Devin Gardner and Team 134 have a confidence reminiscent of throwback editions of Wolverines football.
And in all likelihood, it’ll take a vintage effort to squeak out the win—something Team 9, 1887-esque—Saturday when Michigan plays out the final act of the Irish at The Big House. With 40 meetings to its credit, one of the game's top matchups will cease to exist after 2014.
The fall won't be the same without The Golden Domers versus Hail to the Victors—it’s a Midwestern tradition. But that’s another story all together.
The game of the week’s primary focus is on Michigan coach Brady Hoke and his quarterback. Together, are Hoke and Gardner ready to take the leap into the national spotlight?
This past season's 8-5 record raises doubt of validity, but knocking off the No. 14 Irish should erase it.
In Week 1, the No. 17 Wolverines romped Central Michigan, 59-9; Notre Dame notched a 28-6 victory over unranked Temple. Because of the venue and circumstances surrounding this season’s meeting, Michigan is a four-point favorite, according to the latest odds shared by The Sporting News.
History aside, the Irish are the first true threat for Michigan; it’s a 12-game schedule, but Game 2 of 2013 will say everything that needs to be said about the Wolverines.
Put The Game Away Early
Although Michigan owns a 23-16-1 advantage, the past four go-rounds in the Notre Dame series have been one-score nail biters in the fourth quarter. The Wolverines have been effective in shootouts, getting three wins in a trio of high-scoring trades. In 2012, defense and turnovers—six by Michigan—were the story of the Irish’s success.
That being said, engaging in a fireworks show is strongly discouraged. At this point, odds are against the Wolverines pulling off a fourth consecutive last-moment-of-glory play. In 2012, three of their five losses were by a touchdown or less, emphasizing the importance of pulling away as soon as possible.
Stand Strong vs. Irish D-Line
Click here for an interview with Stephon Tuitt on Michigan (via The Chicago Tribune).
Louis Nix. Stephon Tuitt.
By now, those two names have been firmly embedded in the minds of fans—the pair of Irish All-American defenders has been the talk of sports radio for days.
At 6’3” and 350 pounds, Nix will challenge the underclassmen-laden middle of Michigan’s offensive line. With one combined start—the season-opener—the line is manned by center Jack Miller; Graham Glasgow is at left guard and Kyle Kalis is at right guard. Sandwiched on the ends are a seniors Taylor Lewan at left tackle and Michael Schofield at right. The pair comprises one of the top tandems in the Big Ten.
Lewan, an All-American, has NFL buzz going for him too. It's not like the Wolverines don't have high-level stars to combat the push from Notre Dame’s fearsome front. The concern lies with the underclassmen. Nix will be nothing short of tenacious, but a 3-on-1 effort could be enough to slow him to a manageable speed.
Tuitt, on the other hand, has a solo mission versus Lewan. That 1-on-1 scrum will determine whether or not Michigan can run on the left side of the field. It’ll also determine how much time Gardner has to throw. Tuitt is a 6’7”, 325-pound quarterback hunter who had 12 sacks a year ago. He was on the field for 58 snaps against Temple. He’s a workhorse defensive end that needs to be contained.
He is, perhaps, the threat. Not so much Nix.
Gardner better watch his back. One strike from Tuitt and it could be game over. The offensive line must play as close to mistake-free ball as possible on Saturday without trying to do much. Sticking to a basic, block-your-guy approach seems like a reliable plan.
Having Lewan glued to Tuitt seems like another.
Make Rees Uncomfortable
Last week against the Owls, Irish quarterback Tommy Rees was the furthest thing from uncomfortable. The Wolverines defense and secondary has to change that tune Saturday if they’re to assist in downing Notre Dame.
Rees kicked up his status a notch with a 346-yard, three-touchdown assault on Temple in Week 1. He’s never been known as a highlight quarterback and he’s about to play a career-defining game in prime time at The Big House.
That could be uncomfortable, even for a guy that's likely riding sky high at the moment.
Greg Mattison, Michigan's genius defensive coordinator, devised a game plan in Week 1 that made it nearly impossible for a quarterback to get a decent look down field. He blitzed with Frank Clark and Jibreel Black. The secondary was precise in coverage, allowing just two deep balls to be completed.
The linebackers were in the backfield more than Central Michigan's running backs.
And as a show of its strength, the defense ousted Chippewas starter Cody Kater after just six passing attempts. Alex Niznak, the backup, didn't fare much better.
Rees is a veteran. Kater was a first-timer. There's a noticeable difference in decision-making and the amount of duress it takes to set him into panic mode.
However, Rees hasn't faced a defense like Michigan's this fall. He was sacked just once by the Owls. Just as the case with Tuitt on Gardner, Clark or Black on the barely dinged Reese could have catastrophic consequences for Notre Dame.
The Owls weren't thoroughly dominated by the Irish. That alone gives credence to the notion that the Wolverines can have success by borrowing from Temple's game plan: run the ball.
Although they rushed just 29 times compared to 47 passes, the Owls averaged 4.6 yards per touch before finishing with 134. With backs similar in size and up a few levels in terms of talent, the Wolverines should have no issue when pounding the ground.
In Week 1, Fitz Toussaint, a senior with 1,000-yard potential, showed an improved quickness. Derrick Green, a true freshman, burst for a 30-yard run and scored a short-yardage touchdown. Establishing rhythm with the backs will be key—and it's likely a part of offensive coordinator Al Borges' plan.
Offensively in Week 1, the Wolverines were very bland. Now that it's Week 2, expect to see more flair from the backfield and a few surprises from Gardner. Prepare to see complex formations from the depths of the playbook on Saturday night.
Below is a table of Michigan's play selection versus Central Michigan and a predicted ratio for the upcoming game.
|47 vs. CMU||21 vs. CMU||68|
|35 vs. ND||27 vs. ND||62|
Keep Hoke's Home Record in Mind
It's a young season, but the Michigan versus Notre Dame game already has “classic finish” written all over it. If prior history has anything to say, this fall's version will be talked about for weeks after its conclusion; it'll be called the “turning point” or something else that signifies a meaningful moment of the season.
Of course it will be; it's Michigan versus Notre Dame. Both teams are ranked within the top 20. The Irish are fresh off a 12-1 season. Michigan has Hoke's 15-0 home record to defend, along with the task of living up to expectations that haven’t been as high since the late 1990s.
This could be a very special year in Hoke's run; a milestone. The Notre Dame game represents a transition: During the first two years, most were willing to adopt a “see where it goes” mindset when evaluating Hoke's job. Now in his third year, it's time for results. Likely a year away from being a legitimate national power, the Wolverines could fight it out with Ohio State for a Big Ten title.
That's down the road, of course. But that road starts Saturday with the Irish. Winning at The Big House isn't just the preferred method, it's necessary for the integrity of 2013 as a whole.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81