The Notre Dame Fighting Irish are ranked No. 14 in the AP poll (No. 13 in the USA Today poll) following an impressive win over Temple to start the season, but they will be the underdogs when they travel to Ann Arbor, Mich. to take on the No. 17-ranked Michigan Wolverines at "The Big House" on Saturday.
Notre Dame enjoyed an undefeated regular season last year before getting crushed by Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game, so the Irish have an impressive regular-season winning streak to preserve. Winning in Ann Arbor is always a tall order, especially on the heels of Michigan's 59-9 demolition of Central Michigan in its season opener.
Brian Kelly's Notre Dame squad has shown a great deal of resilience over the past couple seasons, though, so a road victory certainly isn't out of reach. Here are three keys that the Irish must follow in order to accomplish that feat.
Mistake-Free Football from Tommy Rees
The first game of Tommy Rees' second stint as Notre Dame's starting quarterback went quite well, as he threw for 346 yards and three touchdowns against Temple. It isn't fair to expect Rees to do the same against Michigan, but simply being a game manager could be good enough. Everett Golson excelled at that last season, and that is a big reason why he originally supplanted Rees as the starter. If Rees can take a page out of Golson's book in that regard, the Irish will be in good shape.
Rees has a lot of talent, but his inability to protect the football got him into trouble back in 2011, when he threw 14 interceptions. That isn't something he can afford to do against Michigan, as the Wolverines boast an opportunistic defense as well as an explosive offense that will make Notre Dame pay for those types of mistakes.
Rees does have a history of success against Michigan, though, as he threw for 115 yards on 8-of-11 passing when called upon last year. Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is fully aware of what Rees is capable of, according to Michigan Football on Twitter.
Mattison: We respect Tommy Rees. He's a very good QB, we remember what he did to us last season.— Michigan Football (@umichfootball) September 3, 2013
A performance similar to what Rees did last season against Michigan extrapolated over an entire game would be huge for Notre Dame. Ball security is of the utmost importance in these types of games, so the old version of Rees can't rear its ugly head. It may be tough for Rees to play conservatively since he is a natural risk-taker on the field, but he fully understands what this tilt means for Notre Dame's national title hopes, so look for him to make smart decisions with the ball.
Run the Ball Effectively
Lost in the play of Golson and Notre Dame's defense last season was the superb running game that allowed the Irish to dominate time of possession. While Kelly has to lean on some new faces this year, the running game seemed to be as good as ever against Temple. The Irish rushed for 188 yards and averaged 5.4 yards per carry with a number of different backs doing damage. Chief among them was USC transfer Amir Carlisle, who made an immediate impact, according to BR College Football on Twitter.
USC transfer Amir Carlisle making ND debut: 45 yds first touch.— Bleacher Report (@BR_CFB) August 31, 2013
Carlisle appears to be a true home run, as he averaged 9.7 yards per carry in the game, but Notre Dame has plenty of other weapons in the backfield as well. Cam McDaniel added 65 yards on a team-high 12 carries, while George Atkinson III scored Notre Dame's only rushing touchdown. It's nice to have a bell-cow back during crunch time, but Notre Dame is in a great spot, as it can keep all of its running backs fresh over the course of a game.
Central Michigan had very little success running against Michigan, but the Chippewas had to abandon the run early. It's unlikely that Notre Dame will allow the game to get out of hand in Michigan's favor, so the Irish will remain committed to pounding the rock.
In addition to killing the clock and moving the chains, running effectively will take some pressure off of Rees. A strong running game is always a huge deal, and that is especially true on the road in a hostile environment.
Contain Devin Gardner
Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner is no Denard Robinson in terms of running ability, but he is definitely capable of causing havoc with his legs. Gardner had just 162 yards through the air with a touchdown and two interceptions against Central Michigan, so it can be argued that he played poorly, but he also rushed for 52 yards and two additional scores. That added element makes him very dangerous in a game that promises to be closely contested.
What is the biggest key to Notre Dame upsetting Michigan?
As long as Notre Dame plays its usual solid base defense, Gardner probably won't hurt the Irish a ton with his arm. All bets are off when it comes to plays breaking down, however, as Gardner's improvisational ability could be troublesome. That means there will be a ton of pressure on Notre Dame's linebackers and defensive ends to make sure that he isn't allowed to run wild.
If Notre Dame can force Gardner into being a pocket passer, much of the variety and unpredictability that Michigan possesses on offense will be neutralized. Although the Irish lost some key players from last year's defense, including linebacker Manti Te'o, Notre Dame's defense is still one of the best in the country. Gardner needs to play well in order for Michigan to win, but he'll certainly have his hands full in the face of pressure.
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