Notre Dame Football Pre-Spring Opponent Preview: Michigan
This season may mark the beginning of the end in the storied rivalry between Michigan and Notre Dame. The teams will no longer play, for awhile at least, after the 2014 season. That means this September's showdown will be the final game between the two teams at Michigan Stadium in the immediate future.
Michigan has won of five out of seven in the series, but Notre Dame, on the strength of five interceptions, was victorious last season in South Bend. The Wolverines schedule flips back in their favor this season, as Nebraska, Notre Dame and Ohio State all have to come to Ann Arbor.
Denard Robinson is gone, but Michigan may be better off under center with junior Devin Gardner, who started the final five games. Before the maize and blue take the field for the start of spring practice on March 16, let's look at where things stand for one of Notre Dame's biggest rivals.
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Date: Sept. 7 (7 or 8 p.m. ET)
Site: Michigan Stadium (Ann Arbor, Michigan)
Last Meeting: Notre Dame 13, Michigan 6 (2012)
Last Meeting in Ann Arbor: Michigan 35, Notre Dame 31 (2011)
Current Win Streak: Notre Dame - 1
Record: 8-5 (6-2 Big Ten)
Bowl: Outback Bowl (lost to South Carolina, 33-28)
Leading Passer: Denard Robinson (Sr.) - 89-of-167, 1,319 yards, 9 TDs, 9 INTs
Leading Rusher: Denard Robinson (Sr.) - 177 carries, 1,266 yards, 7 TDs
Leading Receiver: Jeremy Gallon (Jr.) - 49 receptions, 829 yards, 4 TDs
Denard Robinson again struggled to stay healthy last season, missing most of a late October game at Nebraska. When his replacement, Russell Bellomy, went 3-of-16 with three interceptions in a 23-9 loss, head coach Brady Hoke knew it was time for a change.
In stepped Devin Gardner, who started the final five games, completing 60% of his passes and throwing 11 touchdowns as the Wolverines went 3-2 to close the season, losing by just five points to both Ohio State and South Carolina. Gardner, a junior, now has full reigns of the offense.
While not the speedster that Robinson was, Gardner is very mobile. His tall frame and No. 12 uniform have drawn comparisons to former Philadelphia Eagles great Randall Cunningham. Gardner appeared in both the 2010 and 2012 games against Notre Dame as a wide receiver, but did not record any statistics.
As beloved as Robinson was, it's not a stretch to say the quarterback situation will be improved this year for the Wolverines.
The running back position has as much uncertainty as any at the moment. Fitzgerald Toussaint suffered a gruesome ankle injury in November, and may not yet be 100 percent by August. Five-star recruit Derrick Green arrives in the summer and will contend to be the opening day starter.
Vincent Smith, a.k.a Jadeveon Clowney's human tackling dummy, departs, but two other backups return behind Toussaint and Green in Thomas Rawls and Justice Hayes. Rawls is primarily a short-yardage specialist, while Hayes has been a bit of a disappointment in his first two years in Ann Arbor.
Despite Green perhaps being the most talented back in the 2013 class, the key to this unit is Toussaint. The duo could be close to an Eddie Lacy-T.J. Yeldon tandem if Toussaint returns to form. If not, the Wolverines are left with a freshman and many question marks. In this aspect, playing Michigan in early September should help the Irish.
The names Jeremy Gallon and Roy Roundtree will forever be ingrained in Notre Dame fans' minds for their receptions on consecutive plays to complete Michigan's improbable comeback win over the Irish in 2011.
Roundtree departs after a fairly quiet senior season with just 31 receptions, but Gallon returns and will be Gardner's top target after topping 130 yards in two of the final three games last season. Beyond Gallon, there will be some competition.
Senior Drew Dileo isn't a star, but should give the Wolverines 30-40 catches. Sophomore tight end Devin Funchess figures to have a larger role this year, and should blossom. Keep an eye on redshirt freshman Amara Darboh, who could be the missing piece to the Michigan offense if he has a big spring.
This unit won't scare anybody, at least not yet, but having a more capable thrower at quarterback could show that this group can be more productive than it has shown.
Every January there are some surprises among players deciding whether or not to enter the NFL Draft. There was perhaps no bigger surprise this year than Wolverines left tackle Taylor Lewan, a near lock to be a first-round pick, deciding to return to school.
