Michigan Football: 5 Keys to the Game vs. Notre Dame

Zach DirlamSenior Analyst IISeptember 20, 2012

Michigan Football: 5 Keys to the Game vs. Notre Dame

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    The Michigan Wolverines have gotten the better of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish the last three times the historic rivals have taken the field to face each other, including last season in the first primetime game at the Big House.

    The Fighting Irish dominated the first three quarters of play, but could not finish the job and played one of the worst defensive quarters college football fans have ever seen. 

    Michigan has won their last two games over the Air Force Falcons and UMass Minutemen after being blown out in their season-opener at Cowboys Stadium against the Alabama Crimson Tide. 

    Meanwhile, the Fighting Irish dominated the Navy Midshipmen 50-10 in Dublin, Ireland to kick off their 2012 campaign, eked out a nail-biting 20-17 victory over the upstart Purdue Boilermakers and are coming off a 20-3 victory on the road over the Michigan State Spartans to improve to 3-0 for the first time since 2002.

    Will the Wolverines improve to 3-1 with a fourth straight victory over the Fighting Irish and send Notre Dame fans home trying to figure out what went wrong, or will Brian Kelly finally earn his first win over Michigan and establish his team as a legitimate contender to play in a BCS bowl game?

    This slide show will detail the top five things the Wolverines must do in their upcoming clash with the Fighting Irish in order to leave Notre Dame Stadium victorious. 

Michigan's Offensive Line Must Slow Down Notre Dame's Front Seven

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    The Notre Dame Fighting Irish dominated the line of scrimmage in their 20-3 blowout victory over the Michigan State Spartans last Saturday in East Lansing, Mich., and Michigan Wolverine fans should expect to see much of the same this weekend at Notre Dame Stadium.

    The Spartans were limited to 50 yards rushing. Although much of that can be attributed to poor offensive line play, the Wolverines do not look much better than Michigan State in terms of blocking personnel.

    The Wolverines struggled against Notre Dame up front for the first three quarters of last year's contest, which does not bode well for Michigan considering the losses of All-American center David Molk and underrated right tackle Mark Huyge.

    Michigan's offensive linemen will need to be on top of their games and find a way to limit big plays by run-stoppers Louis Nx, Stephon Tuitt, Prince Shembo and Manti Te'o in order to run the football effectively enough to keep Notre Dame's defense on their toes.

Devin Gardner and Devin Funchess Must Take Advantage of Inexperienced Secondary

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    Converted junior quarterback Devin Gardner and true freshman tight end Devin Funchess have been, and should continue to be, matchup nightmares for opposing defenses.

    The Devins have combined for 295 receiving yards and five touchdowns through Michigan's first three games. Both use their 6'4"-plus frames and outstanding athleticism to give senior quarterback Denard Robinson a big target and a wider margin of error.

    Notre Dame Fighting Irish starting safety Janoris Slaughter will miss the remainder of the 2012 season with an achilles injury, so Matthias Farley, who played wide receiver last year, will make his first career start at safety.

    On top of that, Bennett Jackson is making his third start at cornerback and across the field from him will be converted running back KeiVarae Russell.

    It is more than safe to say Notre Dame's secondary will have a hard time handling Michigan's receivers, however none of that will matter unless Denard Robinson can get them the football. 

Denard Robinson Must Throw the Deep Ball Accurately

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    Michigan Wolverines senior quarterback Denard Robinson has driven Notre Dame fans crazy the past two seasons with his game-breaking runs and jump-ball passes.

    Robinson etched himself into the history books two seasons ago with his Notre Dame Stadium record 87-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, in addition to amassing 502 total yards and notching three touchdowns.

    The Deerfield Beach, Fla., product performed an encore act under the lights at the Big House in 2011. Robinson stuffed the stat sheet with 446 total yards of offense and five touchdowns as the Wolverines topped the Fighting Irish with three scoring drives in the fourth quarter.

    Over the last two weeks, Robinson has proven he is still one of college football's most electrifying players by making dynamic play after dynamic play against the Air Force Falcons and UMass Minutemen. The All-Big Ten dual-threat has 823 total yards and eight touchdowns in Michigan's two wins thus far.

    Expect Robinson to make some big plays down the field like seasons past. However this game is going to come down to whether or not Robinson is able to burn Notre Dame's secondary by completing deep passes to Devin Gardner and Devin Funchess.

    Michigan will roll Robinson out of the pocket and spread the field with multiple receiver sets in order to exploit the Fighting Irish defensive backs, but the Wolverines are going to need their quarterback to be an accurate passer to beat Notre Dame for a third straight season.

Michigan's Defensive Line Must Keep Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick in Check

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    Although the Michigan Wolverines came away with a 35-31 victory over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the first night game in the history of Michigan Stadium, Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick tore up defensive coordinator Greg Mattison's defense to the tune of 196 total yards and three touchdowns.

    Wood, now in his senior season at Notre Dame, carried the ball 25 times for 134 yards and a touchdown on the ground, while Riddick caught six passes for 62 yards along with two scoring receptions during the 2011 tilt. 

    This should not be taken lightly by Wolverine fans, because Michigan's defense is even less equipped to stop the run this year with the departure of three starting defensive linemen and underwhelming play at linebacker by the current starters.

    True freshmen Joe Bolden and James Ross made critical plays at the end of Michigan's victory over the Air Force Falcons, but the Fighting Irish are a completely different animal.

    If the Wolverines hope to top the Fighting Irish and keep the game from becoming a shootout the defense will have to find some kind of answer for Riddick, who has led Notre Dame in rushing yards through their first three games, and Wood. 

Michigan's Defense Needs to Make Everett Golson Beat Them Throwing the Football

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    Notre Dame Fighting Irish starting quarterback Everett Golson is one of the team's best athletes, which is part of the reason the sophomore is playing ahead of backup Tommy Rees. However, Golson does not run the ball nearly as much as Michigan Wolverines dual-threat signal-caller Denard Robinson.

    Golson may not have put up great numbers against the Michigan State Spartans in Notre Dame's 20-3 upset in at Spartan Stadium. However, the Myrtle Beach, S.C., product did make one of the biggest plays of the game by scrambling to the right sideline and firing a 36-yard touchdown pass to senior tight end John Goodman.

    As a result, the Fighting Irish went up 7-0 less than five minutes in the first quarter and took the rowdy Michigan State crowd out of the game early.  

    Golson may not be a polished passer, but he is more than capable of connecting with several of Notre Dame's receivers for big plays down the field if the Wolverines choose to load the box in an attempt to slow down Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick.

    Michigan's defensive line has been concerning thus far with their lack of a pass rush, which means defensive coordinator Greg Mattison may need to dial up some exotic blitzes in order to fluster Golson enough to create some turnovers.

    Mattison is not afraid to send extra players to rush the passer, so it will be up the Michigan's linebackers and defensive backs to pressure Golson and make him throw on the run.

    Whatever approach Michigan decides to take, the Wolverines need to make Golson beat them through the air. If Riddick and Wood continue to run all over Michigan's defense the Wolverines will not be able to keep up with the Fighting Irish on the scoreboard.