The time has finally come.
Two-hundred and forty three days after the debacle against South Carolina in the Outback Bowl, Michigan football is back. There’s a new optimism and a new quarterback in Ann Arbor; both will be put to the test as No. 14 Michigan travels to South Bend to face off against No. 12 Notre Dame on Saturday night.
Without further ado, The Daily breaks down what to expect on both sides of the ball upon kickoff Saturday night:
When ND has the ball:
When asked this week about the challenge Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush might present this weekend, the instinctual response from players and coaches focused on his mobility.
“Whenever he gets in the right lane, opening,” said fifth-year senior Chase Winovich, “the man can scoot.”
That could be construed as both a genuine concern for Wimbush’s ability on the move and an indictment of his passing ability.
Wimbush is undeniably a threat with his legs, posting 100-plus yard rushing games four times last year. He will get double-digit carries — possibly even approaching 20 — especially with running back Dexter Williams suspended. He will be the focal point of the offense.
That is, if he can stay in the game.
Wimbush completed just 49.5 percent of his passes a season ago, and the task of establishing competency in the passing game won’t come easily against one of the stingiest defenses in the country. There’s no doubt defensive coordinator Don Brown would like to force Wimbush to make plays with his arm. There is doubt on both ends he will be able to do so.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly hasn’t been shy in discussing that hypothetical.
“Brandon’s the starter. There’s no question about that,” Kelly told reporters last week, “but he understands if we need to win the game and we need some help, the guy that’s the No. 2, he can help us win, too.”
On one hand, it’s hardly a ringing endorsement. On the other, it’s a pragmatic approach.
“The guy that’s the No. 2,” referring to backup quarterback Ian Book, has had some success in limited experience. In the bowl game against LSU, Book was 14-for-19 for 164 yards and two touchdowns in a 21-17 win. He’s capable and known more for his accuracy and consistency, perhaps the two traits Wimbush struggles with. It seems possible, even likely, that Book sees some time Saturday night, especially if Michigan’s front seven has its way.
To his credit, Wimbush isn’t especially mistake prone — throwing 16 touchdowns and just six interceptions last season. If he’s able to take his lumps, find some rhythm, maintain patience and seek out running lanes, there is a path to him controlling this game; a path that would undoubtedly end in a Fighting Irish victory. In a game that seems destined to be low scoring, avoiding mistakes is the main — and maybe only — priority for both quarterbacks.
Notre Dame had, arguably, the best offensive line in the country last year. But with guard Quentin Nelson and tackle Mike McGlinchey now in the NFL — both selected in the first round of the draft — there is an unknown element. That’s music to the ears of Rashan Gary, Chase Winovich, Devin Bush and Co.
Michigan’s defense will be the best unit on the field Saturday night. If the Wolverines are to leave South Bend with their first road win over a top-20 foe in 12 years, it seems inevitable that it will come on the defense’s accord. They will have controlled the line of scrimmage, shut down any running game, forced either quarterback into obvious passing situations and feasted from there.
When Michigan has the ball:
Just as Michigan thinks its defense can control this game, so does Notre Dame.
Fighting Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston recently told reporters he thought this year’s team had the deepest defensive line he’s had at Notre Dame. Head coach Brian Kelly echoed the sentiment.
“This will be the deepest defensive line that I’ve had at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “When you can play eight on the defensive line without feeling as though we have to cover somebody up, that’s pretty good, and how that impacts what we’re doing is that we can stay after you for four quarters when you can go eight deep.”
That should sound alarm bells for all Michigan fans. The Wolverines will either trot out two experienced — and not in a particularly good way — tackles or a redshirt freshman tackle who is not even two years removed from being a defensive lineman. Average pass protection would be a tremendous accomplishment. Even basic competence would suffice.
There’s been an overarching narrative of “you’re going to be surprised by this offensive line” out of Schembechler Hall. If that’s the case, Michigan probably wins this game. It seems naive to expect that to be a team strength, especially in this venue, this early in the year, against this team.
Maybe that’s why it’s taken five grafs to mention Shea Patterson, the most talented quarterback Jim Harbaugh has had at Michigan, who will be making his first start. There will be eyes on him. There’s ample curiosity and excitement for what he will be able to do, but even he is dependent on some protection.
Junior running backs Karan Higdon and Chris Evans should figure heavily in this one, especially if the iffy weather forecast bears inclement conditions. Both could see over 15 carries Saturday night, especially if it stays close. If they can help establish the run early, that could take the pressure off the passing game, and open up some play action for Patterson.
As you may have gathered, points will likely be hard to come by in the one. It’s week one, which lends itself heavily to the unknown. Generally that can favor the home team. It’s a game that often portends flukiness — perhaps a defensive or special teams touchdown or two (see: Wilton Speight throwing two consecutive pick-sixes against Florida last year). Both defenses have reason to be confident going in, and both offenses could struggle, espcially if the rain bears out. They say defense travels — and with nine starters returning from last year’s 5th ranked defense in opponent yards per play, this isn’t a defense that will be shell-shocked at night in South Bend. They also say defense wins championship, but now we’re getting woefully ahead of ourselves.
Michigan has a better defense. Michigan has a better quarterback. Michigan wins a rock fight.
Michigan 13, Notre Dame 10.