Date: September 7, 2013 at 8:00pm EST
Where: The Big House
In the last several years, the Notre Dame-Michigan game has provided fans on both sides with some classic moments. Unfortunately, the rivalry will end in 2014 because Notre Dame was forced to clear room on their schedule for five ACC opponents. The loss of Michigan from the schedule robs college football fans of an incredible matchup of two storied programs, but given the trouble Michigan routinely causes the Irish, I doubt they will be missed.
The 2012 Michigan team, if simply looking at their record (8-5), seemed to underperform. However, a closer examination reveals a talented team that played an incredibly difficult schedule. Michigan lost to Alabama, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Nebraska and South Carolina. Three of those teams finished undefeated and Michigan nearly defeated two of them (Notre Dame and Ohio State). Andy Staples has the Wolverines ranked 16th during his preseason report on SI.com, and rightfully so, as Michigan returns a host of starters on the offensive and defensive side of the ball.
QB Devon Gardner started Michigan’s last five games after Denard Robinson went down with an injury. In those starts Gardner threw for 1,219 yards with 11 touchdowns and 5 interceptions according to statistics at ESPN.com. Gardner performed well against a difficult stretch in Michigan’s schedule to include a game against Ohio State and their bowl matchup with South Carolina. In Gardner, Michigan fans found the dynamic passing game that they had hoped would develop under Denard Robinson. Al Borges, Michigan’s offensive coordinator, began the in 2012 to shift to a pro-style offense better suited to Gardner’s skills. With the experience of last season and an entire off-season to learn the new offense, Gardner could develop into the premeir quarterback of the Big Ten. Gardner will also have returning starters TE Devin Funchess and WR Jeremy Gallon as competent and experienced playmakers to augment the new offensive style.
Even with Gardner, Michigan is still Michigan and they will run the football. The running game will receive a boost as Fitz Touissant returns to the backfield after an injury last spring. Touissant will need to prove he can play as Michigan has a stable of young, talented running backs that will be pushing for playing time. Whoever Michigan decides to start will have the luxury of running behind two outstanding tackles in Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield. Lewan was Big Ten Offensive Linemen of the Year in 2012 and an all-Big Ten selection. Ryan McCrystal at DraftFace.com tweeted that Lewan “might have been the best LT in the 2013 class” had he come out of college early, but he decided to stay. Lewan’s leadership will be essential as the coaching staff develops a group of young interior linemen.
On defense, the Wolverines return key starters from a unit that finished 13th in total defense last season. The defensive line will be anchored by DT Quinton Washington, a 6’4” 305lb cog in the middle of the line of scrimmage who will cause problems for Notre Dame’s young interior offensive linemen. The Wolverines will rely on DE Frank Clark, a 277lb converted safety who led the team in tackles for loss, to develop a pass rush for a unit that struggled to get to the quarterback. Defensive Coordinator Greg Mattison will have to design a scheme to confuse Notre Dame’s offensive line and challenge Zack Martin and Christian Lombard.
Behind the defensive front, Brennen Beyer has moved to inside linebacker to replace LB Jake Ryan who suffered a significant knee injury and will most likely miss the Notre Dame game. Although Ryan is a tremendous loss, Beyer should fill the position well. Beyer will be supported by returning starter LB Desmond Morgan who played well last season and up-and-comer LB James Ross. In the secondary, the Wolverines welcome back DB Blake Countess who suffered an ACL tear against Alabama. Countess will most likely match up against TJ Jones. Ramon Taylor, Countess’ replacement last year, will play the other corner position while fifth year senior Thomas Gordon, who has started 26 games at safety and recorded 81 tackles last season, will provide experience at the backend of the defense.
In 2012, Notre Dame needed six turnovers, five committed by Notre Dame killer Denard Robinson, and Manti Teo’s best game as a Notre Dame player to win 13-6 at home. In 2013, Michigan will again have the opportunity and the talent to destroy Notre Dame’s post season aspirations. If Lewan has imposed his will and Michigan’s offensive line has started to gel, Notre Dame will need to commit to stopping the run. Michigan will then have the opportunity to test Notre Dame’s cornerbacks and linebackers through the play-action passing game. Notre Dame’s pass rushing specialists, Prince Shembo and Stephon Tuitt, will have issues against Lewan and Schofield if they are playing on their heals against the run. Bob Diaco will need to devise a scheme to confuse the offensive line of Michigan and create favorable matchups pitching Notre Dame’s defensive tackles against Michigan’s inexperienced interior offensive linemen.
On the other side of the ball, Notre Dame will have a difficult time rushing against the center of the Wolverines defense. Quinton Washington will terrorize Nick Martin and cause problems at the line of scrimmage, while the linebacker group has the talent to clog any running lanes. The Irish need to stretch the field and attack the edges to test Michigan’s outside linebackers and defensive ends. The Irish have the speed to accomplish this but they need the blocking from their tight ends and wide receivers to set the edge. Notre Dame’s wide receivers may have difficulty gaining separation against Michigan’s secondary but Niklas should present a match up problem for Michigan. If Golston can make the correct adjustments at the line of scrimmage (something he has been unable to do) and throw from the pocket, he can take advantage of Michigan’s defense.
The X-factor will be the “Big House”. Last year, Everett Golson proved he can perform on big stages, but Notre Dame needs to worry about the psyche of several players starting at key positions for the first time to include offensive line and linebacker. How they handle such an intimidating venue will determine the effectiveness of Notre Dame’s offense and defense.
In the end I think Notre Dame wins, but barely. Notre Dame and Michigan are incredibly similar, and Kelly and Hoke have built the programs under the same model. I simply believe Michigan is one year behind Notre Dame in terms of development. Hoke and company need one more year before those outstanding recruiting classes finally blossom. Just be thankful Notre Dame fans that 2014 will be the last time we see Michigan for a while.