One of college football's great rivalries will be renewed Saturday night in South Bend when No. 18 Michigan makes the short trip west to battle No. 11 Notre Dame. It will be the teams' second consecutive prime-time affair, coming on the heels of a memorable 35-31 Wolverines win last season in Ann Arbor.
The Fighting Irish enter the game at 3-0, their best start since winning eight straight to start the 2002 season. Michigan has rebounded from a loss to Alabama in the season opener to defeat Air Force and UMass.
Notre Dame has dropped three straight to the Wolverines, but has won four of the last six meetings in South Bend as well as the three previous night games in South Bend, the last coming in 1990.
Let's look at five keys for Notre Dame in Saturday night's showdown.
For those who watched Michigan's 41-14 defeat to Alabama, it was evident that Alabama nose tackle Jesse Williams was single-handedly destroying Michigan's running game.
Notre Dame needs a similar effort from its man in the middle, Louis Nix, who has the physical tools to duplicate Williams' performance from three weeks ago—a game in which Michigan ran for just 2.4 yards per carry.
Nix doesn't need to light up the stat sheet. That's not his primary job Saturday, nor in any other game. However, he will have to do enough to require two blockers, allowing Stephon Tuitt, Kapron Lewis-Moore and Prince Shembo to flourish off the edge.
Denard Robinson will still occasionally work his magic, but an elite defensive front proved to be his kryptonite.
Despite a lack of experience in the secondary, Notre Dame's defense has avoided big plays during the first quarter of the season. They’ll need to do the same on Saturday night against Robinson. Against some quarterbacks, allowing short-to-intermediate throws can be deadly. With Robinson, those throws are far from automatic completions.
Big plays have cost the Irish dearly in the last two meetings, as Robinson has beaten the Irish with both his arm and legs. Notre Dame got burnt deep multiple times last year, including the death knell on the final drive on a wheel route to Jeremy Gallon.
One-on-one coverage was disastrous for Notre Dame in last season's game, but with Robinson such a threat to run, the safeties can't always sit back in a deep zone. It's up to the young cornerbacks to not repeat last year's performance.
We saw a little more of George Atkinson III against Michigan State than against Purdue, even with Cierre Wood back in the lineup. The Irish gashed the Spartan defense on a counter draw play for 36 yards to help set up a touchdown in the second quarter.
The variety that Notre Dame’s trio of backs offers keeps opposing defenses on their toes, with the vision of Theo Riddick, the straight-line speed of Wood and the cutback ability of Atkinson III. Michigan's defense isn't the most athletic group, as evidenced by Alabama's 232 yards on the ground against the Wolverines.
Notre Dame controlled the clock last year, having the football for over 37 minutes, and should be able to match that number on Saturday night.
Two turnovers last year in the red zone prevented scores that likely would have put the game out of reach, one a Tommy Rees interception and the other a damaging non-contact fumble by Rees midway through the fourth quarter as the Irish appeared poised to take a 31-21 lead.
The Irish's other three red-zone trips resulted in touchdowns, but it’s coming up empty that Notre Dame must avoid on Saturday night. The Irish converted both of their red-zone opportunities last week in East Lansing, and have failed to score only once this year inside the 20-yard line.
Not 45. Not 59-and-a-half. But 60 minutes. Notre Dame has led each of the past three meetings with 30 seconds to play, but has lost all three. Michigan was the better team two years ago in South Bend, but the Irish were far superior for most of the night last September before a late meltdown.
Against Michigan State, the Spartans seemed out of the game early in the fourth quarter with their offense doing next to nothing. That won’t be the case this week, due to the combination of Robinson’s big-play ability and the past demons that won't be exorcised until the Irish have the lead when the clock reads 0:00.
Gutting out a win over Purdue two weeks ago, a game in which the Irish were far from their best, should bode well for the team's confidence if this game once again comes down to the final minutes.