What to Watch for: Notre Dame

Paul Sherman/Daily
Buy this photo

By Everett Cook, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 3, 2013

How does Devin Gardner handle a front seven that can actually deliver pressure?

Tuesday, offensive coordinator Al Borges said that Notre Dame’s defensive line is as good as any Michigan will see. He didn’t say the same thing about Central Michigan.

Gardner looked good against the Chippewas last weekend, both through the air and on the ground. But the majority of his 52 rushing yards came on scrambles, which isn’t going to be easy against the Fighting Irish’s defensive line. The unit is one of the biggest and best in the country, and running lanes aren’t going to be as wide open as they were last Saturday.

In terms of the passing game, Gardner is going to feel a lot more pressure in the pocket against Notre Dame. He blamed one of his two interceptions against Central Michigan on being hit while he threw, which is going to happen often against the Fighting Irish. The pressure will be there — it’s just a matter of how the redshirt junior quarterback responds.

On a SportsCenter clip earlier this week, Gardner said, “If I protect the football, the defense is going to stop them, we’re going to score and we’re going to win.” He might be right.

How will Michigan’s inexperienced interior offensive line do under the lights?

That front seven will also affect Michigan’s interior line. Before last Saturday against Central Michigan, the group — redshirt freshman Kyle Kalis and redshirt sophomores Jack Miller and Graham Glasgow — had zero combined career starts.

The trio didn’t make any major mistakes and played well for the most part, especially Kalis, who made highlights with a body-slam pancake block during a passing play.

You can bet that Kalis, Miller and Glasgow are going to have a lot more trouble delivering those crushing blocks Saturday. Two monsters, tackle Louis Nix III and end Stephon Tuitt, highlight Notre Dame’s defensive line. Nix is 6-foot-2 and weighs more than 340 pounds, while Tuitt is about 6-foot-6. Both linemen have great quickness for players of their size — so protecting Gardner and getting the running game going will be a task.

Fifth-year senior tackle Taylor Lewan will probably be matched up with Tuitt for most of the night, but Nix is going to be the responsibility of the young interior linemen. It’s a big test for them early in the season.

How does Derrick Green do as the backup running back?

The first depth chart of the year had six running backs listed, all of whom were in serious contention to get carries behind the starter, fifth-year senior Fitzgerald Toussaint.

That list got one man shorter, though, when primary backup Drake Johnson suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury on a special-teams play last Saturday. The redshirt freshman is out for the year.

Wednesday, Hoke said that freshman Derrick Green is going to be the primary backup on Saturday behind Toussaint. Green still looks to be a little bit larger than the Michigan coaching staff wants him to be, but he showed flashes last weekend of why he was the No. 1 running back recruit in the nation. He finished the game with a team-high 58 yards on 11 carries and scored a touchdown.

He also didn’t play until the third quarter, when the game was well out of reach. The pressure will be different if he has to play while the score is actually close.

“Didn’t make a lot of bad running decisions,” Borges said Tuesday. “Ran the ball pretty much where we wanted him to. So he grew a little bit. I don’t know if that means anything, but he grew a little bit with those carries.”

Does the students’ energy hold throughout the whole night?

Two years ago, the crowd was loud from kickoff until well after the game had ended, to the point where the public-address announcer had to ask fans to leave. For a variety of reasons, this year might be a little different.

In 2011, with no general-admission policy, students could get to the game whenever they wanted. On Saturday, the general-admission student lines open at 11 a.m., meaning students could potentially be at the Big House for 13 hours on Saturday. Will the energy still be there after all day in the sun, waiting for the game? Will it be sustained?

There was a certain mystique in 2011. It was the first night game at Michigan Stadium, and from the get-go, the game just felt like a completely different experience than any other game in the Big House.

Saturday is the second night game in Ann Arbor. Is the charm and mystique still there?