Saturday has turned from a game into an event. The first night game in Michigan Stadium, the legacy jerseys, the honoring of Desmond Howard and the appearance of ESPN’s College GameDay have all taken away from the fact that it’s still just a football game.
Despite the buildup and the outside distractions, the matchups on the field may be the most intriguing part. Here’s our look at them.
Michigan pass offense vs. Notre Dame pass defense
Without many opportunities against Western Michigan, it’s tough to judge junior quarterback Denard Robinson’s progress as a passer this season. He threw just 13 times, and while he completed nine, he was never in a position where he had to make a throw.
That will change against Notre Dame. Fighting Irish safety Harrison Smith is as good as they come. After a 91-tackle season a year ago, he tallied six more in Notre Dame’s loss to South Florida. Smith is joined by fellow returning starters Zeke Motta and Gary Gray at safety and cornerback, respectively. The unit held the Bulls to only 128 yards through the air last Saturday and have the talent to match up with the Wolverines’ wide receivers, mainly redshirt junior Roy Roundtree and fifth-year senior Junior Hemingway.
Aside from a Hemingway post route, the receivers as a group followed their quarterback with an average if not boring day last week. The look of the passing game is still a mystery. It could be waiting to break out, but Notre Dame’s secondary is a sure thing.
Edge: Notre Dame
Michigan rush offense vs. Notre Dame rush defense
Michigan coach Brady Hoke wanted to bring the power rush game back to Michigan. He did it last Saturday, spending two quarters running for minimal gains before breaking it open with two long runs in the third quarter. The Wolverines finished the day with 190 yards in slightly less than three quarters. Redshirt sophomore Fitzgerald Toussaint had 80 yards, but 43 of them came on one run.
As for Robinson, his 258-yard performance on the ground last year against Notre Dame won’t happen again. The new offense, to some extent, has bottled up his rushing ability, and the Fighting Irish are certainly aware of what he’s capable of this time.
All-America candidate and Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o will lead the charge against him. He will get help from fellow linebacker Darius Fleming. But if Al Borges opens up Robinson and the Wolverine linemen can get to the second level like they did last year, every Michigan fan knows what Robinson can do. Throw in the return of redshirt junior left guard Ricky Barnum from suspension and a Notre Dame defensive line that lacks depth, and the Wolverines hold a slight advantage.
Notre Dame pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense
Whether fifth-year senior cornerback Troy Woolfolk is healthy, Michigan has no one who can cover Fighting Irish wide receiver Michael Floyd. After injury and legal trouble, Floyd is back on the field and back to torching secondaries — no matter who throws him the ball.
The last time he was at Michigan Stadium he had 131 yards and a touchdown. Last week, he hauled in 12 catches for 154 yards and two touchdowns. But there’s not much behind Floyd. Theo Riddick is serviceable and the Fighting Irish are still breaking in their new starter at tight end Tyler Eifert. If the Wolverine cornerbacks, mainly redshirt junior J.T. Floyd and sophomore Courtney Avery, can avoid single coverage against Riddick, Michigan has a shot to win the battle.
Quarterback Tommy Rees isn’t going to make it easy though. While he’s entrenched in a quarterback controversy, he clearly outplayed his counterpart Dayne Crist last week, going 24-of-32 and throwing two touchdowns, although he threw two interceptions as well. A good performance against Michigan could secure him the job. He’ll be ready. The only question is if he’ll be able to pick up on the blitzes that Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison calls so well.
Edge: Notre Dame
Notre Dame rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense
Both Hoke and Mattison were disappointed with Michigan’s defensive line and linebacker play against Western Michigan.
Although the Fighting Irish lost just one starter from last year’s team, the unit was 92nd in rushing yards per game last season. Running back Cierre Wood is a returning starter and is coming off a 110-yard performance.
With Hoke, Mattison and defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery getting on the line all week in practice, captain and senior defensive tackle Mike Martin will have his unit ready to take on a weak run-blocking offensive line.
The Wolverine linebackers have been hearing the criticism as well (even with fifth-year senior Brandon Herron on pace for 24 defensive touchdowns this season). Although redshirt sophomore Cam Gordon’s status is still uncertain due to a back injury that sidelined him in the Western Michigan game, the linebacking corps should play better than they did last week.
Expect redshirt junior middle linebacker Kenny Demens to be a little more excited than everyone else. He’ll be playing against his former high school teammate Jonas Gray, Notre Dame’s backup running back.
Michigan didn’t attempt a field goal last Saturday and had one extra point attempt blocked. Freshman Matt Wile, thrust into punting duties after sophomore Will Hagerup was suspended for the first four games this season, had just two punts against Western Michigan, averaging 41 yards. While the relatively low workload is what Hoke wants, there’s no proof that Michigan has improved its dreadful kicking game. Adding to the woes, the Wolverines’ kick-off coverage was a problem all game as the Broncos averaged more than 31 yards for return.
Notre Dame returns both their kicker, David Ruffer, and punter Ben Turk. After going 18-for-19 last season Ruffer missed a 30-yard field goal last week, the only one he attempted. While neither is likely to contend for any national awards, when facing Michigan having a warm body in the spot leads to an edge almost by default.
Edge: Notre Dame
Playing under the lights and in front of what is expected to be the largest crowd in Michigan history favors the home team. Yet, it all may just be a distraction that the Wolverine players can’t get away from. With the game being Hoke’s first test and first rivalry game, the team will be ready. Considering the circumstances, Hoke may have to calm them down.
While Notre Dame doesn’t have the big crowd behind it or a brand new coach to play for, it needs this game more. Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly’s second season was supposed to be a step forward. A loss to Michigan pushes Notre Dame to 0-2 and Kelly’s seat gets a bit hot.
Final Score Notre Dame 28, Michigan 24