Michigan tight end Devin Funchess.
Notre Dame vs. Michigan.
It's one of those matchups that doesn't need much hype or advertising. Although Saturday's contest will not have any conference implications, this game is annually one of the marquee games on the college football schedule. The history and tradition between these two upper echelon programs will always attract the attention of fans and the national media.
Both squads are heading into their 2012 meeting with national championship aspirations. However, there is a good chance that only one team will leave with them intact.
These are two evenly matched teams. Although Notre Dame is a veteran-laden squad, they possess a young starting quarterback and an inexperienced defensive backfield. Michigan will rely on Denard Robinson to create space for a thin receiving corps.
Let's take a look a five youngsters who will have a big impact this weekend and could potentially help decide the outcome of the game.
Notre Dame sophomore defensive end Stephon Tuitt.
Tuitt has five sacks through three games in 2012. Needless to say, he has exploded out of the gate and made an immense impact on the defensive side of the ball for Notre Dame. Not only has he made himself an indispensable aspect of the Irish defensive line, but he will be heavily relied upon to stop Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson on Saturday.
Robinson has mobility that Notre Dame has not seen so far in 2012. He has the ability to extend plays and scramble out of the pocket to gain yards on the ground. In fact, Robinson has produced almost 950 yards of total offense so far this season.
Not only will Tuitt have the opportunity to make a huge impact on Saturday, but he absolutely must come to play if Notre Dame wants to win. As a defensive end, he will be the first line of defense against Michigan's biggest offensive weapon, so he will be in position to make plays consistently throughout the game.
Stephon Tuitt will have a huge impact on Saturday's matchup. The only question is whether it will be a positive impact or a negative one. His play so far this season suggests the former.
Michigan tight end Devin Funchess.
Despite coming into 2012 with little expectations and not seeing any playing time against Alabama in Michigan's opener, tight end Devin Funchess has quickly developed into the prime target over the middle of the field for Denard Robinson.
So far this season, the freshman tight end has six receptions for 140 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 23.3 yards per reception. Funchess has the ability to stretch a defense, so his mere presence will give Denard Robinson more room to work with. That, in itself, will have a significant impact on the game.
Funchess is a matchup nightmare for defenses. He is faster than the majority of linebackers, yet his 6'4", 229-pound frame makes him too big to be covered by a traditional defensive back. Notre Dame will have a tough time matching up with him so look for Michigan to get the freshman the ball early in order to stretch out the defense.
Notre Dame cornerback KeiVarae Russell.
As a guy who was primarily recruited as a running back, freshman KeiVarae Russell will start at cornerback on Saturday. He has been playing a big role in Notre Dame's defensive backfield all season and has held his own against elite competition.
Russell has an elite ability to find the ball in coverage and get his hands on it. Although he is slightly undersized at 5'11" and 182 pounds, Russell has elite speed that allows him to run with almost any receiver in the nation.
Saturday will be a big test for him. Denard Robinson's mobility in the pocket will allow the Wolverines to extend plays, which will leave Russell in coverage for much longer than he is used to. His athleticism suggests he should be up to the challenge, but Saturday will undoubtedly be the biggest test of his young collegiate career.
The Irish will rely heavily on their secondary to hold up on Saturday, and KeiVarae Russell should be able to make a positive impact in that effort.
Michigan running back Thomas Rawls.
Sophomore running back Thomas Rawls may have a large impact on Saturday's contest. Despite having Fitzgerald Toussaint ahead of him on the depth chart, Rawls was productive in a win against UMass last weekend while Toussaint has been inconsistent in his two games so far in 2012.
Although Rawls did not see much action against Alabama or Air Force, he had six carries for 42 yards last weekend against UMass's less-than-stellar run defense. He is listed as Michigan's number two back heading into this weekend, and we could see him get more action than expected.
Toussaint averaged less than one yard per carry against Air Force two weeks ago. He rebounded last weekend, but Notre Dame's run defense is a different animal. If Toussaint is not on his game against the Irish, Brady Hoke could turn to Rawls to jump start the rushing attack.
Rawls is a good compliment to Denard Robinson's elusive style. He is a downhill runner who hits holes with authority and punishes defenses when they tackle him. He has the ability to wear down Notre Dame's defensive line throughout the course of a game, which could bode well for Michigan's chances in the late goings.
Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson.
This one is obvious. Notre Dame sophomore quarterback Everett Golson is a first-year starter going up against Michigan's improved, veteran defense. Although he played well against Michigan State in an Irish victory a week ago, consistency is something that often alludes younger players.
Golson is an undersized, mobile quarterback, but he is deadly when given time to throw. He can make any throw in the book. Needless to say, the Wolverines should be on notice this Saturday.
That said, Golson is far from a polished quarterback. Irish head coach Brian Kelly recently talked about his young starter, via the Detroit Free Press.
"I think we all know that he's very skilled," Kelly said of Golson. "He's also very smart. He just doesn't have a lot of experience, so translating that classroom knowledge on to the football field is a process that we're in. And, sometimes he's a little late in those reactions. Sometimes he's too much pre-snap. Other times we feel like he does some things you can't teach.
Notre Dame will live and die by Golson's play on Saturday. He's withstood some elite competition so far, but he will have to score more points on Saturday than he has in any other game this season to keep the Irish in the contest.