With last year’s 28-20 upset loss to Notre Dame in South Bend fresh in the minds of Michigan’s football players, the No. 3 Wolverines prepare to host the No. 20 Irish tomorrow in a highly anticipated matchup.
Some things have changed since the teams last met. Chad Henne has transformed himself from a fresh-faced rookie into a seasoned winner with big-game experience. Mike Hart has emerged as a star runner who can churn out yards with the nation’s best.
But most of the national media attention has been focused on Notre Dame’s new head coach Charlie Weis. In his debut last week against then-No. 23 Pittsburgh, Weis steered his formerly unranked team to a 42-21 upset victory and garnered even more hype for his resurgent squad.
Meanwhile, Michigan defeated Northern Illinois at the Big House, 33-17, in the Wolverines’ first action of the year. Now the two longtime rivals square off in a game with far-reaching national implications. Here’s a breakdown of the opposing units:
Michigan passing offense vs. Notre Dame passing defense:
Chad Henne looked extremely sharp in the first half against Northern Illinois, completing 17 of 25 passes for 198 yards and two touchdowns while spreading the ball around to five different receivers. Jason Avant was a star, hauling in nine throws for 127 yards and a score in the win.
The Notre Dame secondary limited Pittsburgh stud quarterback Tyler Palko to just 220 yards and a touchdown and intercepted him once in their defeat of the Panthers last week. Considering Palko tossed the rock 35 times, that’s quite an accomplishment. Still, the Wolverines have so many weapons in the passing game that it’s hard not to like Henne’s chances for success this time.
Michigan rushing offense vs. Notre Dame rushing defense:
Behind Hart — who picked up 117 yards and a ground score against the Huskies — stands Kevin Grady, the tank-like freshman who bulldozed his way to 42 yards and a touchdown on nine carries in his Michigan debut.
Notre Dame totaled eight tackles for loss last week, but their play against the Pittsburgh running backs wasn’t exactly impressive. Tailbacks Raymond Kirkley Jr., Rashad Jennings and LaRod Stephens picked up 110 yards on just 14 carries against the Irish.
In this matchup, it’s hard to believe Notre Dame’s front seven will be able to contain Michigan’s ground game.
Notre Dame passing offense vs. Michigan passing defense:
Notre Dame’s Brady Quinn had a breakout game against Pittsburgh last Saturday, amassing 227 yards on 18-of-27 passing. Quinn completed passes to seven different receivers, five of which finished with at least three catches apiece.
Notre Dame’s air attack should expose a questionable Wolverines’ secondary. Last week Grant Mason was caught way out of position and allowed Northern Illinois tailback Garrett Wolfe to cut to the outside and run 76 yards for the score.
With the hype machine whirling, Notre Dame may be in store for a letdown. Either way, the Wolverines are just too inexperienced to compete with Weis’s NFL-style offensive attack.
Edge: Notre Dame
Notre Dame rushing offense vs. Michigan rushing defense:
Clearly unhappy with the play of his starting front seven against the Huskies, Carr promised personnel changes on defense this week. And the Wolverines’ difficulty stopping the run had a lot to do with it. Wolfe finished with 148 yards on 17 carries, and reserve tailback A.J. Harris chipped in another 54 yards.
Notre Dame’s Darius Walker had a strong start to the season, carrying the ball 20 times for 100 yards and a score.
Carr knows what he’s doing. But it will still be hard for the Wolverines to contain Notre Dame’s rushing attack.
Edge: Notre Dame
Michigan punter Ross Ryan has been a media favorite since he recovered a fumbled punt return on one of his own punts. The redshirt junior consistently blasted kickoffs through the endzone, notching five touchbacks.
Notre Dame’s kicking game is anything but suspect. D.J. Fitzpatrick was named to preseason watch list for the Lou Groza Award and was a perfect 6-for-6 in PATs last weekend. If the game comes down to a late-second field goal, the Irish have the edge. But look for Ryan to have another standout game.
The Irish are riding high with a top-25 ranking and booming confidence in a new coach. It’s hard to overestimate the effect that a morale boost can have on a team’s performance.
At the same time, the Wolverines and coach Lloyd Carr are trying to answer questions about a defense that surrendered an embarrassing 411 yards to a mid-major school. Any real or perceived lack of trust in the defense to stop the big play, especially in an important game such as this one, might be enough to shake this team’s mentally make up.
Edge: Notre Dame
Pick: It’s almost always a classic when these two historic rivals meet. With two high-powered offenses, tomorrow’s matchup figures to be a shoot-out.
In the past few years, the Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry has been as competitive as ever. The Irish won in 2002, the Wolverines embarrassed Notre Dame in 2003, and the Irish came back to win at the last second in 2004. Look for Michigan to continue that trend tomorrow.
Michigan 39, Notre Dame 34