Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. Michigan Wolverines Complete Game Preview
Notre Dame welcomes Michigan to South Bend in the last scheduled matchup between college football's two most winningest programs. In a series that's been filled with close games—and mostly heart-breaking losses for the Irish—of late, Notre Dame set a rare primetime kickoff for this "final" battle. (Final, at least, until the two schools kiss and make up.)
With that reconciliation not coming any time soon, this is all we'll be getting in a rivalry that may not fit the definition in terms of familiarity but certainly does in contempt.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke may have opened 2014 on the hot seat, but he's beaten Brian Kelly in three out of four, including last year's 41-30 win in Ann Arbor in front of a record crowd of 115,109. Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner and receiver Jeremy Gallon carried the day, torching the Irish secondary.
To add a little salt in the wound, the "Chicken Dance" blared over the stadium sound system, a less-than-subtle jab at Notre Dame, who Hoke accused of "chickening out" of the series during the summer booster club circuit. That hasn't been forgotten in South Bend.
Let's get you ready for Notre Dame-Michigan.
Date: Saturday, Sept. 6
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
Place: Notre Dame Stadium in Notre Dame, Indiana
Radio: IMG College Sports, SiriusXM Channel 129
Spread: Notre Dame by 4.5, according to Odds Shark.
Notre Dame Keys to Victory
Be Productive on Offense and Hold on to the Football
The fireworks Everett Golson provided last weekend serve as the ultimate blueprint for Notre Dame's victory. The Irish piled up 576 total yards of offense with Golson producing five total touchdowns.
It sounds simple, but scoring points will be critical. Not turning over the football, something the Irish did twice last year with two interceptions, will be, too. The turnover battle has told the tale of this matchup, with Notre Dame decisively winning it in 2012 in a 13-6 victory.
The Irish's five turnovers in 2011 helped trigger Michigan's epic fourth-quarter comeback. The Irish lost the turnover battle 3-0 in 2010, assisted by Denard Robinson's rushing heroics.
Notre Dame started slowly against Rice, punting twice before getting the offense rolling. They'll need to be productive and play clean to beat Michigan.
Don't Give Up the Big Play on Defense
For as good as Brian VanGorder's defense looked in its debut against Rice, the Wolverines have to be licking their chops after seeing Notre Dame's safety play. With Austin Collinsworth injured last Thursday, the Irish lost a team captain and the leader of their secondary, forcing Elijah Shumate into the starting lineup along with sophomore Max Redfield.
The Irish gave up four explosive plays in the passing game, with Kelly crediting three of them to poor communication in the secondary.
After watching Devin Gardner connect with 6'5", 230-pound Devin Funchess for three touchdown passes, you've got to expect offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier to challenge the Irish over the top.
Gardner and now-graduated Jeremy Gallon torched Notre Dame's defense for eight catches, 184 yards and three touchdowns in last year's 41-30 win. VanGorder and secondary coach Kerry Cooks need to make the necessary adjustments to stop the same thing from happening.
Michigan Keys to Victory
Get Good Quarterback Play Out of Devin Gardner
Last year, Gardner chose the Notre Dame game to put on the No. 98 jersey, honoring former Michigan great Tom Harmon, the school's first Heisman Trophy winner.
Gardner channeled that greatness against the Irish, picking apart Notre Dame's secondary for 294 passing yards and four touchdowns, while leading the Wolverines in rushing with 82 yards and another score.
The game was the high-water mark for Gardner, who threw eight interceptions over the next six games, as the Wolverines went from starting the season 5-0 before collapsing to a 7-6 finish.
At his best, Gardner is the type of quarterback that defenses just can't prepare for. Athletically, he's still every bit the playmaker that led the team in touchdown passes in 2012 while finishing second in receiving TDs.
He and new coordinator Doug Nussmeier started the season on the right note, with Gardner connecting on 13 of 14 passes and three touchdowns in an easy victory. A great game by Gardner likely means another victory for the Wolverines.
Stop the Notre Dame Ground Game
For as one-sided as Michigan's victory over Appalachian State was—the Wolverines jumped out to a 42-0 lead before coasting to a 52-14 finish—the Michigan run defense wasn't as stout as they'd have liked.
The Mountaineers' Terrence Upshaw ran for 109 yards on 18 carries, a hearty 6.1 yards per carry that should have Greg Mattison looking to shore some things up before they face the powerful Irish running game.
