Michigan may be Notre Dame Football’s toughest opponent on the schedule. What individuals should Irish fans watch out for when the Wolverines come to South Bend?
The Michigan Wolverines are coming to Notre Dame Stadium for the first time since a blow out loss in 2014, and they are looking for revenge. Michigan ended the 2017 season with a record of 8-5. The team played stellar defense throughout the duration of the season but consistently struggled to put anything substantial together offensively against good opponents. Let’s take a look at the five players from Michigan that could give Notre Dame the most trouble when they come to South Bend for the season opener.
All eyes have been on Shea Patterson in Ann Arbor since he transferred from Ole Miss. During the 2017 campaign at Ole Miss, Patterson threw for 2,259 yards and posted a 63.8 completion percentage in the seven games that he played. Reports out of Ann Arbor indicate that Patterson has done a good job of quickly integrating himself into Jim Harbaugh’s system.
Patterson was rated a five-star recruit and was the #1 quarterback in the 2016 class according to the 247Sports Composite rankings. Although untested as a Wolverine, Patterson is undoubtedly talented enough to give the Irish defense fits. The key to Patterson’s success lies in how well-protected he will be by his offensive line. If the Notre Dame defense can take full advantage of what is arguably Michigan’s weakest unit, Patterson could quickly become mediocre. But if the Irish cannot put adequate pressure on Michigan’s offensive line and get to Patterson, it could be a long day for the Notre Dame defense.
Karan Higdon-Running Back
Higdon was Michigan’s #1 running back last season. He carried the ball 164 times for 994 yards, averaged 6.1 yards per carry, and scored 11 touchdowns as a result. Higdon said himself that he was leaving for the NFL draft if he hit 1,000 yards rushing, so he will be playing with the added incentive to get those six extra yards this year. And there is no better way to get off on the right foot than with a huge game on opening day–an opening day that features one of your biggest rivals no less.
Higdon has also put the time in during the off-season to get stronger, adding a significant amount of muscle mass. He will undoubtedly be a force to be reckoned with. If the Notre Dame defensive front can penetrate the Michigan offense, they can perhaps stifle Higdon. This would put more pressure on Patterson to make more throws than he would like to make in long down situations. But if the Notre Dame defense can’t get the penetration it needs, Patterson and Higdon could provide a lethal one-two offensive punch.
Rashan Gary-Defensive End
Rashan Gary has appeared in the top ten of many 2019 mock drafts and for good reason. Watching any film of Gary will show you that he has phenomenal defensive instincts. He gets a great beat off the snap which results in excellent penetration. He is big and he is fast. The Notre Dame offensive line will have their hands full with Gary. We all know what Notre Dame’s offensive line lost to the draft. The new guys up front will have to get acclimated fast if they want to have a chance at stopping Rashan Gary and his counterpart, Chase Winovich, who had a successful 2017 season in his own right.
**Editor’s Note: There is some speculation that Gary may be nursing an injury ahead of Saturday’s game in South Bend.**
Devin Bush Jr.-Linebacker
Devin Bush Jr. was Michigan’s leading tackler last season. He takes guys down, and he often does so for a loss. Highlight reels from last season showcase Bush Jr.’s ability to move laterally with a quickness as well as his explosiveness to a hole in the offensive front. The Notre Dame offensive line will have to keep pace with Bush Jr. (as well as with the guys listed above) in order to buy Wimbush enough time to get rid of the ball. If we see Wimbush having to scramble early and often against Bush Jr. and the rest of the Michigan defense, the Irish could find themselves in a hole real quick.
Tape of Lavert Hill showcases his speed and ability to consistently succeed in press coverage. And if he wasn’t good enough by himself, I could have easily have given this last spot to David Long, Michigan’s other stand out cornerback. Whether up against Hill or Long, the Notre Dame wide receivers will have to use their height to their advantage. This is one area where Notre Dame should be successful considering their receivers will provide mismatches for the Michigan secondary. But mismatches mean nothing down the field if the Notre Dame offensive front cannot protect Wimbush enough to give him an opportunity to exploit those mismatches.
Are you starting to see the problem now? Much in the same way I could have chosen Chase Winovich as another problematic player for the Irish, I too could have chosen David Long. Sure, the Michigan offense is untested under their new quarterback. But no matter which way you slice it, this Michigan defense is seasoned and talented, at least on paper. The Notre Dame offensive front will have to prove to themselves early that they have what it takes to combat Michigan’s defensive front. Likewise, Wimbush will have to get off to a hot start to give him the confidence he needs to go four quarters against a defense that will try its best pressure him on every down.