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A Big Game in The Big House – Notre Dame vs. Michigan Preview

2005.  That was the last time that the Fighting Irish were able to get a win in Ann Arbor.  With another primetime matchup set for Saturday, the 19th ranked Michigan Wolverines are set to host the eighth ranked Fighting Irish.  At Notre Dame, Brian Kelly has an 11-1 record when coming off a bye week, so will this year’s Irish team be able to snap the 14 year drought in Ann Arbor (granted, they haven’t played there every year)?  The oddsmakers don’t think so; Michigan opened as four point favorites, which has since dropped, but Saturday night’s matchup has some major implications for both programs.  A win for Notre Dame and the Irish remain squarely in the playoff picture, but remember, the home team has won the last eight night games between these two opponents.

Michigan, coming off a painful 28-21 loss at Penn State last weekend, is lead by Jim Harbaugh in his fifth season with the Wolverines.  This loss has left Michigan in a very tricky situation.  Currently sitting at 5-2, will the close loss to Penn State give the team the confidence to play with top ranked opponents or will that be the crack that could eventually lead to losses against Notre Dame and Ohio State, among potential others?  Which Michigan team will show up: the one that got bullied by Wisconsin or the efficient and clicking unit that almost pulled off a victory on the road at Penn State?  The answer to this question will have a significant impact on the outcome of Saturday’s game.

The Irish enter their first road test in five weeks coming off the bye, giving Coach Kelly and the staff extra time to game plan and prepare.  In his weekly press conference, Kelly addressed the keys to a Notre Dame victory: “We have to execute at a high level, play a physical game, and handle the elements.”  When it comes to handling the elements, the atmosphere in the Big House is expected to be comparable to that of the Georgia game earlier this season.  Having already gone through a similar test, the Irish, according to Kelly, have spent significantly more time working on their non-verbal cadences as compared to their preparation for Georgia.  Communication is going to be key for the Irish offense – they cannot afford to have numerous false start penalties due to crowd noise if they wish to be successful.  Offensively, quarterback Ian Book will need to get the passing game going early and often.  Michigan’s defensive scheme is aggressive – they send blitz packages on over half of their plays and usually leave the receivers in one-on-one coverage.  This is meant to get pressure to the quarterback as well as stop the opponent’s run game.  Notre Dame’s passing game has been subpar throughout the season, especially in the last game against USC, so the proven veterans, Chase Claypool, Cole Kmet, and even Chris Finke, and Michael Young will need to step up.  When dealing with the Wolverine’s one-on-one pass coverage, Notre Dame’s receivers will need to play physical, getting off the line of scrimmage and will look to exploit the Michigan secondary with deep plays or routes over the seam.  Being able to incorporate the breakaway speed of Braden Lenzy is something that I hope Chip Long will look to use in the passing game as well.  Although Michigan will be aiming to stop the Irish rushing attack, Kelly did mention that running back Jafar Armstrong will be “an important part of the game plan” and is expected to be a “full go” come Saturday. Armstrong’s lack of playing time and touches in the USC game was not only because of Tony Jones Jr.’s success, but also was used to get him a taste of the action again after suffering his abdominal injury in the first game of the season.  

Defensively, this is where I think the Irish can swing the game in their favor.  Michigan’s senior quarterback Shea Patterson is coming off arguably his best performance in a Wolverine uniform last Saturday, but has already thrown four interceptions this season.  As the Wolverine’s are prone to slower offensive starts, if the Notre Dame defensive line can get pressure on Patterson early, this will be a great way to break their will and silence the 100,000+ fans in Ann Arbor.  As Patterson is an experienced senior quarterback, the Irish defense will need to constantly mix up their looks and pressures, forcing him to make difficult reads and potentially leading to a turnover.  Patterson does have a lot of weapons on the outside with a plethora of big, physical, and experienced receivers.  Patterson’s four favorite targets, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Nico Collins, Tarik Black, and Ronnie Bell, are no shorter than six feet and use their length to their advantage.  They aren’t as fast as the USC receivers that Notre Dame faced two weeks ago so thankfully, we should not see any of the three defensive linemen with eight dropping in coverage during this matchup.  With the size and ability of the Michigan receiver’s I expect to see a lot of help over the top by Notre Dame’s safeties.  Coach Kelly also mentioned that Notre Dame cornerback Shaun Crawford is expected to play just weeks after suffering a dislocated elbow.  I would not expect Crawford to see any significant amount of playing time, but rather work him into the defensive back rotation for a handful of snaps.  Michigan’s rushing attack has been lead by true freshman Zach Charbonnet who has been averaging almost five yards per carry when he’s given the ball.  With the Wolverine’s offensive line playing somewhat inconsistently throughout the first half of the season, Notre Dame’s defensive line will need to assert its dominance.  If the Irish can force Patterson and the Wolverine offense into some costly turnovers, I think that drastically improves their chance of leaving Ann Arbor with a victory.  

With the expected atmosphere around the night game on Saturday, I don’t think this will be a very high scoring game.  The Irish will need to put up points early and force at least one Wolverine turnover if they want to achieve their first victory at Michigan since 2005.  If it does end up being a low scoring game, there are always a lot of unpredictable things that could occur to effect the outcome.  If Ian Book is able to lead the Irish offense and the Notre Dame defensive front creates havoc and forces some turnovers, I do think the Irish can win this game.  Would I love for it to be a blowout?  Absolutely.  Do I think that will be the case?  Unfortunately not.  After a physical 60 minutes of football, I predict the Irish will come away with a hard-fought 24-20 win. I do believe that Notre Dame is the better team, but they will have to play to their full potential to leave victorious.  Go Irish.  Beat Wolverines.

A Look at Notre Dame’s Opponents:

Louisville: 4-3, lost to Clemson 45-10

New Mexico: 2-5, lost to Wyoming 23-10

Georgia: 6-1, currently ranked #10, beat Kentucky 21-0

Virginia: 5-2, beat Duke 48-14

Bowling Green: 2-5, lost to Central Michigan 38-20

USC: 4-3, beat Arizona 41-14

Michigan: 5-2, currently ranked #19, lost to Penn State 28-21

Virginia Tech: 5-2, beat North Carolina in OT 43-41

Duke: 4-3, lost to Virginia 48-14

Navy: 5-1, beat South Florida 35-3

Boston College: 4-3, beat North Carolina State 45-24

Stanford: 3-4, lost to UCLA 34-16