If Mattison is able to slow down Notre Dame's ground game, they can force Brian Kelly to get one-dimensional, something not all that hard to do if we look at Kelly's past.
But if Everett Golson, Greg Bryant, Tarean Folston and Cam McDaniel can get the rushing attack rolling, it could be a long day for the Wolverines defense and make them susceptible to the home run pass over the top.
Notre Dame Players to Watch
Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate
This is the optimal safety duo that Brian Kelly wants to roam the backend of the Irish defense. But after some shaky deep coverage against Rice's marginal passing game, Redfield and Shumate need to improve, as they should plan on being attacked on Saturday night.
In a secondary that plans to play more man coverage than any of Bob Diaco's units, the need for good safety play can't be understated. And after one week, that's the key liability in Brian VanGorder's young secondary, especially with the loss of Collinsworth, the captain responsible for all the back-end communication.
Redfield and Shumate are probably Notre Dame's two most physically talented safeties, but both lack experience, something they'll be getting in a pressure-packed environment.
In a mano-a-mano quarterback duel, Golson has to outplay Devin Gardner, plain and simple.
He didn't get that opportunity last year while sitting suspended in San Diego and watching his team come up short in Ann Arbor. And he played the worst game of his young career against the Wolverines in 2012 before being pulled in favor of Tommy Rees.
Golson has the weapons on the ground and in the air, even with the fate of DaVaris Daniels still unknown. But in a primetime game, a huge statistical performance against Michigan will have a national audience far more intrigued than the fireworks he put up against Rice.
Michigan Players to Watch
Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith
Michigan's running back duo got off to a monster start against Appalachian State, running for a combined 285 yards on just 23 carries. After the Wolverines' ground game finished an inept 103rd in the country last year, Green and Smith effectively carried the load last Saturday.
Of course, they'll face a bigger challenge this weekend, especially after seeing Notre Dame's run defense hold up surprisingly well against a Rice offense that was one of the better ground attacks in the country last year.
Michigan faithful have to be excited about seeing Green play up to his potential, with the former 5-star recruit running for just 3.3 yards per carry and 270 yards during a freshman season where he looked out of shape and slow.
Paired with fellow sophomore Smith, another dynamic game this weekend could mean big things for Michigan.
The Wolverines' fifth-year senior is the defense's best playmaker. With Greg Mattison needing to throw a complex game plan at Everett Golson, he'd be well served to make sure that Ryan is a big part of it.
After suffering an ACL tear last spring practice, Ryan missed the Notre Dame game in 2013 while recovering. Now fully healthy, the Ohio native from St. Ignatius High School will be looking to make up for lost time against the Irish.
An explosive linebacker who made 27 TFLs in his first two seasons of competition, Ryan will be looking to wreak havoc in the Irish backfield Saturday night.
What They're Saying
"Well, it's always been a great football game. Bo (Schembechler) would say it kind of lets you know where your team is early in the season because of the similarity in the athletes that are on the field.
"So from that standpoint, I just think for college football it's a great rivalry. The significance of it being the last one down there? Yeah, there's significance to it." —Brady Hoke on Sunday, talking about playing Notre Dame.
"My thoughts? Yeah, I mean, that's their prerogative. They won the game. They can play whatever they want. We're going to play the Alma Mater." —Brian Kelly, on Michigan playing the "Chicken Dance" after last year's 41-30 win in Ann Arbor.
Notre Dame 38, Michigan 24
If there's a game Brian Kelly really wants this year, it's this one. After losing three times to old MAC rival Brady Hoke, Kelly and the Irish want to make up for one of their most disappointing performances last season.
The stage is set. A huge recruiting weekend is on tap. So is a night game, with the home crowd ready to provide their version of a 12th man.
On paper, the Irish have the more complete team, especially if the offense is firing on all cylinders. But both teams have significant question marks on defense, with a young Irish unit needing to limit mistakes and Devin Gardner's heroics.
Kelly had a month to study Michigan offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier's system before playing Alabama in the BCS title game. It didn't help. Kelly also kicked the tires on hiring Nussmeier for his vacant offensive coordinator position before deciding against it, according to Sports Illustrated's Brian Hamilton.
Ultimately, VanGorder's defense will have one too many curveballs for Gardner and the Michigan offense, allowing a balanced Irish attack to run away late from the Wolverines.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.