Austin Collinsworth to a sprained knee Thursday before Notre Dame’s season opener, was forced to start Max Redfield despite him barely seeing the field in 2013. Collinsworth is questionable for Saturday’s matchup, but Kelly had doubts earlier in the week that he’d return against Michigan.

In all, the Fighting Irish’s secondary should have the edge, but a steam-rolling Funchess mixed with Notre Dame’s key absences plays in the Wolverines’ favor.

Edge: Michigan

Michigan rush offense vs. Notre Dame rush defense

Don’t look, but the Wolverines ran the ball for 350 yards on Saturday. Both sophomore running backs Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith exploded for more than 100 yards each and combined for three touchdowns.

To no one’s surprise, the backs pointed to the offensive line as a major reason for their success. But can it continue?

Notre Dame’s rush defense struggled at times against Rice and allowed the Owls to run for 141 yards. The Fighting Irish’s defensive line was able to plug holes, but once the backs got past the line, the linebackers struggled to bring support. Michigan’s offensive line will have an interesting matchup with Notre Dame’s defensive line as the Fighting Irish sport a 6-foot-5 1/2, 315-pound nose tackle in junior Jarron Jones. Jones played in just two games last season, but early returns were positive against Rice.

It’ll be up to Michigan’s redshirt junior center Jack Miller and its rotating selection of guards to handle the big task ahead of them.

Edge: Michigan

Notre Dame pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense

After 600 days without playing a game, Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson took the field against Rice and passed the test with flying colors. The senior threw for 295 yards and two touchdowns, while running for three more. The Fighting Irish’s dual-threat quarterback makes their passing offense scary and puts Michigan’s linebackers on notice.

Michigan’s junior linebacker Joe Bolden said Wednesday that Golson is the textbook dual-threat player and will force defensive coordinator Greg Mattison to keep linebackers close to the defensive line in addition to dropping them back into coverage to help the safeties in case Golson uses his legs. The Wolverines have arguably the deepest linebacker corps in the Big Ten, which will be needed in South Bend.

In the secondary, Michigan is deep at corner, but young and untested at safety. Redshirt junior Blake Countess and senior Raymon Taylor man the corners with freshman Jabrill Peppers coming in on nickel packages — forming a strong trio. The Wolverines have a young crop of safeties, but the group will have to grow up quickly against Notre Dame.

Edge: Notre Dame

Notre Dame rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense

Golson added to Notre Dame’s running game with his three scores, but beyond that, the Fighting Irish’s running back position has tremendous depth — all five rushers had at least 40 yards against Rice.

On the other side of the ball, senior defensive end Frank Clark anchors the defensive line with Brennen Breyer. In the first half against Appalachian State, the line played well enough — with sophomore Chris Wormley shining especially bright at defensive tackle — but the unit as a whole left something to be desired. Mattison and Michigan coach Brady Hoke mentioned Monday that the linemen need to get off their blocks quicker.

Additionally, Michigan’s defense sacked the Mountaineers just twice and didn’t force a turnover. Appalachian State racked up 153 yards on the ground against the Wolverines. Those numbers will need to change against Notre Dame.

Edge: Notre Dame

Special teams

Senior kicker Matt Wile’s missed 48-yard field goal aside, Michigan’s special teams unit was strong. The coverage unit struggled on two kickoff returns, but the Wolverines did block a punt that was returned for a touchdown, and Wile hit a chip shot field goal in the fourth. Michigan only punted the ball once, for 46 yards, and the return unit was fairly quiet on punts and kick offs.

Notre Dame kicker, Kyle Brindza, also missed a field goal in week one, but he finished the day 2-for-3, and the coverage unit was strong throughout the day.

Edge: Michigan

Intangibles

Since taking over the Fighting Irish, Kelly is just 1-3 against Michigan, with the lone victory coming in 2012. But this game will mean a bit more than the others with the hiatus coming after this season. To top it off, Michigan is 9-9-1 all-time at Notre Dame Stadium so this one is for all the marbles.

The stage is set under the lights, so look for Notre Dame’s fans to come out louder than ever.

Edge: Notre Dame

Prediction: Michigan 31, Notre Dame 28