Michigan vs. Notre Dame: Will Irish Prevail vs. Denard Robinson and Wolverines?
Losers of the last three games to Michigan, Notre Dame has been named a 5.5-point favorite when the two teams clash in South Bend Saturday night (via vegasinsider.com).
The Wolverines have actually won five of the last six encounters in the storied series which dates back to 1887.
But Notre Dame claimed its favored role with three straight wins to open the 2012 season, including an impressive 20-3 win over the Michigan State Spartans last week. The Wolverines, on the other hand, were crushed by Alabama, 41-14, to open the season, before knocking off pesky Air Force and outgunned Massachusetts.
While the Fighting Irish appear to be better than last year's edition, which finished 8-5, let's not award them a BCS bowl berth just yet.
Regardless of what happened in East Lansing, the Michigan game will be no picnic. In fact, those last three Michigan victories came at the hands—and feet—of a pair of talented dual-threat quarterbacks: Tate Forcier and, most recently, Denard Robinson.
While Forcier won the 2009 affair with a nifty touchdown pass in the closing seconds, Robinson highlighted the 2010 win with an 87-yard touchdown run, culminating with a 16-yard scoring strike.
Robinson, who will close out his senior season with a host of Michigan records, passed for 587 yards and rushed for 366 yards in his two victories over Notre Dame.
On Saturday, Notre Dame will trot out its own version of a versatile signal-caller, Everett Golson. The heralded sophomore took the job away from Tommy Rees, who tossed three touchdown passes against the Wolverines last year.
Let's look further to see if the Irish can cover the spread, or if they can actually win the game.
How Good Is Notre Dame's Defense?
The Notre Dame faithful were especially excited over its performance against the Spartans. The Irish held Le'Veon Bell to 77 yards rushing and sacked former backup quarterback Andrew Maxwell four times.
But Michigan State is merely a shell of the the last two Spartan teams who won a total of 22 games, a share of the 2010 conference title, and barely lost to Wisconsin in the inaugural Big Ten championship game.
Offensively, the Spartans lost reliable—if not spectacular—quarterback Kirk Cousins and the entire receiving corps.
Notre Dame's problems are on the other side of the ball. While Manti Te'o, Stephen Tuitt and Louis Nix III comprise the nucleus of what might be the best front seven in the country, the Irish remain weak in the secondary. Missing are all four starters from the unit which Denard Robinson torched for 28 points in the final quarter a year ago.
Like several teams who stack the box to stop Robinson's running game, Notre Dame will be ill advised to use that strategy against the Wolverines.
Michigan features a pair of excellent 6'4" leapers who double as pass receivers. Both converted quarterback Devin Gardner and hybrid tight end Devin Funchess have already given defenders fits.
Other Than Denard, Will Michigan's Running Game Show Up?
Michigan's running backs have a tendency to disappear when the competition gets tough. Last season, the running backs had little success against Notre Dame, Michigan State, Iowa and Virginia Tech. Thus far in 2012, they were absent against Alabama and atrocious versus Air Force.
Granted, Fitzgerald Toussaint is Michigan's only legitimate back and he missed last year's Notre Dame game and this year's Alabama fiasco. Unfortunately, he was present at all the rest, and that could spell trouble for the Wolverines in South Bend.
On the positive side, youngsters Thomas Rawls and Justice Hayes are improving, while Vincent Smith is still a threat as a receiver out of the backfield.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame has a stable of four backs who've already contributed. Senior Cierre Wood, who was suspended for the first two games, ran for 1,102 yards last season. Theo Riddick, George Atkinson and Cam McDonald picked up the slack.
In last year's matchup, Wood rambled for 134 yards and a touchdown. Expect more of the same.
Will Notre Dame's Sophomore Quarterback Make the Difference?
Under third-year coach Brian Kelly, the career of a Notre Dame quarterback is hardly secure. Just ask Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees. Each appeared to have promising careers in South Bend, but both found places on the Irish bench.
Everett Golson, a 6'0", 185-lb sophomore, has become the latest starter in Kelly's merry-go-round. Golson promises to bring a strong arm along with the ability to make plays with his feet.
"His poise, how he handled the offense (last week against Michigan State was impressive)," Michigan coach Brady Hoke told Annarbor.com. "I haven't really seen him much before, but I think he's got a good arm, mechanically he's pretty good."
"And he's got the ability to be elusive and run the ball."
Against the Spartans, Golson tossed a 36-yard touchdown pass to John Goodman and scored on a six-yard run.
He's completed 58 percent of his passes for the season, while throwing for 611 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.
Both teams are missing key players from a year ago. Michigan's offensive line has struggled without center David Molk, and Notre Dame certainly misses super wideout Michael Floyd.
The Irish have the home-field advantage, the leprechaun and years of tradition. They arguably have superiority on both lines of scrimmage.
Michigan, however, has more experience in the secondary and among the receiving corps.
Regardless, these games usually come down to the last possession. Who would you rather have the ball in the final moments with the game on the line: Everett Golson or Denard Robinson?
And if you still can't decide, consider this: It's Denard's birthday Saturday.