An All-American last season, Lewan may be the best tackle in college football now that Luke Joeckel has left Texas A&M. Michael Schofield is also back at the other tackle spot. While not the talent of Lewan, he's a fellow senior with three years of playing time under his belt.
The interior positions are wide open, as all three spots will have new starters. Talented sophomore Kyle Kalis should win one of the guard positions, with junior Joey Burzynski the favorite for the other guard role. Sophomore Jack Miller is likely to be the team's third center in as many years.
Michigan's rushing defense was mediocre at best last season, but Notre Dame managed just 94 yards on the ground against the Wolverines. The defensive front, coached by coordinator Greg Mattison, loses a pair of starters in end Craig Roh and tackle William Campbell.
Frank Clark has stayed out of the doghouse after an arrest for home invasion last summer, which caused him to be suspended for the season opener against Alabama. He returns at rush end, with sophomore Mario Omejudia pushing him for playing time. The strongside end position is wide open heading into the spring.
Sophomore Ondre Pipkins should step into Campbell's spot at tackle, with senior Quinton Washington returning at the other tackle spot.
Look out for a pair of freshmen—Taco Charlton and tackle Henry Poggi—to make an immediate impact.
Michigan's miracle rally in 2011 likely does not happen without a key third-down stop by freshman strongside linebacker Jake Ryan to end a Notre Dame drive late in the game that could have sealed the victory. Ryan, now a rising junior, has developed into one of the most important players on the Wolverines defense, leading the team in sacks and tackles last season.
Desmond Morgan returns on the weak side, but Michigan may give him some reps this spring inside with Kenny Demens gone. Sophomore Joe Bolden showed a lot of promise last season, playing in all 13 games as a true freshman, and would be the successor to Demens should Morgan remain on the outside.
Adding depth are a pair of talented second-year players, sophomores James Ross III and Royce Jenkins-Stone. If Bolden can continue to progress, this unit should be the strength of the defense.
Two familiar faces in the Michigan secondary are no longer around. Cornerback J.T. Floyd and safety Jordan Kovacs, both three-year starters, must be replaced from a pass defense that ranked No. 5 in the country.
Junior Raymon Taylor, whose interception of Everett Golson helped lead to Golson being benched in last season's meeting, will be the Wolverines No. 1 cornerback. The other spot is being held for junior Blake Countess, but he missed the last two months of last season with a knee injury. Senior Courtney Avery is likely the next option if Countess' recovery is slowed.
Jarrod Wilson has the unenviable task of replacing Kovacs at safety. He had eight tackles last season as a freshman. He could play either safety position, but the Wolverines would rather have Thomas Gordon, who also intercepted Golson last season, playing closer to the line of scrimmage. Ideally, Wilson emerges at free safety.
Gentlemen may prefer blondes, but Michigan placekicker Brendan Gibbons is a self-proclaimed brunette fan. Gibbons has connected on 29 of his 35 field goal attempts over the past two years, but did miss a short attempt last season in South Bend.
Gibbons, a fifth-year senior this fall, has proven to have ice in his veins under pressure, hitting the game-winning field goal in overtime in the 2012 Sugar Bowl as well as last year's 12-10 victory over Michigan State. The victory over the Spartans snapped a four-game losing streak to the Wolverines' "little brother."
Will Hagerup returns as the team's primary punter after averaging 44 yards per punt last season. The return game will be shared by Gallon and speedy sophomore Dennis Norfleet. Michigan's last return touchdown came in the 2009 game against Notre Dame.
The schedule was stacked against the Wolverines last season. They had to play the teams ranked No. 3-6 in all-time victories, all away from home. Not surprisingly, the Wolverines lost all four against the teams which went a combined 45-6 last season.
The biggest concerns this spring are at the offensive skill positions. A healthy Toussaint and a second receiver emerging to complement Gallon will likely determine whether or not the Wolverines make their first appearance in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Notre Dame has won just once in its past seven trips to Ann Arbor, including three losses in which it led with under a minute to play. The Week 2 meeting will likely set the tone for the season for both teams. I expect that for the third straight season, the winner of this game will play in a BCS bowl.
Come Sept. 7, enjoy the pageantry of one of the sport's great rivalries. It might be awhile before these two storied programs appear on the same Michigan Stadium field again.