What to watch for: Notre Dame

Thursday, October 24, 2019 - 12:29pm

The Michigan football team will take on Notre Dame on Saturday.

The Michigan football team will take on Notre Dame on Saturday. Buy this photo
Evan Aaron/Daily

We’re about to find out how long that hangover lasted.

There’s no rest for the weary, as No. 19 Michigan welcomes No. 8 Notre Dame in a game that would have meant far more six weeks ago.

The Wolverines, as you likely know, suffered their second loss of the season last week at Penn State, a heartbreaking 28-21, the ramifications of which will continue to ripple. They have little more than pride to play for through the rest of the season, but this program could sure use some pride these days.

The Fighting Irish come to town scathed in their own right, with a narrow loss at Georgia poking holes in the sails of their College Football Playoff hopes. They need to win out, and they need to do so in impressive fashion. Even that will require some help from others.

Here are just a few things to watch, in a top-20 matchup that feels far more like the semifinals of a consolation bracket.

Is Michigan up for this?

We’ll know early on whether this is a game it truly wants to play — if all that talk about moving on quickly, refocusing attention and rearing up for a night game against Notre Dame was substantiated. 

“We have an opportunity — we have a decision to make,” said senior quarterback Shea Patterson on Tuesday, stopping just shy of elucidating that decision. “Our goal is to win every game the rest of the season. I love this team. We’re all so close, and we trust each other, and we love playing together. I don’t think there is any other goal than to just win.”

That is an admirable goal, and exactly what a senior quarterback should say the week after a loss that effectively ended his season hopes.

Point all you’d like at Notre Dame’s weak schedule or pedestrian showing against Southern California two weeks ago. The Fighting Irish are ranked 21st in SP+, which is slightly more bearish than the more traditional rankings. 

But if the Wolverines aren’t mentally, emotionally and physically invested in these outcomes, none of that will matter. We’ll know pretty early whether talk is cheap inside Schembechler Hall or whether this team believes it still has something to play for.

If it does, there’s a real argument it is the better team on Saturday — and should win. If it doesn’t, nothing else really matters.

How will the Wolverines start?

In two top-15 matchups this year, Michigan has fallen into deficits of 28-0 and 21-0, both of which proved insurmountable. Needless to say, another early dud would spell doom for a Wolverines team in desperate need of a therapeutic win. 

There are endless reasons for slow starts, a trend that dates back to Michigan’s 21-3 deficit in the first half of last year’s season opener at… Notre Dame. 

The quickest way to sink hopes of a season resurgence would be to come out flat — squandering any perceived energy carried over from last week’s promising second half. This offense needs to hit the ground running, building on the back of a lively 21-point second half last week. It cannot revert to old ways. This defense can’t afford to spot the opposing foe multiple touchdowns before it finds its footing.

Sometimes, football is complicated. Other times, you just can’t afford to hand a top-10 team a multiple-touchdown lead before either team can catch its breath. Most teams aren’t good enough to do that. Michigan certainly isn’t.

All starts in the run game

After a boon in attention at the start of the year, Zach Charbonnet reminded fans that he’s the most talented freshman running back Michigan has had in quite some time. His two touchdowns against Penn State marked his fifth and sixth of the season — only trailing Mike Hart and Tyrone Wheatley (each with nine) for the most in a rookie campaign. Smart money lies on his topping that.

He looked spry against the Nittany Lions, seeming fully recovered from an injury that kept him limited for a few weeks. This week seems to be a prime opportunity for 20-plus carries, coming against a solid — but still vulnerable — Fighting Irish defense.

The Irish have allowed 100-plus yards rushing in each game this season except one — including two 200-plus yard games. On average, Notre Dame allows 154 rushing yards per game, sitting a middling 64th in the country.

“Establishing the run” can be one of those colloquial football cliches that ostensibly means nothing, but it would be surprising if Michigan didn’t make a concerted effort to involve Charbonnet and the other running backs early and often. This is particularly true if Patterson’s health permits a true read on some of those read options.

Turnover margin

Oh, great, another football cliche!

But one of the Wolverines’ most fatal flaws this year has been its propensity to turn the ball over at will. They’ve lost nine fumbles of 17, and Patterson has four interceptions — including a maddening misfire on a screen pass last week that led directly to seven points. 

Notre Dame has the best turnover margin per game of any team in the country — plus-1.67 turnovers per game. The easiest way to quell a team trying to build momentum is to snag an easy turnover and pin Michigan in a difficult spot, perhaps an early deficit. 

If a scenario like that unfolds, it could be deja vu for the Wolverines, and the clear recipe for yet another big-game loss.

The Pick:

Michigan hasn’t lost in the Big House in 698 days, which is also the last time it wasn’t favored in a home game. The Fighting Irish went to Georgia and nearly beat the Bulldogs between the hedges earlier this season, so they certainly aren’t going to be frightened by a road game against a limping Michigan team. And they’re better.

Maybe not substantially so; maybe Michigan’s offense has truly turned a corner; maybe the unforced errors and turnovers are a thing of the past; maybe the focus is there, and the team truly has put last week behind it; maybe the defense is in for a signature performance, shirking the early-game, big-play struggles.

But that’s a few too many hypotheticals for my liking. I’ll take the better, more proven football team.

Notre Dame 24, Michigan 20