Michigan vs. Notre Dame: Unknown Players Who Will Decide the Game
When the Michigan Wolverines and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish take the field Saturday night, there will be more than just a win on the line; there will be vengeance.
These bitter rivals look to continue a rivalry that has been deemed one-sided as of late. Going into the game, Michigan will look to continue their winning streak against the Irish, having won the last four battles.
Notre Dame? They seek redemption. And while everyone knows the Denard Robinsons and Manti Te'os of the world, it will be up to the "unknown" players to provide the proper push to sway the game in their respective teams' favor.
While Michigan's season hasn't been what they expected (having a no-show performance against Alabama in the first week of the season), they have righted the ship and look to pick up their third straight win. A win against the No. 11 team in the country will also keep them teetering on the border of BCS Championship contention, something they've sought for over a decade.
Notre Dame entered the season with a litany of question marks. Who would start at quarterback? Would coach Brian Kelly utilize a platoon? How are they going to overcome the inexperience at defensive back? All of those questions dissipated as the Irish went on to win three in a row.
But how did they do it?
Production from unknown commodities. Each team has been pleasantly surprised by these players and will continue to do so as this crucial game creeps close and closer.
Troy Niklas, TE, Notre Dame
Troy Niklas, the sophomore backup to the potential All-American tight end Tyler Eifert, will be huge in this contest.
Although his 2012 stats are nothing to write home about, Niklas will play a key role in opening up running holes for teammates Cierre Wood and Theo "The Chronicles of" Riddick. His counterpart Eifert isn't as savvy blocking-wise and isn't nearly as wide.
With the occasional ball finding his direction, Niklas possesses good hands in traffic and enough lift to get over the top of defenders.
The 2012 season and this game in particular will give Notre Dame fans a glimpse of what is to come post-Eifert. Niklas is just learning the position, as he played outside linebacker his freshman year. He was a two-way star coming out of high school, but just finding his way at the tight end spot.
Niklas has the genes to be a productive player, regardless of position. His uncle is none other than NFL Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews.
Either way, when Notre Dame calls a play with a two tight end set, watch for "the other" tight end to get some grabs.
Devin Gardner, WR, Michigan Wolverines
The junior quarterback turned wide receiver Devin Gardner has caught a touchdown in each of the first three games this season.
His meteoric rise came from out of nowhere. Before the season, he wasn't really talked about much more than his role as backup quarterback.
As the season began and the games have passed, Gardner has accumulated a total of 155 yards on eight catches, with a total of, you guessed it, three touchdowns.
Gardner uses his massive 6'4" frame to elevate over defenders and exemplifies extraordinary athleticism and fluidity when catching the ball on the run.
With GS Jamoris Slaughter out for the rest of the season due to an Achilles injury, the young and inexperienced secondary of Notre Dame must watch out for this explosive talent. If Denard Robinson has time and his receivers can break free of coverage, it could be a long day for the rolling Irish.
Robby Toma, WR, Notre Dame
The quick and shifty senior will look for his time to shine Saturday.
The under-utilized wide receiver tends to make the most of his time when he hits the field. Similar to their untested and inexperienced secondary, Notre Dame also goes to battle with a rather young and verdant wide receiving corps.
On the season, Toma has accumulated 91 yards on nine catches. He's on pace to outproduce himself from the previous year, when he put up 19 receptions for 207 yards.
Last week's win against the then-No. 10 team in the country, Michigan State, showed Toma's talent at wide out when he caught five balls for 58 tough yards.
Brian Kelly isn't sold on his other options at wide receiver, or he thinks they need to earn the role. Either way, Toma could potentially find himself landing a consistent role on the offensive end.
Thomas Gordon, S, Michigan Wolverines
RS senior Thomas Gordon has started all three games for the Wolverines this season. Prior to that, Gordon tried to establish himself as a key cog in Michigan's secondary, but to no avail. More has been expected from him since his arrival on campus in 2009.
Gordon has also switched positions during his time as a Wolverine. He played in nine games his sophomore season as a "hybrid" linebacker, occasionally falling back into coverage or playing spy on the QB.
With his role now cemented, Gordon has made his redshirt senior year a successful one thus far, gathering 22 tackles and forcing one fumble.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly knows the Wolverines are expecting a healthy helping of the run game, so to counter, he'll have Everett Golson air it out multiple times Saturday night.
Who's going to have to prevent the passing attack from doing anything?
The big-hitting machine named Thomas Gordon.
Kyle Brindza, K, Notre Dame
Sure, Notre Dame has played well this season and shocked the college football world by beating Michigan State. But Notre Dame's offense just hasn't clicked yet.
Other than the debacle of a game against Navy, ND has yet to eclipse the 20-point mark. Also, a large amount of their points have come off turnovers or from the return game.
With this rivalry game sure to be a close one, the leg of sophomore kicker Kyle Brindza becomes vitally important. Brindza has hit four of his five attempts on the season, and finally showed a semblance of range as he connected on a 47-yard attempt against Michigan State last week.
Notre Dame and Michigan alike will have their fair share of times where they are incapable of moving the ball down the field, but one thing will be key: Their respective kickers' legs.