Last year's clash between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Michigan Wolverines in South Bend was a defensive struggle, and the hosts emerged with a 13-6 victory.
The 2013 edition of this marquee rivalry figures to be more of a high-scoring affair in the Big House thanks to the presence of several offensive X-factors.
These teams boast a couple of skill players apiece who aren't proven commodities but could very well have massive impacts on Saturday's showdown in Ann Arbor. Two intriguing, athletic tight ends are likely to make impacts, while a couple of other young playmakers should factor into the equation as well.
Let's take a look at the relatively unheralded—or to date, unproven—players on each team's offense and how they could rise to the occasion on this massive stage.
Chris Brown, WR, Notre Dame
The sophomore already exceeded his 2012 catch total of two with three receptions and 57 yards in the AP No. 14 Irish's season-opening rout of Temple this past weekend.
Brown is listed at 6'2" and 191 pounds and is still raw, but he has spectacular speed and is simply looking for better consistency to be a more frequent target in the passing game. What's encouraging is that senior quarterback Tommy Rees seems to have confidence in him, if the first game is any indication.
Then again, the Owls defense isn't as formidable as Michigan's likely will be, so it will be interesting to see if Brown's performance is a positive aberration or a sign of things to come.
Senior leader TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels—who caught two touchdowns last week—provide Rees with reliable receivers on the outside, but Brown could be the one to stretch the field and burn the Michigan secondary deep.
After all, Brown did that last year against Oklahoma for a 50-yard reception, one of his two catches on the year:
It wouldn't be surprising to see Brown rip off another game-breaking gain, but he still has much to prove.
Devin Funchess, TE, Michigan
Notre Dame's defense is still stout, but it has to deal with a quarterback in Devin Gardner who is a superior passer to his predecessor, Denard Robinson, in addition to being supremely athletic.
Gardner's ideal fit in the Wolverines' pro-style offense and his great arm strength allow him to challenge defenses vertically, and a primary target of his should be Funchess.
The sophomore tied star receiver Jeremy Gallon for the team lead in touchdown receptions with four last season. With a signal-caller who's more of a pure pocket passer throwing his way, those numbers should only go up.
Funchess had two catches for 47 yards against the Central Michigan Chippewas, but the Wolverines largely stuck to the ground game to gash their inferior in-state foe, racking up 247 yards on 47 attempts.
Passing more than 21 times against the Irish is a pretty safe bet, so Funchess should see his targets increase along with his production. Other than Gallon, Funchess and senior receiver Drew Dileo, Gardner doesn't have a lot of reliable options.
Troy Niklas, TE, Notre Dame
Learning the ropes at the position from recent first-round NFL draft pick Tyler Eifert couldn't have hurt Niklas, and he flashed some of his explosiveness as a receiver with a 66-yard touchdown against Temple.
It marked Niklas' longest catch and also Rees' longest gain on a pass in his career, serving as a big momentum booster with only 47 seconds left in the first half to give the Irish a 21-6 lead:
As JJ Stankevitz of CSNChicago.com points out, though, the block that Niklas made to spring Jones on a 51-yard gain off a swing pass might have been more impressive—and indicative of his development.
The 6'7", 270-pound junior is an athletic freak with strong hands but should also be able to use his massive frame to be an effective blocker. If he's able to do that, Niklas can more effectively peel off into the flat off play-action fakes and draw even more favorable matchups.
Niklas has all the makings of becoming a star, and it helps that other dependable pass-catchers in Jones and Daniels at the very least have to be accounted for.
Derrick Green, RB, Michigan
The true freshman was a 5-star recruit and was the No. 4 running back in the nation coming out of high school, according to 247Sports.com's composite rankings.
Green lived up to the hype in the opener, carrying the rock for a team-high 58 yards on only 11 carries and a one-yard touchdown in Michigan's 21-point third quarter.
Offensive coordinator Al Borges intimated recently that defenders definitely feel Green when he lowers the boom at 220 pounds:
Unfortunately, redshirt freshman Drake Johnson tore his ACL in the season opener, which vaulted Green up to No. 2 on the depth chart behind incumbent starter Fitzgerald Toussaint:
That creates an opportunity for the prized prospect to prove himself at the collegiate level sooner than anticipated. If Green is everything Michigan expected him to be, he could be just the physical presence between the tackles the Wolverines need to establish the run against Notre Dame's tough front seven.
Nick Baumgardner of MLive.com certainly felt that Green brought a dynamic that the Michigan backfield had been lacking:
The task will be tougher for the precocious Green, but the AP No. 17 Wolverines could certainly use him to spell Toussaint and open up the passing game for Gardner.
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