As the Notre Dame Fighting Irish arrive at The Big House for what will be the last time for a long time Saturday, they'll be looking to right some disappointing recent history at the Michigan Wolverines' home stadium.
The Irish have won just once in their last seven tries at the mecca of maize and blue, a 17-10 win in the first major triumph of the Charlie Weis era. Every other contest in Ann Arbor dating back to 1993 has gone the way of the home team.
Notre Dame is exercising an opt-out clause to allow the teams' series to end in 2014, meaning this will be the last time Brian Kelly will get to make his mark until at least 2020. Kelly holds a 1-2 record against the Wolverines since taking over the program in 2010, but those games have been decided by a combined one point in Michigan's favor.
This season's matchup should mark a fourth consecutive nail-biter. The Irish are ranked 14th in the nation coming off their 28-6 win over Temple, but Michigan is hot on their tails at No. 17 after a 50-point drubbing of Central Michigan. Both teams had opponents who were FBS schools in name only, so it's hard to have any concrete takeaways from either contest.
Nonetheless, the oddsmakers (Vegas Insider) have decided to give the Wolverines a hometown bump, favoring them by four points—one greater than your standard three-point home edge.
Can the Irish stop their recent skid at The Big House and come away with a top-10 cementing victory? Of course. Here are a couple of the most important ways how.
Get Another Stellar Performance From Tommy Rees
Say what you will about the level of opposition, but Rees eased at least some concerns about his ability to handle the spotlight last week. The formerly embattled signal-caller completed 16 of 23 passes for 346 yards against Temple, adding three scores in one of the finest games of his career. He looked poised and confident with his throws, driving his passes to their target and setting up long gains after the catch.
While it was just 60 minutes of football, this didn't look like the same Tommy Rees who lost his job to Everett Golson a year ago. He and the passing game looked like they've spent the whole offseason working together, showing a cohesion that was even lacking at certain points of last year's undefeated run.
Whether Rees is making a leap or last week was an anomaly remains to be seen. The thing about Rees is that he's shown these flashes before, only they've usually been followed with disappointment at the least-opportune time.
Irish fans will get an awfully good indication of where the pendulum swings with Rees on Saturday night. Michigan boasts one of the nation's more talented defenses. It's a unit that has a seemingly never-ending rotation of defensive linemen in its arsenal—the Wolverines go three-deep at multiple positions—and a secondary that ranks among the nation's best.
Blake Countess was well on his way to staking a claim as one of the nation's best young corners before going down with a knee injury last season. The Wolverines didn't get to see much of him from a coverage standpoint last week; a 50-point win can do that.
But Countess is an uber-talented kid who can stay outside for the entire contest or move to the inside nickel on three and four wide receiver sets. Suffice it to say, Michigan feels comfortable with him returning to 2011 form.
Raymon Taylor stepped in admirably for Countess in the starting lineup last season, showing an improvement that surprised some in Ann Arbor. We may wind up seeing Taylor on Sundays if his trajectory continues. Also impressive was freshman Channing Stribling, whose size and speed combination made him a borderline revelation last week.
Rees has performed well in his two outings against Michigan, including taking over for Golson in last season's 13-6 win. We'll just have to see whether he can continue that run against such an elite secondary.
Stephon Tuitt Must Win Battle of Future First-Rounders
The best battle of Saturday night's contest won't be happening at any of the skill positions. It'll be happening in the trenches, where Notre Dame defensive end Stephon Tuitt will be doing the every-down tussle with Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan.
Tuitt is a massive, strong 3-4 defensive end who burst onto the scene last year as a sophomore. He recorded 12 sacks in his first season as a full-time starter, using a surprising first-step quickness and his prodigious strength to make lives a living hell for opposing tackles.
He was named a second-team All-American by the Associated Press and was an anchor who helped make life infinitely easier for Manti Te'o and the linebacking corps.
And guess what? Tuitt came back even bigger this season. He added about 20 pounds to his frame over the offseason—both of muscle and due to some time off after sports hernia surgery—but didn't look to have lost his first step last week. He recorded a sack and hurried Connor Reilly twice, looking essentially like the same player who harassed opposing quarterbacks throughout 2012.
The Irish better hope Tuitt is at the top of his game because he'll be facing one of the biggest tests in the nation. Lewan was considered a borderline top-10 lock in April's NFL draft before surprisingly returning for his senior season.
Equipped with near-perfect size for a professional left tackle and elite run-blocking ability, Lewan made a name for himself by rarely making mistakes and being an absolute rock for the Wolverines offense.
He's in his fourth year starting at the left side for Michigan. There aren't many ways left for this kid to improve as a prospect. He's a fluid blocker who keeps his hands in proper position and drives well with a strong lower body; Tuitt is going to be facing an NFLer masquerading as a college kid.
The last time Tuitt faced an NFL-caliber tackle, the result didn't go in his favor. Like a majority of his Irish teammates, Tuitt was defeated at the point of attack by Alabama's mauling offensive line in the BCS National Championship Game. Cyrus Kouandjio had an excellent game lining up across from the Notre Dame defensive end, though it's patently unfair to single out Tuitt or any one defensive player for that loss.
What's more, Tuitt had a bit of success against Lewan last season. Both players spent the 60 minutes in a heavyweight fight, with Tuitt recording one sack while being held to just two total tackles. You'd have to go to the judges' scorecards to see who won the fight. But unless the result is clearer in the Notre Dame star's favor this time around, the Irish might have a tough time stopping Devin Gardner and Co.
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