Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. Michigan Wolverines Complete Game Preview
SOUTH BEND, Ind.—Last season, Notre Dame used an early-season victory over Michigan to help catapult it to a run at a national title.
Six Wolverines' turnovers helped the Irish earn the victory. Gone, however, are two of the key players from that game. Denard Robinson, who had torched the Irish the previous two seasons in Michigan victories, threw four first-half interceptions and lost a fumble in the second half. Meanwhile, Irish linebacker Manti Te'o recorded two interceptions on a night when ND fans honored him by wearing leis.
Irish backup quarterback Tommy Rees replaced an ineffective Everett Golson and ran for a touchdown and converted a key third-down pass late in the game to seal the victory.
The two Midwest foes revive their rivalry on Saturday night with both teams entering their showdown at 1-0 after home victories. the Irish were a 28-6 winner over Temple and Michigan destroyed Central Michigan, 59-9.
Time: 8 p.m., ET
Place: Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, Mich.
Spread: Michigan by 3
Notre Dame Keys to Victory
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In last weekend's win over Temple, Notre Dame's passing game clicked, particularly early.
Senior quarterback Tommy Rees, in the starting lineup because of Everett Golson's season-long suspension, threw for a career-high 346 yards. Classmate TJ Jones also got in on the career-high theme, amassing 138 receiving yards, the first time in his career he had cracked the century mark.
Junior DaVaris Daniels, who had three catches and two touchdowns, looked like he was set up for another TD, but injured his groin on the play. Daniels is expected to play against the Wolverines. Having both Jones and Daniels as viable options should keep Michigan from focusing too heavily on either. If the Wolverines do, Irish tight end Troy Niklas is another option, as his 66-yard TD against the Owls will attest.
Defensively, Notre Dame didn't bring a lot of pressure against Temple quarterback Connor Reilly. Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner is elusive enough that he could burn the Irish if they decide to blitz. The Irish's front of Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt and Sheldon Day could go a long way in helping Notre Dame to victory if they can win the line of scrimmage.
Michigan Keys to Victory
Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint was part of a Michigan rushing attack that ran for 242 yards last week against Central Michigan.
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In its season-opening win over Central Michigan, Michigan outgained the Chippewas, 242-66.
Even though it beat an overmatched opponent, the Wolverines still did what they were supposed to do. The wealth was spread evenly as true freshman Derrick Green ran for 58 yards and Fitzgerald Toussaint rushed for 57 yards with Gardner chipping in 52 yards on the ground. The matchup of Michigan's offensive line against Notre Dame's front seven should be a battle worth watching.
Defensively, Michigan recorded nine tackles for losses against Central Michigan, proof that the Wolverines controlled the line of scrimmage. Notre Dame has a largely experienced offensive line, but there is a slight infusion of youth with sophomore Ronnie Stanley taking over at right tackle. Again, the work in the trenches will be key to Saturday night.
Players to Watch for Notre Dame
Tight end Troy Niklas caught one pass against Temple, but it went for 66 yards and a touchdown.
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Troy Niklas spent his first season at Notre Dame as an outside linebacker, starting one game. In the spring prior to his sophomore season, Niklas was moved to tight end, and it's looking like a wise switch, as he's moved to the top of the depth chart this season.
Niklas did a majority of the work on his 66-yard touchdown reception against Temple to wrestle momentum back for Notre Dame after the Owls had scored late in the first half. He follows in a long line of ND tight ends, such as Anthony Fasano, John Carlson, Kyle Rudolph and Tyler Eifert. Niklas might be the most impressive physical specimen of them all.
Louis Nix received all sorts of preseason hype, but against Temple, he had a poor statistical day, registering just one tackle. Nix faced a lot of double-teams and at times seemed frustrated with his play. The affable Nix probably won't put up huge numbers because of Michigan's double-teaming, but he needs to play better than he did in the opener.
Nick Tausch and Kyle Brindza both missed field goals in the opener. An unsettled kicking situation needs to get settled. Brindza has added punting duties this season and twice kicked into the end zone. Figuring out the whole special teams mix is one of Irish coach Brian Kelly's biggest priorities right now.
Players to Watch for Michigan
Devin Gardner ran for two touchdowns against Central Michigan, but he also threw two interceptions.
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As dazzling and dynamic as Denard Robinson was for Michigan, and as much as he torched Notre Dame in 2010 and 2011, he also was erratic, as evidenced by last year's turnover-fest at ND Stadium.
Gardner, quite frankly, is a better quarterback than Robinson. He may not be a better overall football player, but he is a better quarterback. Gardner didn't have a monster day, statistically, against Central Michigan, but his 162 yards passing and 52 yards rushing were a nice blend.
Linebacker Cameron Gordon, a high school teammate of Gardner in Detroit, registered two sacks against Central Michigan. The fifth-year senior hadn't posted big defensive numbers through 2012, but he's off to a nice start in 2013.
Kicker Brendan Gibbons got off to a rough start at Michigan in 2011, converting just one of five field goal attempts as a redshirt freshman. Last year, he was named All-Big Ten honorable mention. In this year's opener, he hit all eight of his extra points and his lone field goal attempt against CMU.
In all, Gibbons has made his last 14 field-goal attempts and in what is expected to be a close game, Gibbons could be key.
What They Are Saying
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Hoke on the magnitude of the game:
As you know and I know, this is a different week. It's a great rivalry game. It's been played starting in 1887. It's always a lot of fun. The atmosphere here ... if you were here for the first night game, the second one should be just as fun.
Kelly on whether he's talked to Hoke about his comments in which the Michigan coach said ND is "chickening out" of the rivalry, which goes on hiatus after 2014:
We have not talked about it. You know, again, I think people have made a lot of his comments, and look, he's talking to his alums. I didn't really take anything from it really. I know Brady. He's never been one to show disrespect to anybody or anything.
Kelly on the rivalry after seemingly downplaying it earlier in the week:
It's a great and historic rivalry that we'll be playing this Saturday, so let's get that out of the way right away so we don't have to answer any more questions about this rivalry.
Hoke on the historic rivalry with Notre Dame:
It is for us. Everybody looks at things differently.
Gardner on his preparation:
This week, I'm all Notre Dame.
Last season Notre Dame played four true road games, winning all four. Saturday night, the Irish face their first road test of the season when they travel to Ann Arbor to face Michigan.
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Michigan 24, Notre Dame 20
These two teams appear evenly matched and when that seems to be the case, home field often flips the decision. Michigan played poorly last season at ND Stadium and still only lost, 13-6. The Wolverines began this week as a three-point favorite. The pick here says it's slightly more than that.