After two weeks of playing against subpar opponents — though Air Force certainly didn’t play like one — the No. 18 Michigan football team returns to stiffer competition this week with a primetime tilt against Notre Dame on the road.
And if recent trends hold true, it should be a barnburner. Each of the last three games in this series have come down to the final minute, with the Wolverines successfully leading last-ditch drives each time to come away with the win.
Senior quarterback Denard Robinson has been the story for the last two seasons, single-handedly acting as the Fighting Irish’s bane with back-to-back dominant efforts. But Robinson and his teammates appear to have a more formidable opponent this time around — No. 11 Notre Dame is off to its best start since 2002 — and they will square off under the lights for the second straight year.
Michigan rush offense vs. Notre Dame rush defense
Bad news for the Wolverines: they’ve still yet to get a dominant effort from their running backs. (Last week’s mutilation of Massachusetts doesn’t really count.) They need redshirt junior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint to return to his 2011 form, when he became one of the conference’s better runners. He’ll be hungry to perform against Notre Dame after missing the matchup last season with a shoulder injury.
Worse news for Michigan: the Fighting Irish front seven is as effective as its been in recent memory. At 326 pounds, Louis Nix is a strong anchor at nose tackle, and Manti Te’o is one of the best middle linebackers in the country.
In the past two weeks, the Fighting Irish held Purdue to just 90 rush yards and Michigan State to 50 yards on the ground. Notre Dame also did a solid job last year against Michigan, holding the Wolverines to a 4.4 yards per carry.
The X-factor, of course, is Robinson. But like Alabama, Notre Dame will likely do its best to force Robinson to beat the Fighting Irish through the air. They should be well-equipped to stymie his ground game.
Edge: Notre Dame
Michigan pass offense vs. Notre Dame pass defense
This might be the biggest mismatch of the game — which might come as a surprise, since most observers don’t see Robinson’s arm as a strength.
But the Deerfield Beach, Fla. native has shown much better accuracy and decision-making so far this season. The receiving corps, which was a question mark going into the year, has been solidified thanks to quarterback Devin Gardner’s position switch and the emergence of freshman tight end Devin Funchess. Their athleticism makes them mismatches for opposing defenses and big targets for Robinson.
More importantly for Michigan, the Notre Dame secondary is in rough shape. Safety Zeke Motta returns from last season, but fellow safety Jamoris Slaughter ruptured his Achilles’ tendon last week against Michigan State and is out for the season. Starting cornerback Lo Wood is also out for the year after injuring himself during fall camp.
Their replacements — Matthias Farley and KeiVarae Russell — are both inexperienced, former wide receivers. The unit hasn’t been bad this season, but it will still be plenty vulnerable. Robinson should be ready to exploit it, though he’ll have to watch out for Notre Dame’s Stephon Tuitt, a burgeoning star at defensive end.
Notre Dame rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense
The Fighting Irish have a hydra of sorts at running back. Former receiver Theo Riddick and George Atkinson III split snaps with Cierre Wood, who’ll be playing in his second game after serving a two-game suspension at the start of the season.
While the team’s rushing attack hasn’t been great this season, Wood’s addition helps matters. (He had 60 yards on 10 carries against Michigan State). And plenty of questions surround Michigan’s front seven. True freshmen James Ross and Joe Bolden are talented, but their extensive playing time raises questions about the reliability of fifth-year senior Kenny Demens and health of sophomore Desmond Morgan.
Additionally, nobody on the defensive line has done much to distinguish himself for the Wolverines. With a veteran offensive line operating for Notre Dame, this is the matchup that could decide the game.
Edge: Notre Dame
Notre Dame pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense
The Wolverine back seven is probably disappointed to see Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees on the bench, given how many mistakes he made against them the past two seasons.
Instead, Michigan will square off with Everett Golson. The redshirt freshman is a much better fit for Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s spread offense because of his athleticism, but Golson is by no means a star yet. He’s completed nearly 60 percent of his passes and in primetime captured the national spotlight against Michigan State last week.
While star receiver Michael Floyd is gone, Golson has a solid threat to throw to in T.J. Jones, and Tyler Eifert is one of the best tight ends in the country. Though he hasn’t done it much so far, the quarterback is always a threat to take off and run, meaning the Wolverines will have to keep a careful eye on him.
The jury is still out on the Michigan secondary, which hasn’t really been tested since the first game against Alabama. Junior Courtney Avery and sophomore Raymon Taylor will have to play big in sophomore cornerback Blake Countess’ continued absence.
Both teams have solid kickers. Notre Dame’s Kyle Brindza is 4-for-5 on field goals, while redshirt junior Brendan Gibbons has made his lone attempt for Michigan. Neither team has gamebreakers in the punt return game.
Give the Wolverines the slight nod in this category for two reasons: freshman Dennis Norfleet seems poised for a big kick return, and junior punter Will Hagerup has been booming his punts this season, with an average of 48.5 yards, though he’s often outkicked his coverage.
While the Wolverines have Robinson and his ability to obliterate the hopes and dreams of Notre Dame fans, the Fighting Irish have a lot more going for them in this one. They’re playing at home at night, which is always a big advantage, and they’re the more confident team. In fact, spirits haven’t been this high in South Bend for a while now.
Edge: Notre Dame
FINAL SCORE: Notre Dame 31, Michigan 27